Regulation is dead: long live the independent TV viewer?

Polls suggest the public is ready to take a more active role in TV regulation to ensure it does its

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In my living room, I can turn on my web-enabled TV, watch an ITV drama and last week's episode on ITV Player. Then, I might watch a political podcast from a newspaper's website, and if I fancy it, round things off with a prank video from YouTube of someone pretending to drop an electric cable into a swimming pool.

If my husband wanders in with a cup of tea, all four of these pieces of content look like TV programming as I switch between them with my remote. But in reality they are regulated (or not) under three different regimes (Ofcom, ATVOD, and no content regulation for the internet). An hour of sofa surfing can produce a whole range of things that walk like TV programmes and talk like TV programmes, but are not in fact TV programmes. While some of them are subject to stringent regulations on harm, offence, protection of minors, privacy, fairness and impartiality, others are not.

And here in lies the future challenge for Ofcom and others concerned with protecting viewers. How should audiences be protected, when more and more regulated and unregulated content appears next to each other on converged TVs, looking, to the untutored eye, exactly the same?

Ipsos MORI's latest audience research for Ofcom shows that protecting minors and other vulnerable audiences from inappropriate or harmful content clearly remains the main concern for most people. Protecting other vulnerable groups from financial or emotional harm is the second most important principle. Whatever we are watching, whether delivered through the internet, on new converged TV's, or on mobile devices, people wanted the same, or more, regulation in future on these issues.

But findings also show there is a degree of pragmatism about what can be achieved in this world of ever-increasing channels and platforms. Importantly, viewers recognised that regulating content is not the same as censoring it.

The participants in our study broadly formed two somewhat contradictory attitudinal groups. A 'Protect me' group wanted regulators to take more of a traditional authoritarian role, stopping broadcasters putting out anything potentially harmful.

On the other hand an 'Inform me' group felt that empowering individuals might be the most effective way forward. They wanted viewers to understand that a YouTube and newspaper video will not been regulated in the same way as Channel 4 news or a BBC drama; and then allow the viewer to use her common sense while watching.

We are entering a new era, where our viewing is not policed by authority figures censoring at source or guiding us with a timeframe of what we can watch when. Everyone will, though, need help to make choices, in the form of more information, and technical tools to signpost the difference between regulated and unregulated content.

The youngest participants in our study, a group of very media-literate 16 year-olds, seemed the most enthusiastic and the readiest for this. This may be a natural evolution for regulation for the young but are their adult counterparts happy to see them use the information and technology at their disposal to make their own choices when it comes to some content?

However the 'Protect Me' group - older, more conservative overall - may need more help. If regulation shifts its focus, it is crucial that all kinds of vulnerable groups, who are likely to be the least digitally literate, are not left behind.

New regulation has to cover the views both type of audiences so that everyone sitting on their sofas understands what they are watching, where it comes from, and how far it has been regulated - and then we can all enjoy an evening's viewing.

Technical note: Ipsos MORI conducted seven pairs of reconvened workshops with about 20 participants in each in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, York, Birmingham and Manchester. Quotas were set to ensure that Ipsos MORI achieved a range of ages (from 18 to late 70s), gender, ethnicity, socio-economic group, and high and low users of new technology.

Sarah Castell is head of qualitative research at Ipsos MORI

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser