Fairness on the airwaves

In our days of shouting media, where partiality passes for commentary, it is hard to believe that fairness was once required of all US broadcast channels. 

Under the Fairness Doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission, all holders of broadcast licences had to deal with public interest matters of controversy in ways that were honest, equitable and balanced. Essentially, there was an obligation to hear a range of perspectives, not a single view. Those criticised had a specific right of reply.

In many ways, the Fairness Doctrine was very similar to the standards for broadcasters set by UK regulator Ofcom, which come in two parts. Section 5 of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code requires Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy — that broadcasters should deal with appropriate fairness between different perspectives when there are differing views. And Section 7 requires Fairness, or at least bans unfair or unjust treatment of individuals or organisations by broadcasters. Editing of comments should be fair and not misleading, and relevant parties should have an appropriate opportunity to contribute. 

The Ofcom Code remains in place, but the Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987. A newly conservative and deregulatory FCC voted to abolish it, in the face of opposition from the US Congress — whose attempt to retain the Doctrine by codifying it was vetoed by President Reagan. Throughout the 70s and 80s there had been an ongoing debate about whether the Doctrine was a breach of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, despite the US Supreme Court having held it to be wholly constitutional.

In that decision, Red Lion Broadcasting Co v FCC (1969), the court considered two conjoined appeals regarding the application of the doctrine in terms of fairness to individuals, essentially focused on the right to reply. The Court, in the collective judgement delivered by White J, held that such rights “enhance, rather than abridge, the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment”. The First Amendment to the US Constitution among other things guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

The Supreme Court’s decision was based on scarcity. It focused on the then technological and so regulatory limits on the number of outlets in the broadcast world. It held that in effect this regulated scarcity meant that each broadcaster that had been allowed access to the airwaves had a duty to show fairness, because the number of alternative outlets for stories was limited. The Court held, “Scarcity is not entirely a thing of the past”. 

Fifty years on, scarcity of media outlets now is. Now, we have no scarcity in bandwidth, no limit to the numbers of sources of information, which removes the main basis of the Supreme Court reasoning that fairness is central to delivering freedom of speech. Yet surely the underlying basis of their point is in fact the ability for voices and different perspectives to be heard — after all, that has to be the core of the right to reply — rather than the scope for voices simply to speak. Scarcity now comes in different forms. We all recognise the echo chambers of social media, where we tend to hear only the views that reflect our own thoughts and reinforce them, rather than a full mix of perspectives. It is a world where algorithms determine what we ought to be interested in from what we have shown an interest in, and so our world narrows in. Ironically, we have created a new world of scarcity within our unlimited technology. It is a world where fairness, in terms of access to a range of views, is squeezed out.

For all that bandwidth is no longer constrained and everyone can be a broadcaster these days, we are constrained in our ability to hear. Our new tower of babel, where everyone talks and few have the chance to listen to anything other than their pre-existing views (writes, fully recognising the irony, this blogger) leads to exactly the same limits on bandwidth, just at the level of listener rather than broadcaster. Our insights are still constrained and we still risk not hearing the other side of stories.

And so we need fairness in journalism still more than ever. We should reawaken the thinking of the Fairness Doctrine, and seek to apply it to internet channels just as much as to the broadcast world.

In the days that I was working there, Euromoney was more of a sink or swim environment than a training hub — its graduate traineeships were seen as a source of cheap labour rather than a detailed and technical training course. But it does not take much training to know what good, genuine journalism is, and what it isn’t. Simply expressing a monomanic perspective is not journalism. Getting a range of perspectives to deliver a rounded story is, in just the same way that a good journalist surprises his or her readers with a different way of seeing the world rather than just playing to their pre-existing prejudices. Good journalism gives voice to the voiceless even if that leads to discomfort for others. 

To be clear, I am not agreeing with the lazy ‘fake news’ allegation levelled by certain politicians when their pre-existing prejudices are not reinforced and their egos not fanned. Oddly, those most prone to make this assertion seem to be those with already disproportionate access to our airwaves and media. But we do need to reinvigorate much of our journalism and pay for unheard views to be voiced. 

So a fairness doctrine, or standards of due impartiality and due accuracy, are only a reflection of what good journalism should in any case entail. Broadcasters, or newspaper publishers, that peddle prejudices are not offering us journalism worthy of the name, and media providers on the internet, including social media platforms, need to consider how they too can avoid narrowing the views that we hear and instead facilitate our hearing a fairer spread of perspectives. We need broader-minded algorithms, not ones that shrink our worldview. 

We should insist on fairness — as the Supreme Court held, it is a necessary element of freedom of speech.


Bragg freedomI am grateful to Billy Bragg and his campaigning pamphlet The Three Dimensions of Freedom for highlighting the Fairness Doctrine. Particularly astute readers of various of my writings may possibly have detected what a fan I am of Bragg’s songs, not least borrowing one or two of his titles over the years.


Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969)