ITV News acting editor Rachel Corp (pictured) writes a blog for the Society of Editors about the fine line broadcast editors must tread during a crisis. How do public service broadcasters navigate their responsibility to viewers and strike a balance when it comes to scrutinising government decisions?
By Rachel Corp
Over the last few years, we have grown used to the spotlight falling on the relationship between government and some sections of the media, not least in the coverage of Brexit and last year’s General Election.
This pandemic, and the UK’s response to it, has highlighted how key this relationship is but has also underlined the fundamental importance of a trusted, independent, broadcast media – above all for the public, but also for government and for democracy more widely.
As a public service broadcaster, we have an obligation to produce programmes for the benefit of the public, and at a time like this, as news providers, a responsibility to convey key public health messages. This is not something any of us hold lightly and underpins much of our approach, but never has it felt so overwhelmingly important or necessary to get right.
In March, with the virus beginning to take hold in the UK and the government forming its response, we successfully made the case to be considered key workers. Although clearly different to those in the NHS, care workers or others on the front line of the fight, the authorities knew well the reach and impact of independent public service broadcast news. It’s still the best way to quickly and reliably deliver information, that will be trusted, to the widest audience.
As the country was put into lockdown, we played a vital role in getting across the public health message of – Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. There was a wealth of new public information people urgently needed and we had a responsibility to help them understand it. We adjusted the style of programmes and digital content – ensuring that key public health information, and what was expected of individuals, was clearly and fully explained. We spelt out the guidance and produced easy to follow ‘how to’ guides. It wasn’t our job to enforce the lockdown, but we had to make sure our viewers had all the details of what they were being asked to do.
This PSB ‘contract’ didn’t mean lowering our journalistic standards however, or becoming an instrument of government, ‘doing what we were told’. Whilst it was imperative we allowed the messaging to be heard and not drowned out by criticism, particularly in the key early stages of the lockdown, at all times we have analysed and interrogated the government strategy and position. We haven’t pulled the difficult questions or held back from pushing for answers.
We also set out from day one to uncover the areas or sectors hit hardest by the virus as well as the communities feeling forgotten or left behind by government policy; to make sure their voices are heard by those in authority making decisions; broadcasting the perspectives and experiences of everyone – BAME families, NHS workers, young people, those living with disabilities, right across the UK – not just transmitting the official government lines. We have sent our journalists all around the country to witness for themselves what is happening, to talk to people on the front lines, revealing the reality behind the official statistics not solely relying on government statements or explanations.
Whilst we continue to convey and emphasise the public health messages, demonstrating compliance of the social distancing and other lockdown rules in our output, we also continue to call ministers and senior advisors to account over issues such as PPE and ‘Test and Trace’. Our specialist editors and correspondents have relentlessly pushed for explanations on how the public and front-line workers could be better protected and we were quick to take seriously and report in depth the recent allegations around Dominic Cummings.
As an Editor, this has been a fine editorial line to tread and a careful balance to be found. The numbers watching ITV News programmes (and digital content) have been at record levels, particularly in March and April, keenly demonstrating the relationship the public has with, and demand for, trusted, impartial and properly sourced broadcast news. With that comes responsibility and a duty to deliver like never before. Whether people like the government strategy or not, the messaging has been delivered loud and clear. However, I guard our independence fiercely and am intensely proud of the standards of journalism we have kept up throughout (and that’s without even mentioning the challenges of operating under the current guidelines). We have stayed on air throughout, delivering night after night, and viewers can be reassured we will continue to do so.
During the crisis, I feel our relationship with government has remained civilised and strong but uncompromised. We would always welcome more access than we currently get but ministers have been put up for interview, including for our weekly Coronavirus Q&A programme. We have argued, alongside other media, that the daily press conference at 5pm should continue to allow journalists to question those in charge of running the country and the coronavirus response, whilst welcoming members of the public to also have their say. When the Prime Minister made his address 3 weeks ago, which was broadcast live on ITV as well as other channels, we understood on that occasion, the reasons for it being filmed and produced by No 10 staff but we continue to champion the need for scrutiny in the vast majority of policy announcements, as in any democracy, on behalf of our viewers and all sectors of society.
I will always advocate for free, independent media in the UK and we are all acutely aware of the deep challenges many in our sector are currently facing, not least local newspapers and radio. I believe the PSBs through the current crisis, have underlined the key role we play, reliably and impartially connecting authorities and the public, not working for or against government, but able to work with it constructively. I also believe this is in the interests of government too, as it continues to seek the best ways to clearly communicate its vital updates and maintain public confidence.
“The Communications Act requires PSBs to provide high quality news programmes which deal with both national and international matters and which are both accurate and impartial. In the case of ITV, the law also requires ITV to provide a news service which is able to compete effectively with BBC News – thereby providing vital plurality in high quality news. The law is reflected in the Ofcom licences under which the PSBs operate and, in addition, Ofcom specifies the minimum number of hours of high-quality news which the PSB’s must broadcast. It also ensures that news programmes are provided regularly at appropriate times each day”