Journalism, politics and the internet

Mick’s post set me thinking about the mix of fear and excitement created by internet penetration that’s sweeping my own small neck of the woods, journalism and politics. You may agree with media guru Roy Greenslade that it’s good that blogging has dethroned the top-down columnist. But here is David Leigh, an old friend and top investigative journalist, fearing that the web could kill off serious journalism .Can the web really change our ways of thinking and transform the sort of services government delivers? This is preoccupying head of Royal Society of Arts Matthew Taylor who was Tony Blair’s head of Big Ideas.. I went to one of Matthews’ seminars last week about the internet’s impact on privacy and it was terrifying.

According to David Hencke’s vivid piece on Gordon Brown’s first anniversary in office, our control freak Prime Minister’s latest obsession is the internet – but maybe he would do better to switch his computer off more often. Computer obsession is a disease.

New Labour’s top web guru is Brown’s current reading, Charles Leadbeater, for whom the impact of the internet knows no bounds. Leadbeater’s book We-Think was the first to be written with hundreds of contributors; his Big Idea is that the web enhances creativity exponentially.

For me, the internet for all its huge potential had yet the produce the paradigm shift in human behaviour – for good or ill. Yet Matthew Taylor, whose business it is to capture the zeitgeist, has no doubt that a whirlwind revolution is under way. Perhaps the transformation is happening before our eyes and we’re too close to it to see it yet.

  • Rabelais

    The biggest threat to serious journalism probably comes from news organisations themselves. Its perhaps an obvious point to make but the amount of content concerned with celebrity gossip and other trivia is disproportionate to its public value. But heh, it sells papers and captures and audiences for advertisers). Perhaps more insidious is the lack of investiment in investigative journalism but that costs too much and eats into corporate profits. In short, the that fact news is little more than a commodity like any other is what is undermining its credibility and authority. I don’t want to susgest that there was ever a golden age of news free from commercial imperatives but perhaps the internet blogger or ‘citizen journalist’ is a return to journalism’s historic roots in the pamphleteers of the 17th century or the worker correspondents of the 19th. I appreciate a bit of radicalism but I don’t know that the internet will deliver the Republic of Letters, more likely a Tower of Babal

  • Rabelais

    You are only partially correct in that it is the news organizations who are to blame, for in reality it is the owners of these organizations. David Leigh by pushing the entire blame onto the Internet and blogs is pathetic, take this quote,
    “Too much competition leads to a race to the bottom” indeed it does as any one who reads a UK daily will know, whether broadsheet or tabloid. All but one of the national press supported the illegal war on Iraq and all continue to support the War on the Afghan people and the governments line that there is no alternative.

    All continue to carry government sponsored powder puffs about the sick and disabled be work shy etc and endless promos that benefit business and the economically rich whilst slandering working class people almost daily.

    That there is very little investigative reporting is because the owners, whether it is big business or indirectly government, have no wish to expose the unacceptable face of capitalism; and just as relevant few commentators and journalists wish to put their heads above the rampart.

    Far better to pour excreta on the despicable Mr Mugabe, a man with no power beyond the border of poor Zimbabwe, than hunt the real monsters in the world who have caused far more death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan than old Bob can even dream about. And what about the crooks who continue to plunder the public purse via Iraqi contracts etc or bribe there way across Arabia.

    That not a single national press cartoonist lead on the pathetic withdrawal of the Zimbabwean satraps gong says it all, not only about our groveling press but also about just how seriously our political elite regard such silly awards.

    By the way Brian, one does not get to be BBC foreign correspondent etc if one tilts at windmills and sides with the oppressed, now does one? so lets leave Mr Simpson to those who believe in the dream factory.

    I wonder if there really was a golden age of investigative journalism, or are we looking back through rose tinted specs. Yes we can all name some fine work, but even back then it was few and far between.

    A society by and large gets the press it deserves and this heartless society has a press that protects the rich whilst setting its attack dogs on the economically poor, both at home and abroad.

    And I have not even mentioned Roman Abramovich, investigative journalism and the mainstream Irish and UK media is an oxymoron.

