Archive for January, 2009
image cc by Tristam Sparks
Media and Social Responsibility do not go together well. At least that is the picture we get when looking at the CSR performance of Media enterprises all over the world. Of course these companies are in a difficult position, only bad news is good news and sadly enough not every day a new scandal happens, that would fill the tabloid.
But what here is the real challenge of corporate social responsibility for media companies? Mind you, there is a real debate going on. Companies take a defensive approach to media relations precisely because there are so many examples of journalists with an actively antagonistic viewpoint – editorial comment masquerading as impartial reporting. But then that’s part of the point.
Of course media also does good things. The delivering of news from around the world, without fear, without favour, has an immeasurable positive impact. Reporting environmental emissions of a service-intensive industry rather pales in comparison.
Media is one of the most diverse industries in the world, and it is full of contradictions. On the one hand, you have the for example the BBC, which is generally viewed as having upheld pretty high standards of impartiality throughout its history, and is imbued with a public service ethos that has influenced many other followers across the world. On the other, you have the real shark pool. The tabloid newspapers that will quite cheerfully destroy anyone that gets in their way, and apparently likes nothing better than to chalk up the scalp of a government minister or celebrity following some vitriolic campaign. These are the companies that employ the paparazzi who hound celebrities without mercy. Such newspapers recently took to publishing front page photographs of ‘upskirt’ shots of female celebrities – that’s about as low as it gets.
Interestingly, most of the public all over the world would still trust the public broadcasting company more than they would the government. But the question remains – how does one approach the issue of social responsibility with the media? Here we have an industry sector that is hugely powerful – exactly why tyrants and despots have always tried to control it. In most countries, politicians have been shy of facing the fact that this is the one powerful industry that remains largely unregulated, mostly because whenever they look as though they might be about to try, the big guns come out and whichever hapless politician it is gets blown out of the water. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the media companies are right. When they are at their best, they can have a hugely positive impact on society. The benefits of a free press are there for all to see. Tyrants ultimately fail to control information and it can shape revolutions and change worlds. It is hugely positive. Done well.
But where is the pressure to do well? Public Broadcasters have done better than most, because they are under constant pressure both to justify their publicly-paid licence fee and also to show that they are independent of the government of the day. Many other media outlets are so nakedly the tool of their proprietor as to beggar belief. They get away with it only because nobody dares to take them on.
Most companies have to perform well to survive. Competitive pressure means that they produce higher quality products for cheaper prices. But there is no evidence that journalistic integrity is a key competitive feature. People choose their news source on the basis of the interesting scoops. And currently, the papers that feature the barely bikini-clad photos of celebrities in the jungle outsell those that analyse with seriousness the implications of, for instance, the current issue on environmental pollution.
So where is the business case here for social responsibility? What is the social responsibility of a media company? Surely, to tell the truth. To accord people a general expectation of privacy and dignity. To expose wrongs, but equally to allow that no-one is perfect. To entertain, for sure, but also to inform. And also to avoid conflicts of interest.
We promote to companies generally the value of measuring and reporting performance – so it should be here. Solid measurement would include number of complaints, and prosecutions, as well as standard measures such as environmental performance (yes, still relevant here!), employee satisfaction and impact on local communities. Oh, and some information about how the organisation has dealt with conflicts of interest.
There are many who feel that many are getting away with flagrant disregard for the former. If politicians cannot say this, because the industry assumes that they are angling to cover up their own misdemeanors – then who can? Most companies have to establish clear values, show leadership in embedding those values, and establish policies and processes for ensuring they don’t fall short of them. The media industry currently believes it is so noble by inherent virtue of its calling that it needs to do few of these things. They are wrong. Nobody is immune and who rises high can fall down deep. The media in general is in danger of a steep fall if does not take its own CSR serious.