Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 January 2012
So,farewell, then, Press TV, as Private Eye’s spoof poet E. J. Thribb would say. The Iranian state television station last week had its licence to broadcast in Britain revoked by the regulator, Ofcom, after repeatedly breaching the Ofcom code. The final straw was its refusal to guarantee that it was editorially controlled from London and not from Tehran. Last Friday it was removed from the BSkyB satellite.
An outrageous assault on freedom of expression? George Galloway, the former MP who has presented a regular show on Press TV, certainly thinks so. “Champions of liberty the British govt have now taken Press TV off Sky,” the gorgeous former admirer of Saddam Hussein tweeted in response to the decision.
But then he continued: “Follow us at www.presstv.ir and other platforms” – which rather undermines his point. Press TV hasn’t actually been suppressed, and it isn’t really farewell. Anyone who wants to can watch it online.
Not that I’m going to, I might add, or at least not very often. Press TV is an organ of Iranian government propaganda, a purveyor of anti-semitic conspiracy theory and anti-democratic bile, no more trustworthy than the Soviet Novosti Press Agency and its lackeys were in the bad old days. You only watch it to see what the Iranian government and its useful idiots in the west are saying.
Nevertheless, the case of Press TV is an important one because of what it says about the difficulties of regulating broadcasting in the digital age.
From the 1920s until very recently, Britain had a very tough regulatory regime for broadcasting. For more than 30 years, the BBC – a state-owned corporation from 1927 – had a monopoly of broadcasting, with strict rules prohibiting political partisanship and bias, and the same rules were applied to commercial broadcasters after the BBC monopoly was broken in 1955 with the creation of ITV.
In the years after the end of the BBC monopoly, commercial broadcasting grew massively in scope – commercial radio from the early 1970s, Channel Four from 1982, Sky and other channels on satellite from the late 1980s – but the tough rules on partisanship and bias remained in place.
They weren’t perfect: a self-satisfied establishment consensus ruled, views outside the mainstream were largely excluded from the airwaves, and governments of every political persuasion did their best, with varying degrees of success, to suppress awkward programmes and keep out awkward programme-makers.
But the regulatory regime spared – and what remains of it still spares – British broadcasting the propagandist partisanship that has poisoned the political culture of other countries. Italy has Berlusconi TV in all its forms, the United States has Fox and dozens of radio stations that pour out populist right-wing propaganda for their corporate masters. We don’t.
The very fact that Press TV was given a licence in the first place shows, however, that the long-standing British regulatory regime has started to disintegrate – and the fact that its licence being revoked makes little difference to its accessibility is a harbinger of things to come. In the multi-channel, multi-platform, global-broadcaster digital age, content regulation is more difficult to justify – who nixes “We’re just an honest-to-goodness news channel run by an office in London with lots of ethnic-minority people (and George Galloway)”? – and almost impossible to enforce completely.
Some would say that this is a good thing, but I don’t agree. A free-for-all of the airwaves could well be in the offing. But it would advantage no one but the already advantaged – super-rich individuals, corporations and states – towards whom the rules are already heavily stacked. The British regulatory regime for broadcasting needs to be reinforced to limit propagandist channels' access, not relaxed. It might be a fighting retreat, but it's worth it.
Which is where Nick Cohen’s fiery new polemic about freedom of expression, You Can’t Read This Book, comes in. He recognises that we need regulation to preserve media freedom. The book’s big theme is that formal legal guarantees of freedom of expression are not enough to sustain its practice.
Fear – fear of being fired for stepping out of line by a corporation or government organisation that employs you, fear of the libel action that might come from a super-rich crook with a holiday home in London, fear of being assassinated for offending the religious sensibilities of some imam in Iran (who might well broadcast on Press TV) – is as potent a constraint on free expression as the censor of a totalitarian state, and a much larger and more present danger in western democracies than necessary tolerant democratic media regulation.
Cohen’s book is brilliant – add that to the cover blurb – but it doesn’t go far enough in exploring the informal system of controlling what is sayable and what is not in the contemporary media. He’s quite blasé about political and cultural exclusion by newspaper and broadcast editors (his line is that you can always find another outlet for your opinions, which might be true for him but isn’t for most of the rest of us) and he has nothing to say about the collusion between journalists and their sources that keeps so much that should be public private.
Ah, what the hell. I’m writing what I think for a democratic socialist newspaper. It will be published (I hope) more or less unchanged. We might be as marginal as it’s possible to be, but we’re still here, out and proud. That’s good, and long may it continue. The survival of Tribune is much more important than that of Press TV.