Updated: May 10, 2020
I’ve been posting some collected thoughts on the Murdoch affair, and after taking a personal perspective last time, this post is mainly about the wider question of where all this leaves journalism?
I’ll start by saying I don’t for a minute buy the line that this is an example of social media bringing down old media. Most arguments that posit social against old media miss the point that we are currently living in the midst of what happens when both operate in the same spaces at the same time. The story would not have spread so quickly without social media and the public outrage would not have been so great and so focused. But without so-called old media the story would quite probably not have existed in the first place.
For that, much credit must go to freelance investigative journalist Nick Davies and newspaper The Guardian. Whether it was digital or print first, it was the quality and strength of the content itself that made the difference, something which should not be lost on The Guardian’s management as it ponders how to resource its ‘digital first’ drive.
What’s also worth considering is how you define value. If you tot up the hours spent on researching the story, the various setbacks and the additional time spent justifying and defending the decision to carry on with it in the face of enormous pressure, then relate this to the number of column inches filled and extra sales made – it doesn’t stack up. Most news reporting doesn’t. But who would now argue that The Guardian’s brand value has not been enhanced? The short-termism encouraged not least by the Murdoch papers in their aggressive neo-liberalism is exposed here and the kind of argument about true value they vilified proves itself.
Of course, there is a great irony that one of the great scandals of journalism – and increasingly now beyond – was uncovered by journalism. And that’s another thing I kept emphasising as journalist after journalist said how ashamed they were to be associated with the trade.
I’m also unconvinced about some of the conclusions being drawn. Journalist and freedom of information activist Heather Brooke contributed an interesting piece – again in The Guardian – on Thursday. There’s a lot to be said for her assertion that “Britain’s cosy, corrupt power elite has been fostered by a black market trade in data”. But her conclusion that “Freedom of information laws bust open the cartel” paints an incomplete picture.
The problem is not that the press has been legally hindered in its efforts to seek out truth, but that the press has too often not had the inclination to seek out truth. I spoke to one of my old teaching colleagues last week and he said “It is about frame of mind and purpose. The mainstream culture and even The Guardian and Independent are too accepting of the status quo and not challenging enough.” He’s not the only person I’ve spoken to who has pointed out that we didn’t need freedom of information law to realise we were being sold a line over WMD, and Brooke’s argument that the situation in the US is better because of the stronger FOI framework doesn’t seem as convincing when you consider how the US media reported Iraq, the rendition scandal, Afghanistan…
Jonathan Freedland observes that “we have witnessed a very British revolution”. It would be nice to think so, and the way power has been exercised through the influence of an unelected framework of influential figures is certainly now more evident than ever it was. But as Freedland concludes: “Has Britain now overthrown this shadow government? Any answer should remember the premature verdicts delivered during the last two crises to shake Britain; the shaming of the bankers and the MPs’ expenses furore.” And in the same edition of The Guardian, Marina Hyde said we should not underestimate “Britain’s potential to lapse back into another version of the same dysfunction that brought it to whatever pretty pass it has come to.”
The extremely convenient arrest of Rebekah Brooks at the weekend, after she quit News International but before she appeared at the Parliamentary hearing that her arrest may now prevent her from attending; and the resignation of Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson which may shut down another line of questions, only serve to fuel suspicions that these fears may be well placed.
I have a suspicion that Suzanne Moore – in another article in a very good Saturday edition of The Guardian – has a point when she says “What amuses me and some of the public – mischief – has been entirely ignored in this high-minded debate because public taste may not be sufficiently bourgeois.” And that thought leads me on to some thoughts on what exactly it is we, whoever ‘we’ are, have found so outrageous, and about the benefit of hindsight. They follow in the next post.