In news we trust: keeping faith in the future of media
Keynote speech by Dame Melanie Dawes to Oxford Media Convention, 19 July 2021.
It’s a pleasure to open this year’s event, on a day of cautious optimism.
As England lifts Covid restrictions today, and the whole UK plans for a more normal way of life, this feels like a good opportunity to take stock.
After the changes of the last year, how can our media sector – which, in my view, is the finest in the world – reinvent itself for the future, and stand tall amid the blizzard of competition and disruption?
To help find answers to that, I want to focus on a very human, emotional need which underpins every successful relationship between families, colleagues and citizens.
Without it, media outlets cannot thrive; and democracy cannot succeed.
That thing is trust.
Trust is the foundation of a well-functioning society. It is the basis of every currency; the asset of every successful business; and the proudest strength of our traditional media sector.
But trust is at a premium. Edelman’s annual survey shows that, around the world this year, people are less trusting of academics, governments, media outlets – and, yes, Chief Executives.
Fear, confusion and misinformation have conspired to make people increasingly wary of what they see and hear.
Trust has been tested by the health and economic effects of the pandemic, the global outcry over racism, political instability and cultural clashes over what kind of society we want to live in.
So today, I’d like to consider three important aspects of trust.
First, trust in social media, and the wider debate around people’s experience of being online.
Second, trust in traditional UK media, such as TV and radio news. How do we maintain it, but also protect freedom of expression at a time of change and uncertainty, when feelings run so high?
And third, trust in the regulator. Why should you trust Ofcom to make the right decisions?
Trust in traditional media
First, I want to strike a note of real positivity. I feel we all need it.
Back in 2016, when our news and politics was dominated by strong feelings on either side of the Brexit debate, trust in media was relatively low. After the referendum, TV news was rated highly for trustworthiness by six in ten adults, and newspapers by fewer than half.
But over the last year, as medical science been battling the virus to such incredible effect, our traditional news institutions – the public sector broadcasters along with the likes of Sky News – have been leading the fight against misinformation.
In the first lockdown last year, people sought reliable, impartial information they could trust. Our public service broadcasters achieved their highest audience share in more than six years.
For all the forces that have put people’s faith to the test, our new research shows around seven in ten adults now rate TV, newspapers and magazines highly for trustworthiness. Those numbers are remarkably strong.
So as we emerge from the pandemic and look to a brighter future, I think we can be optimistic about our industry’s ability to restore and retain the trust of British people.
Of course, no-one can be complacent. There is much work to do to reform public service media for the digital age, and keep it visible in people’s lives. Last week we set out detailed plans and recommendations to Government in these areas.
There is also the issue of representation. People across the UK want to see people like them not just in the content they see and hear, but also within the broadcasters themselves.
Disabled people, women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds remain underrepresented in the industry.
Class and geography are also an important consideration. Compared to the UK population, TV workers are around twice as likely to have grown up in a professional home, and twice as likely to have been privately educated.
And most broadcasting jobs are still based in London, even though four-fifths of the population live elsewhere.
Making further progress on diversity is essential in building and maintaining trust in our media.
We also know that trust, so hard earned, is easily spent. The BBC experienced that recently, in the wake of Lord Dyson’s report on the 1995 interview with the Princess of Wales.
We were deeply concerned by those findings. They raised important questions about the BBC's culture, transparency and accountability. And we know from our research that historic events can have a harmful, long-term effect on the way the BBC’s content is perceived today.
So I am pleased the Sir Nick Serota is now leading a review of the BBC’s editorial processes. And Ofcom will pay close attention to his findings as part of our own mid-Charter review of the BBC, which kicks off this month.
There is another reason why trust cannot be taken for granted. To command it, broadcasters need time with their audience. And it is hard to maintain steady, loyal viewership in the face of fierce digital competition.
We saw that in lockdown. After that spike in audience share, our PSBs lost ground to streaming services. The time people spent watching the likes of Netflix and Disney+ actually doubled.
But the enduring strength of traditional broadcasters – including trusted services such as Sky News – lies in their ability to do something US platforms often cannot: to appeal to people from all backgrounds, to reach and serve all parts of the UK.
By investing in those strengths, and maintaining their reputation for accurate news, our broadcasters can remain important to millions of people – even as more of them get their news online.
Trust in social media
Half of adults now get their news from social networks. Among young adults, and people from minority ethnic groups, it’s around nine in ten. What does that mean for trust?
Here, the picture is less positive.
Next week, Ofcom will publish its annual survey of how people in the UK feel about the news. We have found that, when it comes to providing reliable, dependable news, social media is failing.
Only one-in-three users trust their social channels for news – far lower than any other news source. Compare that to around seven-in-ten for TV and newspapers.
People tell us that they have concerns about the amount of misinformation that can be found on social platforms.
Social media also scores lower than traditional media for its perceived quality, impartiality, accuracy, range of opinions, depth of analysis and ability to help people make sense of the world.
And the online trust deficit runs wider than news. It goes to the heart of tech firms’ responsibilities to behave in the right way. On that score, Edelman found that social media companies are less trusted than those in any other sector of the economy.
That fits with our research, where users see social media as the main source of harm online.
People are also worried about security, privacy and harmful content. So trust in news is part of a bigger picture – one where, for many people, being online can be a frustrating, alarming or even distressing experience.
Six in ten online adults have had at least one harmful experience in the past year. One in three tell us the risks of being online have actually started to outweigh the benefits.
