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Big media, sustainability, trust and survival

David Grayson invited me to write the foreword to a forthcoming excellent and timely Cranfield paper on the media and corporate responsibility.

I’ll post a link to his paper when it’s out in a couple of days.

Meanwhile, here’s the short piece I did as the foreword on why big media firms need to grasp corporate responsibility now, if they want to be around in ten years time:

“There is very often a conspiracy of silence within the media on their own ethics.

This debate is particularly relevant, given the Guardian’s current public investigation of ethics at the News of the World, and the Daily Telegraph’s recent chequebook journalism revelations about the excessive expenses of British Members of Parliament.

Reading the corporate responsibility reports of big media companies around the globe, ‘Sustainability’ means community, diversity, disability access, environmental impacts.

There’s some occasional focus on encouraging media literacy, green programming or editorial coverage, but not much that’s meaningful, or revolutionary.

Right now, sustainability reporting in the media largely does not cover transparency, public accountability, allowing critical voices space, confessing to errors publicly, and apologising for mistakes.

Almost all the big media companies produce some sort of material related to their impact on society. But currently the quality, as in other sectors, varies hugely.

Some, like Guardian News and Media, Reuters, Reed Elsevier and Pearson, are making progress. Others, such as the New York Times and Trinity Mirror, are extremely weak.

Why does the media sector lag behind?

So why is the media sector so poor at reporting on non financial performance? Firstly, there’s a lack of pressure on them to report. Who holds these ‘watchdogs’ accountable? The NGOs usually have bigger, more environmentally polluting or egregious, fish to fry.

The big campaign groups hesitate to annoy the big newspapers, television and radio stations. The last thing non-governmental activists want to do is alienate the very conduits for their campaigns that the big corporate targets take notice of.

The accountability deficit extends to politics too. Politicians either don’t grasp how the media works, or more importantly have no desire to make more enemies in the press than they already have.

In developed nations, media freedom to do more or less as it wishes is protected by instant cries against censorship and freedom of speech.

In the UK, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is derided as toothless. Commentators worry aloud that the rich and powerful now seek redress immediately through the courts, rather than via voluntary groups such as the PCC.

This lack of both interest and action on media responsibility is at a time when the decline of quality news and investigative reporting is becoming ever more widespread.

The rise “Churnalism”, quick, cheap, unchecked news, is slowly more obvious as profit-hungry media firms look to cut costs, and corners. A detailed analysis of this trend is contained in the recent book “Flat Earth News”, by the Guardian’s Nick Davies.

Media transparency and trust

In February this year the UK charity the Media Standards Trust (MST) published a worrying report, “A More Accountable Press”.

The MST’s report says that only 7% of the public say they trust national newspapers to behave responsibly. According to YouGov, who carried out the research, 75% of those surveyed thought that “newspapers frequently publish stories they know are inaccurate”.

For many media firms, it’s obvious that their current corporate responsibility focus on environment, diversity, health and safety and community, as ‘sustainability’ is too narrow and short sighted. Real sustainability links economic, human and environmental impacts into business. To put it another way: growth and survival strategy.

For the media sector, getting these right in concert can help deliver them that holy grail of responsible business: lasting trust. And it is how much trust we have in the media that will determine which firms survive and prosper, and which fail, in the current business turmoil media businesses find themselves floundering in.”

Toby Webb is founder and managing director of Ethical Corporation. Ethical Corporation is an independent business intelligence, publishing and networking company founded in 2001.

A longer version of this article, with analysis of Guardian media group’s current progress, is here.

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