Veteran journalist and media analyst John Lloyd wrote a very positive review of my book SuperMedia in last weekend’s Financial Times. It’s part of an elegant essay on the possibilities and pitfalls of new media and public participation in journalism. He somewhat exaggerates my enthusiasm for citizen journalism but otherwise it is spot on and beautifully written.
Read it here or below.
The past 150 years have been an era of journalistic heroism – a time when journalists developed their self-image as righters of wrongs. The period produced witnesses to horror such as William Howard Russell of The Times, whose Crimean war despatches helped destroy a government and modernise an army. There were campaigners such as Emile Zola, who put his pen at the service of a journalism of outrage over the false charges against Captain Dreyfus.
The muckrakers, such as Ida Tarbell, laid bare the business practices of Standard Oil in the early 20th century – a time when it was rare to see a woman outside of the literary and fashion pages. And from the 1960s on, a legion of investigators justified its existence by creating and sustaining a cadre of steely professionals who held power to account. These reporters were hugely boosted by the fame and status of Ed Murrow of CBS in broadcasting in the 1950s, and of The Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, famed for their Watergate reporting in the 1970s.
In different ways, three recently published books are products of the transition from the heroic age of journalism to the … what? It has no name, as yet. Early indications are that the “demotic age” might fit, because of the explosion over the past 10 years of internet-based blogs, social networking sites, e-mails and texts. And all this with an intensity not seen even in the high epistolary period of the Victorian age.
In SuperMedia, Charlie Beckett sees the new age in these terms. He eagerly anticipates a time when this kind of citizen journalism might replace the conventional model, and – as he puts it – “save the world”. In Can You Trust the Media?, Adrian Monck, a former news producer for both ITV and Sky and now professor of journalism at London’s City University, debunks the heroic age by saying it was never heroic. And the essays in Demos’s collection, UK Confidential, deal with the modern contention that public figures have little or no right to a private life.
In some respects, today’s internet and blogging activity marks a return to 17th- and 18th-century style journalism – an entrepreneurial time when people with something to say set up shop and published their own news sheets and pamphlets. It is also a more uncertain time, recalling a Victorian era when hard-dressed young would-be literary tyros grubbed for a hard living in a largely freelance world. Journalism in the 20th century, and until now, depended on organisational bases: newspapers with departments, training and a career structure; TV companies that invested in news and current affairs divisions; unions which for a time gave journalists in developed countries something of the protection from dismissal once enjoyed by printers.
These are not all gone but they’re shaky. Today’s landscape is littered with great news factories, which are shrunken and sickly. Murrow’s CBS News now has a handful of foreign correspondents and little investigative zeal. Le Monde, whose founder Hubert Beuve-Méry set up the paper to re-establish the honour of postwar French journalism, now fights for its life. The Daily Express, once a commanding presence across middle Britain, is now shrunk into the pocket of a pornographer.
The common denominator in this has been a loss of audience and revenue over the past decade: there is, as Charlie Beckett remarks in SuperMedia, “more than enough pressure upon journalism to fear for the future”. Using an excerpt from a January 2007 speech by Ed Richards, head of the UK media regulator Ofcom, he poses a question: “The drift away from news consumption, whether in broadcast or print media, appears to be a secular trend that is accelerating … how far does this matter for a healthy civil society?” The question is apt. Journalism has based its self-justification – and self-image – on a belief that it empowered its mass audience to become better citizens. If the journalism goes, what will happen to citizenship?
Monck’s title question Can You Trust the Media? is comprehensively answered in his essay: no, you cannot trust the media and you never could. Monck does not believe that standards are falling but he does feel that an increasing lack of trust is a rational public response to ever-less trustworthy media. “From a commercial point of view,” he writes, “trust is a worthless asset”. He mocks “the touching faith that if only people could bear witness to the truth, they will act for the good” and emphasises the emotional rather than rational baggage which the reading and viewing public bring to every issue.
Monck notes that in journalistic practice “moral issues barely get raised at all”. He believes more in the need for journalism to reveal and explain; he wants contempt laws liberalised and the secret services to be more open, so that we might better understand what is at stake in the war on terror. If journalism is in crisis, some of the components of that crisis are as old as journalism itself and are indivisible from it. In this accessible, jauntily written book, Monck ends up certain that we need journalism but sees it, with affection and exasperation, as a flawed thing, which, when it does good, does so by accident.
