As Module Three of the Leveson Inquiry begins tomorrow and focuses on the relationship between the press and politics, journalists everywhere are preparing to either batten down the hatches against the onslaught of criticism that is bound to follow, or to condemn News International’s conduct as an immoral aberration that they and their associates would never stoop to.
Even before the News of the World scandal exploded from a small scale privacy dispute with self important celebrities to a widespread indictment of the ethics of media, especially tabloid, industry back in July the whole sector was starting to eat itself.
For years media organisations around the world have never been able to do anything right. Journalists always seem to be toofar up the backsides of their financial backers, their government or their government’s opposition. They are seen as the bottom feeders of politics than perform no real role other than to regurgitate the party line or twist it for profit. The old respect for investigative journalism and comment as a public good that serves a benevolent purpose for the community it covers has shifted from the professional media outlets to the citizen journalists and bloggers who paint an idealistic and slightly naive portrait of themselves as the unbiased guardians of truth up against the titans of the media industry like News International who are solely driven by profit.
The old balancing act between doing good and making good money that the newspaper industry has been maintaining over the past few centuries as taken a dangerous nosedive in the past ten, fifteen years as the proliferation of non-profit blogs, access to free online resources and falling ad revenues has meant people are no longer prepared to pay for high quality, insightful investigative journalism the way they once were.
The birth of the internet has given rise to the laudable idea that all knowledge should be free. While this is a good principle to take it must be remembered that just because the knowledge itself is free, it does not necessarily mean it was free to create. Citizen journalists and bloggers, myself included, rely on the work of the professionals with the resources to investigate these stories full time. A blogger may sanctimously condemn the atrocities committed by NATO and Taliban forces alike in Afghanistan but if there wasn’t a bureau of the New York Times or the Guardian on the ground then how would they know what they were blogging about?
Take for instance the news that has broken in the past couple of hours that a Channel 4 team has been arrested in Bahrain for reporting on the ongoing conflict there without visas. This shows a commitment to reporting that a part time blogger cannot match.
The idea that making a profit and providing important information to the public should be mutually exclusive comes from the idea that money taints good journalism. Shadowy figures like Rupert Murdoch and Sam Zell, owner of the now bankrupted American media organisation Tribune Company who famously stated ‘I’m not a newspaper guy. I’m a businessman’ and the questionable professional conduct of his staff have become a ‘necessary evil’ of the media industry over the past forty years because they have lost the respect their work once commanded.
Now the suggestion of a pay wall or subscription for their journalism is met with a contemptuous turn up of the nose as people retreat to the news aggregators as if they somehow retaining a moral high ground and the upholding the notion of free knowledge.
Rather ironically the media is suffering from poor PR. Even before the NOTW scandal broke the idea of newspapers like the Times and the New York Times making readers pay for online content seemed laughable. Instead of being regarded as the blockage of free information, maybe pay walls should be regarded as a desperate attempt to protect intellectual property. Just because journalists deal with facts that are tangible and independent of any one person as opposed to poets, authors and artists who deal with the product of their own imagination that does not mean that what they have created is not their own and they do not have the right to profit, or at the very least make a living, from it.
The media was once regarded as the ‘fourth estate’ and where seen as a bedrock of modern society next to the government, the police and the judiciary; although these institutions do not command anywhere near the respect they used to and have the same morally laspes as the media we would never presume to set up kangaroo courts or vigilante justice regardless of our opinions on their decisions. Professional journalists do deserve more respect and more money than part time bloggers and citizen journalists because they are the experts. To train and develop these skills takes time and is not as easy as it seems. Whilst alternative bloggers are always valued there has to be an acknowledgement that journalism has to be done properly at least some of the time and cannot support itself.
It is not so much that the internet has created the situation where demand for news has been spread over so many platforms it is more that journalism is no longer treated a specific profession; instead it is now a hobby for the politically minded.
While the actions of the News of the World are deplorable perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the News of the World was a monster we created. Before its closure it was the highest selling British newspaper, far outselling its nearest rivals, and seemed to buck the trend toward decline but only because it crossed a moral line. This shows the desperation to continue to mine exclusives from every corner possible regardless of the cost.
This has become a vicious circle. The more desperate and underhanded the media becomes the more it will be seen as money grubbing and immoral and will be subsequently disrespected and in turn this disrespect will engender more desperation. The only way to restore the balance is to give credit and proper reward for the good journalism that goes unnoticed or exploited whilst we are focusing on the bad.