Readers are as good at being regulators as viewers are at judging talent shows

Jeff Jarvis, scion of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, took issue with my Twitter response expressing the belief that newspaper buyers are complicit in the actions of newspaper producers (wrt to News of the World, for our American readers).  He took it further in a blog post, “Readers are our Regulators.”

I disagree. If the public are good regulators then I assume you would accept that the public would have Casey Anthony found guilty even though a court of her peers found differently? The “court of public opinion” isn’t always wise or informed.

Making difficult and appropriate, but socially unpopular, decisions is part of the idea of justice.

This isn’t a call for the government to manage the media any more than it is a call for the government to manage legal interactions. However, the government does ensure that there are independent courts where parties to a conflict can get an independent hearing and finding. The government also acts on behalf of the public – who vote for it – to manage, create and implement legislation in the public’s interest.

The same should be true of media regulation. How does someone like Christopher Jefferies recover his reputation when media interest has prejudged him in an ongoing murder investigation? He was entirely exonerated and independent courts found the Mirror and the Sun guilty of contempt of court for their coverage. In the future would he have to take to social media to rehabilitate his reputation and seek redress?

Saying that “the public will regulate” isn’t good enough. How would that actually work? How would you prevent sock-puppets and distributed proxy voting? People’s lives are not X-Factor, something that Casey Anthony must deal with for the rest of her life.

An impartial regulator is paid to pay attention even when the public has lost interest. Many arguments are technical in nature and require specialist analysis. You really want courts to decide by popularity?

Who is the proper regulator? The law; duly enforced by its legally appointed and constituted representatives in a hearing that is transparent, open and consistent.

For a more nuanced take on regulating the media, read George Brock, head of journalism at City University London.

5 comments on “Readers are as good at being regulators as viewers are at judging talent shows

  1. Yeah, justice by public opinion gives us kangaroo courts; arbitrary, inconsistent and vengeful. Hardly likely to inspire confidence, innovation and investment. Something that is rather needed in these direful times…

  2. I’d agree that buyers are complicit, but are you suggesting there needs to be further regulation by some kind of government organization? The hackers in this case broke the law and are being punished (or will be, I hope) by the court and penal system already in place. Do you think we need more oversight?

    Jeff Jarvis, in the midst of that rather incoherent blowup, does point out a legitimate, unavoidable difficulty with government regulation of any industry – insiders tend to become regulators, creating a web of bias and undue influence. However, his “git the gummint outta mah business” harangue is a little silly. It’s already in his business and should be; a journalist by any definition is a citizen and a human being first. The rules apply to them, too.

  3. The complexity here is that laws will be broken. Journalism operates in a grey area. As George Brock points out, the thalidamide story would never have been broken except for the illegal theft of medical research. In South Africa, an ex-health minister used her power in the ANC to jump the queue to get a new liver, despite being an unrehabilitated alcoholic. She died recently and one of the major newspapers “lifted” her confidential medical record to prove that she was and unfit organ recipient.

    Laws were definitely broken. Evaluating whether this was in the public interest before a criminal / civil court probably won’t work. Some court with a very specific mandate to evaluate what is in the public interest is better.

    Especially since sometimes, even with all the best will in the world, theft of confidential material won’t reveal any misbehaviour or may result in actual harm or embarrassment to perfectly innocent people.

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