According to this year’s index from Reporters Without Borders, the United Kingdom ranks No. 33 in the world when it comes to press freedom. Call it a low B on a letter-grade scale: well behind those curve-blowing Scandinavians, of course, but in the same ballpark as France or Spain.
Nigeria, meanwhile, comes in at No. 120, the rough equivalent of a D+. You aren’t North Korea or Saudi Arabia, sure, but you’re still at the back of the class.
You’ll find similar results on the Democracy Index: the U.K. at No. 16 (“Full Democracy”), Nigeria at No. 110 (the lowest-ranking “Hybrid Regime,” one slot away from “Authoritarian”).
But these two countries, as different as they can be, are facing similar sets of questions about whether — and if yes, how and how much — to regulate online content. And they both seem to be coming down on the side of regulation, albeit it in different ways.
First, the U.K. Here’s a story from the Sunday Telegraph, a newspaper well plugged into the Conservative government (all emphases mine):
Netflix will be regulated by Ofcom under Government plans to level the playing field for the BBC and other traditional broadcasters struggling to compete. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, is due to set out the proposal this week, with other streaming giants including Amazon Prime and Disney+ also brought under the UK’s regulatory framework.
The plans, due to be set out in a broadcasting white paper, would see Ofcom’s remit extended to cover on-demand services, meaning it could rule on complaints relating to bias and inaccuracy.
It comes after Netflix, the world’s biggest streaming service, was last year embroiled in a row over the accuracy of scenes in The Crown, the historical drama based on the Queen and the Royal Family. Following the release of the fourth series, which chronicles the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Diana, the Princess of Wales, Mr Dowden called on Netflix to use disclaimers making clear it was a “work of fiction”.
Amazon Prime was also criticised for hosting anti-vaccination documentaries in the US that it later removed.
So are the concerns primarily about accuracy and bias — or about defending the country’s broadcast giants, both public and private?
Meanwhile, there is growing concern that public service broadcasters are under increasing strain as younger viewers switch to streaming services with large budgets for original productions. Mr Dowden has previously said it is time to “ask really profound questions” about PSBs and the role they play in the new media landscape…
A Government source said: “UK broadcasters are having to compete with these giants with one hand tied behind their backs. The companies have deep pockets and go largely unregulated, leaving them free to impose their interpretation of British life…
“With the pace of change and the increase in global competition, the Culture Secretary feels it is time to look at how we can level the playing field between broadcasters and video-on-demand services and make sure the UK’s broadcasting landscape is fit for the 21st century.”
Outside the most authoritarian regimes, any country’s media regime is going to be a mixture of approaches — some areas where the government sets strict standards and others left laissez-faire. In the U.S., for example, that divide is often about market exclusivity: There are only so many FM stations you can fit on a radio dial, and someone has to divvy up who gets to broadcast where on that slice of spectrum. The same was true of broadcast TV: To open up a station, you needed a broadcast license from the FCC, and because there were only so many to go around in each city, the FCC in turn imposed some (generally light) regulations on those stations’ content. Meanwhile, anybody can (theoretically) start a newspaper, so the American approach (again, generally) has been to leave regulating that sector that up to the marketplace.
The U.K. has followed a similar divide, with the added factor of the BBC. Media transmitted over limited spectrum gets regulated (quite heavily, down to where you keep your offices). But Britain’s famously raucous and partisan daily newspapers run free. (Can you imagine if the Sun or the Daily Mail faced the same bias and accuracy standards as the BBC?)
Video streamed over the internet would seem to be more like the latter than the former. The existence of Disney+ doesn’t prevent anyone else from uploading a YouTube video; Amazon Prime didn’t have to apply to the U.K. government for some super-exclusive streaming license.
But here it appears Ofcom wants to treat them like licensed broadcasters. Do you really want Ofcom to be able to fine Netflix £250,000 because it didn’t like some of Princess Diana’s dialogue in “The Crown,” or because it thought a Netflix documentary was not “presented with due impartiality“? The justification for that sort of oversight of the BBC is that there’s only one BBC. If Netflix needs to face BBC-style bias investigations, why don’t the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Mirror, or the Times?
May I for a moment suggest that culture secretary Oliver Dowden may not be viewing these issues with, er, due impartiality? It was just last week that he called companies choosing not to buy ads on GB News — the new Fox News with a British accent — a “worrying” case of allowing “themselves to succumb to pressure groups.” “One of the cornerstones of our liberties is our robust, free and diverse media,” Dowden said, “and GB News is a welcome addition to that diversity.”
GB News is an Ofcom-licensed broadcast TV channel; it debuted with a six-minute anti-lockdown anchor rant straight out of Fox News primetime, which generated 373 viewer complaints.
(Said presenter also argued that athletes shouldn’t take a knee because it would show support for Black Lives Matter, which he said supports the “overthrow of capitalism.”)
So, to recap: That one plotline in “The Crown” — a drama, distributed over the internet — was the sort of thing worth regulating an entire media sector for “bias” and “inaccuracy” over. But a TV “newscaster” repeating tired Fox News talking points on an Ofcom-regulated, Ofcom-licensed news channel? That’s just “robust, free and diverse media,” and if companies don’t want to advertise on it, that’s “the worst type of cancel culture,” “frankly gutless,” and “worrying.” Got it.
Anyway, on to Nigeria. Here’s Michael Ajifowoke, writing for the Nigerian tech site Techcabal:
The Buhari administration has stepped up efforts to regulate the online media in Nigeria in what is seen by many as attempts to further stifle the civic space in the country.
Two weeks after blocking Twitter’s operations, the federal government has asked the House of Representatives to enact a law that will empower the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to control all forms of internet broadcasting and social media.
The request was made on Wednesday by the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, during a public hearing organised by the house committee on information, national orientation, ethics, and values on a bill to amend the NBC Act.
The commission already controls television and radio broadcasting in Nigeria, based on provisions in Section 2(b) of the NBC Act. It states that “the Commission shall have [the] responsibility of receiving, processing and considering applications for the establishment, ownership or operation of radio and television stations including cable television services, direct satellite broadcast and any other medium of broadcasting.”
Lai Mohammed now wants the commission to also regulate the online media, in addition to other channels of broadcasting. “I want to add here specifically that internet broadcasting and all online media should be included in this because we have a responsibility to monitor contents, including Twitter,” the minister told lawmakers.
Obviously, forcing “all online media” to face state regulation for content is a whole different ballgame than whatever Ofcom ends up doing to fine Season 3 of “Ted Lasso” for improperly “imposing its interpretation of British life.” So was banning Twitter nationwide, which Muhammadu Buhari did this month after Twitter deleted one of his tweets for threatening violence.
But in a way, the line of reasoning is the same. Most online media has, for decades, been regulated in the same way newspapers are — brutally in authoritarian countries, yes, but almost zero in freer ones. Now, both the U.K. and Nigeria are saying they should be regulated more like TV networks — with a heavy government hand that can issue fines or revoke your license to exist.
And note that this proposed regulatory path isn’t about outsized market power or antitrust concerns, the way all the global regulatory rumbling about Google and Facebook is. This is about government regulation of content. Whatever you thought of “The Crown,” that’s worth our vigilance.