By contrast, Beckett’s argument is summed up in his subtitle: “Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World”. And he seems to mean it. Beckett raises “citizen journalism” – a term that encompasses everything from blogs through witnesses of disasters or wars to amateur web journalists – to the status of journalist’s saviour. He sees much of contemporary journalism’s coverage of politics as “biased, partial and shallow”. “Middle-class metropolitan (news) managers,” he believes, alienate a huge potential audience by not doing stories on the kind of poverty that an audience understands from experience.
Above all, Beckett believes that “the more journalists behave like citizens, the stronger journalism will be”. He also thinks that journalism must be grounded in experienced reality and that citizen’s journalism takes its practice and legitimacy from that reality.
This is a strongly argued, well-sourced, knowledgeable piece of work, informed by Beckett’s time working on news and current affairs programmes at both the BBC and Channel 4 television. It is the most sustained and enthusiastic endorsement of citizen journalism I have read, displaying a faith in the power of journalism allied to that of an active citizenry.
He makes something of his case by giving the example of The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, which pushed for access to the list of relief payments to the victims of hurricane Katrina. It then published that list and invited its readers to inform it of anomalies in the payments – which it then used as the basis of stories. He also writes about the monks and protesters in the riots in Burma, who last year made up for the less than totally effective ban on journalists by texting, blogging and sending pictures to the outside world. And in a fine passage on African journalism, he quotes at some length from impressive and angry African bloggers, who see the criminal behaviour of their corrupt governments more clearly as they live with it – and who air opinions often censored from African newspapers and, especially, radio and TV.
Here is the but, or rather the buts. First, attempts to turn citizen journalism into a day-to-day practice, rather than a reaction to one-off events, have not gone well so far. Jay Rosen, the scholar-blogger and creator of the marvellous PressThink website, used a grant from Reuters to try to start a process whereby citizen journalists would provide stories based on their own observation and knowledge, and professionals would edit it into readable news and analysis. He has had to concede failure – for the moment, at least.
Second, the most notable additions to conventional political journalism via the blogosphere have not raised the ethical level. The most famed is Matt Drudge, now a media power, whose coup was revealing Monica Lewinsky’s affair with Bill Clinton and who continues to work the seam of rumour, bile and innuendo. The minor UK celebrity is Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines), whose blog is based on his belief that “Our political system is rotten and politicians are allowed to get away with it by enfeebled lobby journalists”; his scoop was uncovering John Prescott’s affair with his social secretary in 2006.
Third, it is not truly clear what “behaving like citizens” means for journalists or even, what “citizens behaving like journalists” means. Citizens often don’t want journalism of any kind.
UK Confidential, the fascinating book-length collection of essays from the think-tank Demos, gets at journalism through the lens of technology and acts as a kind of sceptical commentary on it. What this collection by diverse hands shows us is that the benign desire of both business and government to speed our access to goods and services has meant a largely insouciant passing over, by the public, of large amounts of personal data to corporations and the state.
Tom Ilube, founder of Garlik, “online identity experts” who advise on security on the net, points out here that the result is that the web, if massaged knowledgeably, can divulge enough information on an individual to allow another to take over his identity. So where the heroic age had seen privacy as a screen for ill-doing, the new age sees it as a threatened refuge. The more citizen journalism we have, with its necessary dilution of privacy codes, the more licence citizens will take to do what they have always loved to do – find out more about their fellow citizens.
Is there no way out of journalism’s current miseries, then? Not with one bound, I think. Yet for all of Monck’s cold realism and the Demos authors’ warnings that privacy now needs to be defended, not probed, Beckett points to something that is happening – an ability and a willingness from the public to contribute its own narrative.
We can glimpse a world in which those burning to say something can now say it, even if often to restricted audiences. Those wishing to bear witness to horrors or marvels can have their words and pictures broadcast. Those outraged by suspected official or corporate malfeasance can find tools to probe, then expose. It all adds up to a considerable empowerment: if it does not yet – and I hope never will – dethrone the practice of journalism as we have known it, it may well propose the democratic possibility of making heroes of us all.