The Distance Between Wonder and Curiosity: Whither Modern Journalism?

Ireland’s former Minister for Justice and former Attorney General, Michael McDowell, supposedly “retired” from politics, asked some big questions of the Irish political and media establishment at a private dinner in Dublin last week. It may have been a private dinner but what he said ended up on the front page of The Irish Times nevertheless. For some people McDowell’s remarks put a question-mark over his retirement – he bowed out after his defeat in the last General election. Was he making a pitch for the formation of a new political grouping to confront the cosy and anodyne choices which the present set-up seems to offer the Irish electorate?

This is what the Irish Times reported: “There is a ‘gap in the market’ in Irish politics which will need to be filled if the next general election is to be more than just a contest between Fianna Fáil (the main party in the present government) and Fine Gael (currently the main opposition party)  to see who will govern with the Labour Party…If people wanted to stop the general election being like that, they had to do something about it rather than just complaining, Mr McDowell said.”

That is intriguing enough but we will have to wait and see if anything more comes of it. What was more intriguing but only alluded to in the reports was the fact that in his address Mr. McDowell devoted the lion’s share of his attention to the media itself, criticising it for its “holier-than-thou” posturing since our financial world began to unravel three years ago.

The Irish Times reported: “A large portion of his address was devoted to criticising the media, including The Irish Times and RTÉ. He agreed with Taoiseach Brian Cowen that media commentary about the economy was excessively negative. He objected to the media criticising the Government for not seeing the property crash coming, when they too had not predicted the financial downturn. He mentioned The Irish Times Ltd’s purchase of the property website for €50 million in 2006”.

Stanley Baldwin, a British prime minister in the early part of the last century once jibed that journalists enjoy “the privilege of the harlot down the ages – power without responsibility”. Kenneth Minogue, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, quoted this in a powerful critique of journalism which was published in New Criterion back in 2005.

Professor Minogue accepted that we cannot live without journalism. We need information and the way we get the vast bulk of the information which we need for life in the polis comes to us from journalists. But some kind of decadence has taken hold. He connects this with Baldwin’s jibe insofar as it seems to “point to the profound idea that there is something essentially pathological about the whole activity that daily satisfies our often pointless curiosity about what is going on in the world.” He accepts that at its core journalism is a perfectly respectable and certainly a necessary trade, informing us about the world. However, he maintains that it has lost its integrity and has become, in some degree, a parody of truth. I suppose that Baldwin’s analogy went something like this: Just as the harlot panders to the indulgence of human sexuality, regardless of any sense of its true purposes and outcome, so the journalist can pander to the indulgence of that pathological curiosity that Minogue refers to and that all of us can be tempted to.

Is this not the problem at the root of McDowell’s complaint about the negativity of the media’s treatment of our financial predicaments? Is negativity endemic in the provision information at a popular level? No news may be good news but every journalist also knows that good news has to be very good to get itself into print or on the airwaves. The journalist has an inbuilt instinct to entertain first and inform second. The journalist has to first of all attract attention; then the information can follow. If bad news attracts more attention than good news then the bad news angle becomes the default option.

McDowell’s point might be illustrated by two contrasting reports on an Irish Central Bank quarterly bulletin in two Irish newspapers on the day following that dinner. The Irish Independent went into moan mode, emphasising the negative elements in the bank’s report:

“The euro-region recovery may ‘moderate somewhat’  in the second half of the year as governments withdraw stimulus measures and cut spending to reduce budget deficits, Ireland’s central bank said. ‘The euro-area recovery is expected to continue, but is now likely to occur at a more gradual pace than was anticipated’ in April, the Central Bank led by Patrick Honohan said in its quarterly report published today. ‘This primarily reflects the negative short-term impact of fiscal consolidation.’

“European governments from Ireland to Spain have been forced to step up budget cuts after the Greek fiscal crisis eroded investor confidence and pushed up borrowing costs. The euro- region economy may only show a ‘somewhat uneven’ recovery, the Irish central bank said, echoing remarks by European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet earlier this month. While a recovery in exports is expected to continue, domestic activity ‘appears likely to remain subdued,’ according to the report. Governments’ deficit-reduction plans could curb demand, hurting a recovery, it said.”

Dan O’Brien, the new Economics correspondent of The Irish Times, a trained economist and until recently working with the Economist Intelligence Unit, gave a more positive slant to the Bank’s report.

“Central Bank says economy to grow by over 2% in 2011”, said the headline. “The Central Bank”, he wrote,  “has predicted that the economy will grow by between 2 and 3 per cent next year, well above most expectations for the euro zone as a whole. The crisis in the euro zone, which peaked in May, does not appear to have damaged Ireland’s growth prospects, according to the bank’s Quarterly Bulletin .

“In its first economic forecast since the bailing out of Greece and the putting in place of a rescue fund for other weak euro zone countries, the bank argues that Ireland’s recovery remains on track”. He didn’t ignore the negative caveats in the report but he didn’t labour them either.

I suppose we will have to wait to see which made the better call but certainly if you wanted encouragement you would read The Irish Times on this occasion.

All this is of course at the higher end of the reporting spectrum and may not be so self-evidently rooted in some kind of pathology as Minogue argues in relation to trends in journalism generally. But the worry is that it is a symptom of the same infection – and clearly Mr. McDowell and Mr. Cowen feel the downward pressure which it is bringing to bear on our morale generally. What is the infection? Minogue’s answer is that journalism satisfies curiosity, but a curiosity which is only “a distant relative of the ‘wonder’ thought to be the source of philosophy and science.” How, he asks, can curiosity be a vice? “The answer”, he says, “is that we are often curious about things that are none of our business. The malicious village gossip is the most curious creature on earth, and finds a successor in the ‘door-stopping’ journalist and the paparazzo infesting the lives of famous people.”

If journalism tends to the negative rather than the positive, the pessimistic rather than the optimistic, is this simply because of a certain morbidity in the kind of curiosity it tends to pander to? “The most evidently vicious kind of curiosity is morbid,” Minogue maintains. Plato recognised this, he tells us, quoting from The Republic which tells of a character noticing the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground with the executioner standing beside them. “He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes he ran up to the bodies and cried, ‘There you are, curse you; feast yourselves on this lovely sight!’” Minogue comments: “Some modern press photography is remarkable, almost an art (that of sport, for example), but much that we see in tabloid journalism would disgust us had our sensibilities not been corrupted by learning to enjoy the satisfaction of this particular version of lust – the lust to see and know things of no concern to us.”

I suppose there are many who will say about all this – “So what?” For some it will be because the challenge of dealing with it suggests something that is even more distasteful – censorship. I heard an interview with Bret Easton Ellis on Irish (daytime) radio some time ago. I was amazed to hear Easton Ellis hold back on some descriptive references to his very explicit fiction. But I was more amazed to hear his Irish host mutter his disapproval at the suggestion that they would indulge in any self-censorship on behalf of their listening audience.

Ultimately all this is a question of the ways in which we chose to exercise our freedom, responsibly or irresponsibly, and that in the end boils down to the exercise of integrity in whatever field of human action we find ourselves engaged. If we chose to work outside that framework then we will deserve the jibe Stanley Baldwin made about the journalism of his day.

One thought on “The Distance Between Wonder and Curiosity: Whither Modern Journalism?

  1. I believe that part of the problem is also that most media are now funded by advertising, and run for profit.

    Even if journalists wanted to inform, educate and provoke – would they be let?

    The Irish Times is slightly better, since it is not owned by a conglomerate. But it still has to make money.

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