  • nesbitt and mcallister are going for it as we speak:

  • Rabelais

    Hi Mick,
    So many good points.

    But its the chicken and egg question. What came first the commodification of news or the press barons and media moguls. I’d argue that it was the industrialisation and commercialisation of news in the 19th cnetury that attratcted the capitalists to it and derailed any hope we ever had of a democratic press. If you ever get a chance to look at Stanley Harrison’s Poor Men’s Guardians, the openning line is a reminder of the promise which the printing press once held out:

    ‘The first born of the modern media began life not as an instrument of government but as a rebel’

    For me that’s right up there with, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is….’

    Ahh, but you know that one already.

  • I agree with the sentiments expressed in the above comments. There never was a golden age of investigative journalism. The writer quoted says:

    There is only one reason why these stories have an effect. I like to think, of course, it is down to our own personal brilliance. But it is not. It is because a story on the front page of the Guardian carries clout. So do reports on the BBC, for example — that’s why Andrew Gilligan’s stories about alleged sexed-up dossiers caused such panic and rage in Downing Street.

    I doubt such stories carry half as much clout as the writer imagines. Any person with a certain minimum of critical thinking would have been able to work out, for instance, that the Blair government was producing all sorts of misleading tripe to smooth the path to war.

    The problem with Gilligan’s stories, from the point of view of the government, was the fact that it was such an egregious exception to the business-as-normal servility that characterises the British press, and that was too much to bear. But the BBC learned from its mistakes, and succeeds in delivering even more servile news coverage these days. That particular case demonstrates that whatever effect such stories might ideally have can be easily managed and mitigated, and, as other commenters point out, none of this has anything to do with the internet as such, but with media ownership and control.

  • I agree with both hugh green and rebelais, I wonder how long it will be before the web becomes an instrument of government etc in the same way.

    A couple of points just as people mainly read newspapers to have their opinions reinforced, i.e. our newspaper of choice is more often than not the one that is closest to our political opinions. The same happens with blogs, throughout the period when the www has been on the rise, in the English speaking world the [blogging] political right has been most dominant. [I consider new labour to be on the right] If and when there is a resurgence of the left it will be interesting to see whether the current dominance of right wing and conservative blogs will still hold sway.

    Totally unrelated I notice Lord Bragg had a letter in the guardian today complaining about the bad influence TV sets by allowing swearing on air, some celeb cook apparently goes in for it big-time. If my memory serves me correctly Lord Bragg used to ridicule Mrs Whitehouse for saying much the same.

    I cannot find it but in my youth I read an essay by Trotsky opposing the use of foul language, which basically said he believed people use swear words because they have a limited vocabulary or cannot be bothered to put their brain in gear. Seems about right, unless you have hit your thumb with a hammer that is.*

    *Why do editors allow people like Bragg to pose as common men/women on the letters page of a liberal paper, when in real life they have accepted Betsys gong and all that goes with it, seems to me they want it all ways.

  • josephine

    isn’t roy greenslade the guy who secretly wrote for an phoblacht under the by-line ‘george king’? i would have thought that mr greenslade should worry less about the impact of the internet and more about journalists who pretend to be neutral and objective while secretly being political players!

  • “Perhaps the transformation is happening before our eyes and we’re too close to it to see it yet.”

    Brian, bloggers, journalists and politicians can play complementary roles in the ‘democratisation’ of political communication. See Rathlin ferry 2 thread.

  • Niall

    David Leigh is spot on. You can’t put the blame for the drop in journalistic standards down solely to the news organisations and then praise the proliferation of digital publications as a remedy. The two spheres do not exist in a vacuum. They are inextricably bound.

    Quality journalism requires money. Market saturation and fragmentation reduces the money available for news organisations to carry out investigative journalism.

    The main problem is that given the choice between paying for a morning newspaper or taking a freesheet of less quality that is handed to you at the bus stop, the majority of people are happy to settle for the freesheet even though they know it is lesser quality. There is an insidious, unstoppable erosion of journalistic values at play that is driven by this pervading notion that information should be free and supported by advertising revenue.

