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.

  • Belfastwhite

    Anyone watched “The Revolution Will not be Televised” the story of the coup against Hugo Chavez and the democratically elected government of Venezula? The media was used by the insurgents with CIA help to mount a campaign of misinformation before, during and after the coup. It is a fascinating insight into how far the media can be used as a tool of black propaganda and is required viewing IMHO.

    For a copy of the documentary or further information visit the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign at venezuelasolidarity.org.uk or Axis of Logic at axisoflogic.com

  • Mick Fealty

    So far as I can see, this is the real meat in that particular media sandwich, beyond the original content:

    In Sept 2004, we were informed by Power Pictures that they owned the distribution rights and we should stop selling. We gladly agreed, asking when it would be distributed by them. We even offered to distribute some on there behalf for free. They declined this offer and informed us that negotiations were nearing a conclusion regarding the distribution. We were informed that this would be around 4-6 weeks. As a result we withdrew the copies we were distributing at their request. However in January 2005 we were informed by a supporter in Canada that Power Pictures (the distributors) informed him that the film will not be distributed “in the foreseeable future.” As a result of this we decided to distribute copies.

    One line text media has much freer lines of distribution. And with new platforms kicking in all the time, distributors will have less and less power to operate quite in this way.

    Sorry for the slight diversion.

  • Fintan, Portlaoise

    I’m reminded of the ancient joke about a seminar where people from various countries are asked to choose simple graphical forms to describe democracy. The British representative says a pyramid would be the most appropriate: It consists of many layers and the higher each successive layer is, the smaller. At the very top is a narrow apex, which owes its elevation to and is supported by all the laters underneath it. The apex is, of course, the decision-making elite. Or the upper crust, who lord it over us all.

    The next speaker is a Scandinavian, who sees democracy as resembling a wheel. The rim is the great masses, the hub the decision-making elite and the spokes the lines of communication and feedback between the two.

    After many speakers have outlined their ideas, the Irish speaker takes the floor and says he believes a mushroom would be the best metaphorical comparison. This baffles everyone until he adds: “Just give them plenty of horseshit and keep them in the dark.”

    I fear he got a little too close to the truth for my taste. We live in a world with a growing flood of information and many other claims on our time and mental energy. Like those who consume media, those who produce news must choose what to highlight. Some sections clearly have their own political or ideological axe to grind and emphasise what suits them. Never let us forget the powerful nexus that binds media, advertising, commerce and politics. To take one example, Garda Gerry McCabe and Robert McCartney were just two among the thousands who have lost their lives in the conflict of the last three decades. Yet it seems they are never out of the news. The McCartney sisters even went to the White House to “seek justice”. From Bush? While they were there, did they bring up Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? They are now the darlings of the Tory press, which has never been renowned for getting very exercised about injustices in Ireland – or elsewhere. Garda McCabe was a Special Branch man, armed with a deadly weapon and well trained in its use. He was also in the force of his own free will and got considerable remuneration in return. At least he had a chance to defend himself. Now his wife Anna has found a whole new meaning for her life, as the vengeful widow who just wants the perpetrators to suffer – more than others who have been convicted of the same offence. The message is clear: “A Garda’s life is more valuable than anyone else’s. Don’t go against the status quo or you’ll be doubly punished.” The men convicted of McCabe’s manslaughter – not murder – will serve every day of their sentence, not a minute’s remission. That surely violates some kind of principle when others convicted of the same offence are often released well before they have completed their sentence. So they will be there until no one can possibly keep them in any longer. And what will Anna McCabe do then? She will no longer serve much of a purpose for those who have used her up to now and she will no longer be able to bask in the limelight and appear on the Late Late Show dropping names like “my good friend Jean Kennedy Smith”. It’s enough to make you squirm with embarrassment for being Irish. She has been used by sections of the media and political forces in an unholy alliance with it. They would have been kinder to let her do her grieving and get on with her life like so many other who have lost loved ones on all sides.

    How many people remember the name Paddy Logan? He was a decent, harmless old man of 81. In June 2000, he and his brother were listening to a Laois-Westmeath football match on the radio in their home near Edenderry when two thugs came to the door, viciously beat them and robbed them of about €60. Paddy died, his brother was left for dead. The perpetrators were sentenced for manslaughter. Any bets they’ll serve less time than the men convicted of the McCabe killing? And what will the media say to that? Answer: Nothing at all, because there is no way a political spin could be put on this death or any of the many other cases of old and helpless people in rural Ireland being robbed and or/murdered, while Obersturmführer McDowell devotes his energy to spewing out horseshit and innuendo.