`Fairness doctrine': back to Congress

IN Great Britain and the United States, where freedom of speech and press have been cherished for more than two centuries as wellsprings of democracy, conservative governments are wrestling with the application of those rights to the broadcast media. The recent 24-hour strike by employees of the British Broadcasting Corporation, after a television program on Northern Ireland was canceled under government pressure, put the issue of free expression in sharp focus. There is also concern in Britain over the Conservative government's inclination to push the publicly financed BBC at least partly into commercial competition.

In the US, the Reagan administration's push for deregulation of all kinds of commerce is nowhere more evident than in the activities of the Federal Communications Commission. The latest of the FCC's initiatives is a recommendation that a longstanding regulation called the ``fairness doctrine'' be rescinded by Congress. This is the rule that requires radio and television stations to air opposing views on controversial issues.

Wisely, the FCC members -- although unanimously in favor of removing the fairness doctrine -- have forwarded this issue, which involves basic constitutional questions, to the elected representatives of the American people for consideration.

In simple terms the argument for retaining the doctrine is that, although radio and TV have proliferated to an extent impossible to foresee when the Communications Act of 1934 was written, the broadcast spectrum is still limited, outlets are licensed, and the need to ensure airing of all legitimate viewpoints must be guaranteed by regulation. Access to the airwaves is still much more difficult and costly than entry into print, it is argued.

Advocates of removing the fairness requirement point to the new electronic broadcast media -- cable, satellites, microwave distribution, videocassettes and discs, teletext, and more -- as evidence that broadcasting is as ``free'' as printing and therefore should share fully the First Amendment guarantee of freedom from government censorship or regulation.

Although the circumstances in Britain and the United States are quite different, both issues are of critical importance. The British have to keep the BBC financially viable and programmatically competitive while preserving its integrity.

The American public needs to be alerted to the possible consequences of broadcast deregulation, of which the fairness doctrine is just a facet, though a prime one. Then there should be thorough public debate -- in print, on radio and TV, and especially in Congress.

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