Here’s a question. What actually constitutes news these days?
Of course, there are as many answers to that question as there are listeners to your radio station of choice. And it’s long been claimed that “the news” is gradually being dumbed down by just about anybody from Radio 4 downwards.
Targeting the news to a particular audience is always going to be subjective. Personally, I’m a fan of the “sing when you’re winning” principle. If there’s a good news story – like England winning the Ashes – it should rightly be a contender for the top story on the next available bulletin. Equally, there’s nothing wrong with a cheery “and finally” to brighten up a gloomy breakfast broadcast.
Which makes the latest ruling from OFCOM a curious case in point. Global Radio – the owners of Heart and Capital (and a good part of Smooth) – has been found in breach of the OFCOM code for effectively “sponsoring” its “and finally” story at breakfast.
The “Good News” feature was sponsored by Three, and consisted of one story of no editorial significance being given a sponsored credit. Global argued that this wasn’t technically part of the news bulletin, but a “specialist factual strand” – similar to, say, the showbiz or business news – which can be openly sponsored and would not break the rules.
Purists would argue that OFCOM has correctly drawn an important line in the sand, clearly saying that “news” and “factual” must be properly separated from each other. But it’s also a case of the regulator dictating what it considers to be “news” and factual”. In this example, the regulator has decided – against a flimsy code of conduct – that the “and finally” cannot be sponsored.
In absolute terms, OFCOM is implementing the rules by the book. And, as a rep of the National Union of Journalists, part of me thinks it’s a good decision – hammering home the fact that news of any description should not be sponsored. Allow it for the “and finally” and what’s next?
But in reality, no harm’s been done here. Global would have been extremely foolish to believe that it could extend this straightforward advertising deal to anything approaching “the actual news”. And, as the company said to OFCOM, this feature was not part of “the actual news” in terms of local content or length.
The regulator was only doing its job – responding to a handful of complaints. We have no way of knowing who made those complaints. It could have been a competitor, jealous of Global’s creative thinking when it comes to sponsorship. It might have been an anorak trying to “make a point”. Whoever it was, they went about it the wrong way.
It’s essential that OFCOM performs the task of upholding editorial independence of our commercial radio stations. But it has no right to decide on which features can and cannot run alongside a news bulletin. Providing the station is operating within its format.
On this occasion, the reguator stopped short of a fine. And wisely so.