A post on here last week marked the 80th anniversary of the world’s first regular high-definition television service, which, as we all know, was brought to us by the BBC. Crucial to the service from day one was a theoretical impartiality when it came to coverage of political matters, emphasising the need to give both sides of a debate equal airtime to avoid accusations of bias or favouritism. This needed to be reemphasised due to previous clashes via the dominant broadcasting medium of the day. A decade before transmissions opened at Ally Pally, the BBC was accused of favouring one side over another during the General Strike, though a pattern was established in 1926 that the party in power is always the one that possesses a persecution complex when it comes to broadcast news.
In 1926 it was the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin; sixty years later it was the same party under Margaret Thatcher that pointed the finger at the Beeb, declaring it a hotbed of lefty sympathies; fast forward another decade and-a-half and it was Tony Blair’s (or, more accurately Alistair Campbell’s) Labour that singled out the nation’s premier broadcaster as harbouring grudges against the government of the day, a feud that cost the BBC its Director General, Greg Dyke. Despite the perennial paranoia of the incumbent administration, the BBC has managed to maintain impartiality on political matters, though it is notable that HM Opposition has boarded the bandwagon in recent years, particularly with Jeremy Corbyn.
At times, impartiality can present viewers or listeners with a lopsided view of the country’s political landscape, something that was especially prevalent during the EU Referendum; the impression given on the BBC during the run-up to polling day was that the Remain and Leave camps were neck-and-neck, when in reality this wasn’t the case. The American media avoided this minefield thirty years ago when it abolished a broadcasting rule that had been in place since television began its ascendancy over US radio in the late 40s, the Fairness Doctrine.
Introduced by the United States Federal Communications Commission in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine was implemented in order that the holders of broadcasting franchises would offer the public a balanced view of an especially contentious political issue of the day. Its critics compared it to Hollywood’s Hayes Code or even the Comics Code, which governed the content of comic books, both of which had arisen following moral outcries over unlicensed and uncensored material entering the public domain without first being subjected to a ruling body – not dissimilar from the old British Board of Film Censorship. Along with the Equal Time rule, which was restricted to political candidates during an election, the Fairness Doctrine was an attempt to prevent radio and television from adopting the partisan approach to issues that was characteristic of the US press, which tended to reflect the personal opinions of each respective newspaper’s owner.
In terms of the nationwide broadcasters CBS, NBC and ABC, the Fairness Doctrine was enforceable, but when it came to regional TV stations, particularly in the Deep South, it was open to abuse. WLBT was NBC’s affiliated station in Jackson, Mississippi and openly operated a segregationist policy, opting out of its parent broadcaster’s coverage of the Civil Rights movement; as a result, it was threatened with its licence being revoked in 1969. Overall, however, the Fairness Doctrine worked as a means of preventing TV and radio from being utilised as the propaganda wing of a specific political party or single issue lobby group, and the US as a whole was considerably more united in its general outlook as a consequence.
This came to an end in 1987, following years of demands for broadcast media to be as unlicensed as the press; Ronald Reagan’s former aide Mark S Fowler had progressed to the chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission and issued a report in 1985, claiming that the Fairness Doctrine contradicted the right to free speech as listed in the First Amendment. Two years later, the FCC ended the Fairness Doctrine, and to paraphrase Mr Burns, the media hounds were released. Despite warnings from his staff that ‘the only thing that protects you from the savagery of the three networks…is the Fairness Doctrine’, President Reagan gave the thumbs-up to the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, even though numerous clauses – such as the ‘personal attack’ rule – continued to be upheld until 2000.
Over the last fifteen years, the spread of conservative talk radio across America, not to mention the increasing influence of the Republican-friendly Fox News, has shown that a ruling body need not be simplified and lazily caricatured as a totalitarian curb on free speech, but can be a necessary bulwark against the lunatics taking over the asylum. But Pandora’s Box is well and truly opened now, and there’s no way of reversing the rule. The Tea Party movement, which received extensive coverage during the 2008 Presidential Election, along with the grass-roots Republican upsurge that has propelled Donald Trump to his present position, has benefitted hugely from the end of the Fairness Doctrine, and along with the advent of the internet, ‘the voice of the people’ essentially translates as the voice of whoever rants louder than anyone else. One could argue the end of the Fairness Doctrine has been far more responsible for the erosion of public trust in elected representatives than the occasional misdemeanours of the elected representatives themselves.
Anybody who has inadvertently stumbled upon ‘Info Wars’ host Alex Jones, peddler of a thousand conspiracy theories and a man who likes to portray his bigoted bullishness as a heroic stand against Big Brother, will appreciate the potential dangers of giving a platform to any old idiot whose vocal chords can drown out the opposition. But such is media democracy – a million personal opinions all being aired at once; and nobody can see the wood on account of an abundance of bloody trees.
© The Editor