Beyond the fading of big media (& politics)

With a few honourable exceptions, most of the debate on the media and politics in Ireland, tends to polarise on a white hat, black hat ad hominem pointing of fingers at newspaper groups, rather than examining the practice of journalism itself, and the degree to which it is in (or out) of step with contemporary readership. In Britain, John Lloyd began to break through that sterile insider tirading with his seminal essay What the media are doing to our politics a few years back. Last week he had some further thoughts in the FT:

Most news doesn’t make money – or at least its airing has a high opportunity cost, because it doesn’t make as much money as non-news programmes. Lemann writes that “the incentive to present [such] news … like all of Murrow’s great work, is gone. It is difficult for journalists to grapple with the idea that outside pressure – from government officials! – could have been responsible for the creation of superior and memorable journalism whose passing we all mourn. But look what has happened since it went away.”

It is going away all over the world, if more slowly. The sheer range of choice makes regulation and state ownership more difficult; and where channels have been relieved of much of the pressure to make news and current affairs – as with the independent TV channels in the UK – they have responded in the same way as the US networks. In London this month, a kind of wake was held for This Week by the veterans of this jewel in the old ITV crown – long since off the air. As the mourning was held, Channel 4 – established to raise television’s game in arts, films and, yes, current affairs – was broadcasting the latest episode of Celebrity Big Brother, in which the radically anti-American member of parliament, George Galloway, cavorts and gossips with faded celebrities in order, as he put it, to connect with the young. It is a sign of our individualist, do-it-yourself times, that programmes should move from exposure to self-exposure.

He argues that ‘keening’ the loss of past spendour is not an appropropriate response. And indeed, notes that both media and politicians may be in the self same boat:

First, the choice not to watch news and current affairs is an expression of freedom. If you sneer at this, then think how you would make the case for restricting the freedom.

Second, we don’t seem to get any stupider. Schools and universities keep reporting better test results; modern life keeps putting new intellectual challenges in front of us; and popular television (according to Steven Johnson’s New York Times’ article Watching TV Makes You Smarter) has wised up to the point where you need a subtle mind to watch a cop series.

Third, television hasn’t stopped informing us, it’s just informing us less – in current affairs programmes, about scandals, corruptions and foreign wars (except Iraq). It does a lot of informing about our bodies, our minds, our beliefs and our desires. Is this better or worse than understanding the world, more or less?

Fourth, even as current affairs and news have declined, our concern about the wretched of the earth – who are a particular concern of western news – hasn’t. We and the governments we elect are trying to do more about wretchedness than ever.

At the core of the issue is that our explanations about the world are proving to be out of kilter with the observable facts of the world. In particular, the way in which politics is done and communicated is now clearly no longer gaining attention. Some of that is the media’s fault, for trying to propose themselves as the real holders to account, even the real opposition – before the elected opposition itself.

But not all. The flight from conventional politics is deeper than that, and more concerning. It makes the finger-pointing between the politicians and media redundant, and the case for some sort of wary collaboration more urgent. When Ed Murrow was reporting, the stakes were high: fascism’s threat abroad, demagoguery’s temptations at home. The stakes are high now, too: democracy isn’t threatened by monsters, but by neglect.

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