    There may never have been a golden age of investigative journalism but if one thing is certain its that its going to get a lot worse. The rise of “citizen journalism” is more likely to hasten the end of traditional reporting while proving itself to be an ineffective replacement.

  • rabelais

    Then Mick is spot on, Niall. Capitalism is killing the news as a useful form of public information. And I don’t think anbody is praising the internet. There is a lot of hyperbole about at the moment with regards to the ‘power’of the internet and its democratic potential. But an historical look at the development of the media would suggest that most forms are quickily brought under the control of government or left to the ravages of the free market. In the case of journalism it was the industrialisation of the press and the commercialisation of news that destroyed any semblance of democratic news organisation. I suspect that the internet will either be brought to heel or political castrated by a combination of government and commerce. Business as usual.

  • Niall

    “Capitalism is killing the news as a useful form of public information.”

    If this was strictly true then it would have happened a long time ago. I understand you believe capitalism killed the news in the 19th century, but if there is a noticeable change in the news industry now and even as recently as 10 years ago then capitalism is not solely to blame. The differentiator is the technology, which is not by itself either capitalist, communist or anything else.

  • rabelais

    I don’t want to argue that nothing changes but there are striking similarities between the birth of the press and the internet today. Getting into print in the early 1800s was a relatively inexpensive affair. I printing press didn’t cost a fortune and many radical, democratic and working class papers were more widely read than their bourgeois counterparts. Governments tried censorship and taxes to undermine this ‘dangerous material’ neither of which worked. Libel case against papers made them notorious and increased readership, while they petite press simply didn’t pay the taxes. The government were eventually persuaded by business men to lift the taxes that prohibited a more commercial press. The government was persuaded on the grounds that if newspapers could become a commodity then ‘responsible’ men of ‘good judgement and sound character’ would produce newspapers for the edification of the public. To meet the new demands of commercialisation the press was industrialised putting the price of the advanced printing technology beyond the the original democratic pioneers. And hence our ‘free press’ was born, with a cast iron guarantee to defend the rights of property and give the public what its always wanted – the sensational, the trivial and the titilating.

    Your partly right Naill, the technology isn’t in itself ideological but those who could afford it and controlled it are. Now the internet is presented as a great democratising endeavour, but that will depend also on who controls it.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the news has been all bad, put the quality journalism has often been overwhelmed by the crap. And when it has really mattered in history – Iraq being one in a long line of examples – the news as an institutionalised response to events has let us down. To often journalists are too close to the ‘news-worthy’ and powerful, indeed sometimes their position is dependent upon their largesse. That’s bad news.

    Sorry about the pun…

  • Neil
    You write that quality journalism requires money, true, but then so does crap journalism and the owners of our press, whether broadsheet or tabloid seem to have plenty of cash to hire tame columnists and celebrity stand ins, this is as well as the likes of the 3-am girls.

    So a lack of serious investigative journalism is about far more than a lack of cash, it is about how the media companies allocate their manpower resources.

    The main problem for citizen journalists is the lack of a way for their sites to generate cash, and without it, taking into account they have to eat to, they are unable to broaden the scope of their coverage.

    One of the reasons the right wing blogs/sites have proved more successful is because they have gained access to cash. Unless a way can be found to square this particular circle, it is difficult to see how we can stop the multi national media outfits dominating this section of the WWW.

    Rebelais is correct here, “Now the internet is presented as a great democratizing endeavor, but that will depend also on who controls it.”

    For example my own blog Organized Rage has been locked by Googles Blogger for the last two days and I am powerless to do anything about it as I have no real idea as to why they locked me out. There is no email address which I can contact, I simple have to wait to see if they will unlock it.

    In many ways I am as, if not more powerless than if I was dealing with a national newspaper. I have a dreadful feeling we may have passed through the golden age of the WWW. The problem is it has a small number of choke points which allow powerful forces, whether governments of business, to turn off what we regard as a democratic and vitally important tap.

  • rabelais

    Isn’t there a new thing were people have started buying up chunks of virtual ‘real estate’ in cyberspace?

    OMG Is cyberspace the final frontier, Capt. Kirk?