Most people now support tighter rules to redress that balance. So we’re pleased the Government has chosen Ofcom to help tackle this problem, through the Online Safety Bill. Now the exact shape and scope of the new rules will be for Government and Parliament to decide.
The need for regulation has come into even sharper focus over the past week, as some of our incredible England football team were subjected to racist abuse on the major social media platforms. There is no place in our society for racism, whether it happens online or offline and by their own admission the platforms failed to do enough to remove these appalling comments at a critical national moment. They simply must do far better than this in the future.
When Ofcom has the power to regulate online safety, we will hold the social media platforms to account on abuse like this. They must be much more transparent about the rules they have in place to deal with it, and we will act to make sure those rules are properly enforced.
Each company must take extra care to tackle illegal content and protect children. High-risk, high-reach, user-to-user services must also work to protect adult users from ‘legal-but-harmful’ content such as disinformation.
Clearly, the new rules must strike the right balance. We must protect free speech and journalistic content. Robust debate, particularly on issues relating to government and democracy, should continue. We don’t want to hinder innovation or investment.
But at the moment, the platforms are making decisions about how to strike this balance on their own. There is no transparency and no consistency about the rules and algorithms – how free speech is underpinned while harmful and abusive content is tackled and prevented from going viral.
The internet and the online platforms have brought huge economic benefits and have massively opened up our right to express ourselves. By bringing accountability and transparency into this area for the first time we can protect those great advances while building a safer life online for everyone.
Trust in Ofcom
Finally, as the body that will enforce the changes, we know we must get it right. Trust in the media is only one side of the story. People must also have trust in the regulator.
That is why, when we come to take on new duties, Ofcom’s watchwords will be, as they have always been and as set out in our founding statute – transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted only at cases where action is needed.
So this will not be about Ofcom attempting to regulate individual pieces of content. Instead, it will be about holding platforms to account for assessing the risks to their users, and putting in place sensible, concrete measures to address them. We’ll be examining and enforcing against their systems and processes, rather than the content. That’s an important difference to how we regulate broadcast media.
We’ll ensure companies are transparent, shining a light on the nature of the problem, and whether their efforts to protect users are effective.
We’ll also make sure our regulation supports innovation and competition in the UK, and that our interventions are proportionate.
Crucially, that includes protecting people’s freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression
Free speech is the lifeblood of the internet. It is at the heart of public life, and a necessary condition of a democratic society. It is also among the values that Ofcom holds most dear.
For proof of that, look at our track record in TV and radio. Parliament requires Ofcom to protect viewers from harmful material, in a way that best guarantees the appropriate level of freedom of expression on tv and radio. In doing so, we have years of experience of taking proper account of broadcasters’ and viewers’ rights to hold opinions and to receive and impart information.
But there is no right not to be offended. So we only intervene if we consider it’s absolutely necessary. We always root our decisions in evidence, research and detailed understanding of what viewers and listeners expect.
For the vast majority of the time, broadcasters get it right. They avoid serious harm, treat people fairly and offer a range of views. Ofcom’s job is to act if they fall short. But those occasions are relatively rare.
We assess every single complaint we receive, and intervention is a high bar. In the last year, the public raised complaints about nearly 12,000 programmes on TV and radio. We formally investigated 48 of those, and found only 29 in breach of our rules. We have allowed forceful, provocative debate – from a range of perspectives and world views – to flourish on channels ranging from ITV to LBC, Al Jazeera to the newcomer GB News.
Equally, when broadcasters get it badly wrong, we won’t hesitate to step in. On a handful of occasions, we have taken the ultimate step of withdrawing a licence. The reasons have included terrorist hate speech (PDF, 733.8 KB) and explicit sexual content being available to children. Last year, a channel surrendered its licence after we found it broadcast incitement to murder. I hope no-one would argue that cases like this should be justified by free expression.
During the pandemic, we have sanctioned some smaller channels that recklessly promoted baseless theories – such as linking Covid-19 to 5G mobile masts. That kind of misinformation could have put people’s health at risk, at a time of acute pressure on the NHS.
But at the same time, we have repeatedly made clear that broadcasters are free to counter or challenge public health advice and restrictions on people’s lives. In fact, we believe those restrictions make the right to freedom of expression even more vital.
So if you read that Ofcom is trying to censor debate about coronavirus on TV and radio, trust in the judgment of the High Court, which examined those claims and dismissed them.
Equally, if Ofcom does get things wrong, trust that we are always held to account – through the courts, and rights of appeal. Parliament, too, continues to scrutinise our work and frame our duties.
Above all, I hope you can trust us to make sensible decisions. If you use social media, and you value its incredible ability to generate debate, discourse and opinion among whole swathes of the population, you can trust Ofcom to value that too.
If you work in the tech sector, and you understand the need for regulation to be flexible – and not act as a break on innovation – you can see that Ofcom is recruiting a range of tech specialists with deep knowledge of the sector, who will help us understand those needs.
And you have my word that we will keep listening to the public, industry and experts before making our decisions in a way that is rigorous, transparent and based on the best evidence.
This week, we’ll be hearing your views on the future of media. I hope you share my optimism that, working together, we can protect the roles of traditional broadcasting and quality, accurate news in people’s lives.
That we can realise a safer life online, where people feel more confident in what they see and hear.
And that we can achieve those things while upholding the importance of freedom of expression.
Honesty, integrity and freedom are all essential to a healthy society, democracy and cultural economy.
I believe, if we trust in these things, we will be repaid.