On Monday I was at a conference on Media Diversity run and funded by Labour MEP Nessa Childers. It was probably one of the best roster of speakers I’ve heard on the subject on that side of the Irish Sea, even if there was barely time to talk, or ask questions.
Then yesterday, Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, gave something of a masterclass on the ills of the mainstream media in front of Lord Leveson in London. Not least the closeness between lobby journalists and politicians:
Political reporting on a day to day basis is conducted in the main via the Westminster Lobby system. This is an unhealthy and closed system lacking in transparency conducted behind closed doors. The implicit rules of this club – “Lobby terms” – discourage Lobby journalists from rocking the boat too much, the system also encourages a trade in favours. A client media has developed whereby journalists who recycle the party line are encouraged and rewarded with titbits and exclusives, with interviews granted to journalists who please party spin doctors. The Lobby system is effectively an obedience school where the political class brings journalists to heel.
The failings of the Lobby system were well illustrated during the expenses scandal, a story which exploded because of the catalytic efforts of a Freedom of Information campaigner, Heather Brooke, in the courts. Lobby journalists who were embedded in the Westminster system would later claim to well know about the ongoing abuse of expenses over decades, yet they did nothing to expose the scandal.
That was a monumental failure by those journalists specifically charged with the responsibility of holding those in power to account. They failed to report on an issue that fundamentally exposed the lack of integrity of our political class. The natural venality of the political class was unchecked by their client media until an outsider rocked the boat and sunk the duck houses.
In my experience newspapers will do favours for their political allies far beyond just slanting favourable coverage, they will suppress the truth, rubbish political opponents and buy up stories, never to be printed, which might embarrass their political allies.
Now I should declare a slight interest, in that Staines owns MessageSpace, one of Slugger’s few regular sources of income. And I have a lot of time for the some of the arguments he makes, though considering how closely he still works with some newspaper groups I’d been wary of buying too many millenarian arguments about the end times for papers.
But it must also be fairly clear that both politically and in approach, Guido and I have a very different approach to politics, journalists and politicians. For instance, I heard what Alan Crosbie – Chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings Ltd. said on Monday about new media and the context in which he said it. I even questioned him about it afterwards. What’s important about the case Mr Crosbie makes is: 1, that it outlines the value big media can bring; but 2, fails to offer thoughts on how that value can be repackaged and transfered to an audience that is rapidly changing the habits of generations.
And he made a substantial proposition:
My first proposition, even before I get to the consolidation in the title of this talk, is this. That we as a society acknowledge that public service is not something RTE owns. It is a public service for any organisation to devote professional people to finding out, fact checking, and publishing information in the public good.
Therefore, there’s an opportunity for Pat Rabbitte to step away from tradition and if he’s going to have a tax to provide public service broadcasting, widen it so it acknowledges the contribution to public service of newspapers too. That would reduce this dangerous dependence on advertising.
Now when challenged to say how he would do that from the floor, by John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute as it happens, about what he might do to mediate any future political influence in his news gathering techniques, he retrenched slightly by suggesting that he would start with something as simple as getting a zero rate on VAT, something that’s pertains in the UK but not Ireland.
Later in his speech, he launched the attack that got him his headlines:
We need to address the threat to humanity posed by the tsunami of unverifiable data, opinion, libel and vulgar abuse in new media. I know all the stuff about it being a tool of freedom and democracy, and I also know it has the capacity to destroy civil society and cause unimaginable suffering.
Governments have a regulatory function in this regard, and they’re walking away from it because they’re afraid of appearing to be repressive.
Well, maybe. But, as Guido notes, it’s a tough climate for regulators too:
Any future regulatory regime has to consider technological convergence. My daughters watch Children’s BBC on my mobile telephone, they watch the US Public Broadcasting Service’s children’s television shows on my laptop at our French holiday home.
The reality of convergence and cross-border broadcasting via the internet of all forms of content will mean that any regulatory regime will be porous. In the future there will be a regulated sector and an unregulated sector, with the latter prospering all the more if privacy restrictions inhibit the regulated media from covering more and more stories. The readers will go where the news is, the advertisers and the money will follow the readers, the regulators however will not be able to cross borders.
It would be in my commercial interest and to my competitive advantage to see the British media heavily regulated, draconian privacy laws enacted and politically correct “media standards” enforced. All of which would be cheerfully ignored by the Guido Fawkes bIog. It would however be a sad day for press freedom.
In the US (where formal media regulation is deeply problematic for constitutional reasons) Matthew Yglesias argues that the increasing partisanship in newspapers, television and blogs is little more than a function of the changing nature of the marketplace:
A person living in Baltimore was either going to subscribe to the Sun or else not subscribe to the Sun, so the important thing was to try not to put anything in the Sun that would unduly alienate and embitter readers or advertisers.
An ideology of journalistic “objectivity” grew up around this that by design did not suit the needs or agendas of political activists of various stripes. At the same time, over in the United Kingdom a much more competitive newspaper market existed in which the headlines were much more sensationalistic and different papers would cater to different ideological or sociological niches to try to generate reader enthusiasm.
What’s happened to the United States over the past 30 years is that cable, talk radio, and the Internet have created a more competitive media market that’s much less dominated by geographically segmented quasi-monopolies. In this new environment, the kind of rah-rah go-team-go cheerleading exhibited by Continetti’s piece makes a lot of sense as a business strategy.
If the US constitution is losing its provenance amongst other country’s constitutional law makers, the 21st century intellectual by-products of that 18th Century constitution is clearly capable of considerable disruption in other jurisdictions. It’s a genii that is going to be almost impossible to put back in the box.
Lobbying government is one perfectly valid point of progress. But the nature of this consolidation process is that it is now longer about having pointless arguments about journalists versus bloggers or tweeters, but about finding solutions that commercially assert the value of the work done.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty