Journalism today – the best of times, the worst of times

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You might say, paraphrasing Dickens, it is the best of times and it is the worst of times.

Freedom of expression, the freedom to speak your mind and let your voice be heard is one of the great goods in the firmament of good things available to the human race. We have never had greater potential to enjoy this freedom – airwaves open, the facility which social media platforms gives us. There is nothing stopping anyone who wants to put his or her thoughts out there for public consumption if they have the flare and inclination to do so. Well, almost nothing.

And yet, something terrible has gone wrong. Abuse of that most precious of treasures given to mankind, truth itself, is one thing. But the abuse of each other through that freedom is even worse. We are doing untold damage to the very fabric of culture and our civilization. Citizen journalism liberates us. It also can and does enslave us to our own viciousness.

Journalism is a rather inexact term. Looked at in its simplest historical manifestation, it is a service to society, a very necessary one. Try this definition: it is a service providing a daily report to a population on events of interest, and/or consequence, going on around them, but about which, without that reporting, they would know little or nothing.

Under that umbrella a huge variety of activity goes on. Controversy or some other elemental thing – humour, love, anger – has to be in the daily mix which draws us to read, listen to or watch news and commentary on news. There is nothing wrong with that. Probably the first news story ever printed was objected to by someone somewhere. Isn’t one of the definitions of news “that which somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress”? These elemental things are part of the life-blood of journalism.

Broadly there are two divisions. There is straight news reporting of the facts and there is commentary on those facts and their supposed implications.

All of this activity, until recently, was subject to what we knew as editorial scrutiny. Such scrutiny followed principles and there were standards which justice demanded and charity suggested, and which society generally expected.

From the very start, the provision of this service, like many others offered to society, operated in a marketplace and market forces influenced the form and content in response to the cultural character and interests of targeted readerships. That’s how we got the broadsheets, the tabloids, or as some would say, the “quality” press and the “gutter” press. For the most part, the partnership worked well.

But that model now looks shattered. It is almost as though the French Revolution has eventually upturned the fourth estate as it had done to the first, second and third estates in 1789. The hegemony of what we call “legacy” media is now a diminished thing. The media marketplace is in turmoil and a kind of anarchy is now let loose upon the world in the shape of the internet and the wild untamed flood of information, misinformation, and unrestrained personal abuse it has unleashed. The instruments for communication now at our disposal are fast becoming weapons of destruction. Watch a few episodes of Charlie Brooker’s  Black Mirror and you will at the very least feel a little uneasy.

But that is not our only problem. Even if we managed to use well the freedom which our advanced technology gives us, we still have another issue to face. What else has happened that is threatening our well-being? It is that the service journalism should be offering us has collapsed into partisan politics. How and why did this happen?

American commentator and academic, Victor Davis Hanson, in an American context, says:

There still exists a physical media in the sense of airing current events. But it is not journalism as we once understood the disinterested reporting of the news. Journalism is now dead. The media lives on.

Reporters today believe that their coverage serves higher agendas of social justice, identity politics, “equality” and diversity. To the degree a news account is expanded or ignored, praised or blasted, depends on its supposed utility to the effort to fundamentally transform the country into something unlike its founding.

To some degree what has happened, and what is corrosive, is that the polarisation which is making our political life so worrying, is also doing the same for our journalism. In a Marxist sense everything has now become political. Everything is filtered through a political spectrum and must be seen to be correct by the only measure for correctness which is acceptable, political correctness. It is a new totalitarianism.

Actors are no longer artists, they are politicians. Celebrities are no longer happy to be celebrated for what they do. They are campaigners in some political cause. Business corporations don’t just do business anymore. They legitimately make their voices heard in economic matters but that is not enough, they insist on exercising real power in determining social policies. Academia is now, for the most part, irredeemably Marxist in its thinking. Journalism is mired in the same ideology. All this is a gross abuse of power and influence. There is no important issue in the politics of our time about which big money and big egos will not now weigh in with their considerable power to have their say – and in many cases subvert the democratically expressed will of the people. They do this openly and shamelessly as though it were their right. Who knows what they do behind closed doors? Journalists, equally shamelessly, collude with all this.

These are all elites with power, unelected, but using that power to effect social change regardless of the will of the people. This is profoundly and worryingly undemocratic. Those outside these Gnostic elites are the new plebs, now being denigrated as populists, the enemies of progress. Elitists view the “ordinary” people as, well, Hilary Clinton said it all, “deplorables”. Ordinary people do not know, cannot know of themselves, what is good for them, what is right or what is wrong. They need to be looked after by those who really know what true progress is.

The fears of these elites are like the fears of the patricians of ancient Rome in the face of the demands of the plebeians, or the Gnostics of the early Christian era for whom simple faith was not sufficient; their special exclusive knowledge was necessary for salvation. The fears of these elites are like the fears of those who opposed universal male franchise in the 19th century, or those who opposed the vote for women in the early twentieth. Now we have them again. Each age seems to have to deal with this virus.

Journalists and journalism should stand apart from these elites, critiquing their rationale – or lack of rationale, for that lack is at the heart of the problem. Roland Barthes, in a different context, wrote of the dangers of received wisdom being accepted uncritically and being built into the foundations of our culture and our civilization: “If we collect all such knowledge, all such vulgarisms, we create a monster, and this monster is ideology.”

Series three of Stranger Things premiers this month. It is a fable which may have more to say about this monster than we think. The purity and innocence of the young heroines and heroes of this fable confront the monstrosity threatening Hawkins, Indiana. When journalism as a profession restores its integrity and its commitment to its historic mission, it may do the same.

 

Distorted Images of the Real World

In the film, The Matrix, we explore the threat to our humanity by forces seeking to create a perfect world. It is a world in which men and women have been distorted beyond recognition into characters in a computer programme devoid of any real human qualities. With a little adjustment it is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In our own media-driven world we are already distorting the truth in an alarming way. Ireland’s national broadcaster has just incurred damages rumoured to be in the region of €2,000,000 for ruining the life of an innocent man, a Catholic missionary priest whom it portrayed as a rapist through the medium of its investigative flagship, Primetime Investigates. It all serves to remind us that we have a dangerous capacity to create something which at first serves our best interests and then allows it to become a distorting and all-consuming monster.

The television programme was presented last May and for most viewers it was simply driving another nail in the coffin of the battered reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Gross and unjust allegations were presented to the viewing public as journalistically verified fact and allowed to feed into and feed on a prejudice which has already been created by the constant focus of the media on the crimes and misdemeanours of a minority of Catholic priests

A few weeks ago the Iona Institute, an Irish think-tank focussing on religion and family in the Irish context, found that the majority view among Irish people now is that Catholic priests and religious are responsible for one in five instances of child abuse in the country. The reality is that one in 30 of such cases are perpetrated by this group. Now that is what we call distortion.

But the really alarming thing is that we seem to be quite prepared to live with this distorting mirror and fail to recognise the lethal nature of this cancerous growth within our society. There may be people who consider that the Roman Catholic Church is an institution that we would be better off without – but getting rid of it on the basis of a gross distortion of public opinion is probably not something even the liberal intelligentsia would advocate. Houston, we have a problem – and it is not just a problem of distorting the public image of the Catholic Church. It is a problem which distorts most of the things it touches and it is a problem endemic in the culture of news, news-gatherers and news organisations.

The now defunct Irish Press newspaper had as it motto, placed right under the masthead of the paper, The Truth in the News. I was very proud of that motto when I had the pleasure and privilege of training with and working as a journalist for that paper. Newspapers have a tendency to give themselves some rather meaningful if sometimes pretentious titles – The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, The Examiner, The Inquirer; Ireland even had The Impartial Reporter. At one time those certainly represented the good intentions of proprietors and journalists who tried to live by their implicit mottos of guarding the truth, reflecting the truth, examining and inquiring and impartially reporting without fear or favour. But to live and work by those principles of operation involved more than just reporting isolated facts. They were seen as expressing a commitment to present society with an honest and balanced view of itself. To do that the facts which were presented had to in some way be balanced within the context of a bigger picture. It is in this that we are now failing abysmally.

Essentially it is a “story” problem. News is gathered in the form of stories and without some story there is really little news. But the story is not an end in itself. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is the objective. When this is lost sight of then the story itself can become dangerous and distorting.

All this was brought home to me very recently on a very personal level when I had to spend eight days in the care of a big – very big – Dublin hospital to undergo surgery. A week before I was admitted I heard reported on television that the hospital was having big problems. Managerial decisions had to be imposed on it from outside by the Health Service Executive which runs the Irish health service. This, a little like the broadcasting debacle above, simply fed into a sense of the overall state of dysfunction which daily and nightly news reports of health service disasters has created among Irish people. We shrug our shoulders and ask ourselves why can’t these people get their act together and organise a decent system of health care for us?

Eight days in Dublin’s Adelaide/Meath Hospital in Tallaght gave me an entirely different perspective on Ireland’s much-maligned health service. News bulletins on Irish radio and television are seldom if ever without some damning report of another mal-function in one or other of the country’s hospitals – missing files, mis-diagnosed illness, and patients on trolleys for days on end – all giving an impression of near total systemic failure of the institutions entrusted with the care of the nation’s sick and sickly. The end result is an abiding impression of a health service from hell.

The truth is very different. In fact the hospital is a miracle of effective administration, of superbly professional nursing and medical care, of warmth, kindness and dedication. Except that it is not really a miracle. It is a perfectly natural phenomenon where good people go about their work showing a wonderful range of human qualities and virtues, day after day, week after week and month after month. What appalled me – to a point of anger – was the fact that out in the wider world there exists this parallel public impression of a health service in disarray. Saying this is not to deny that problems exist and are sometimes not dealt with as they should be. They do. But the distorting effect on public opinion which the emphasis these problems get in news reports is not just something regrettable, it is a travesty. In pursuing “the story” in the way they do news organisations are not mirroring reality at all, they are not guarding anyone’s interest, and they are fooling themselves if they think they are being impartial in what they do.

The solution to this injustice is not, of course, to ignore the problems. They must remain in focus. The solution is to widen the angle to bring in the bigger picture. Journalists must resist the inclination to spice up their stories by giving the impression that something terrible has happened, is happening or is about to happen. That clearly is part of the journalist’s instinct. But they cannot pursue it at the expense of the wider truth, the lives and integrity of ordinary people who dedicate themselves to something as beautiful and noble as this particular field of human endeavour is. It is not enough for the journalist to say that providing the bigger picture is not my job. Everyone is responsible for the truth.

The problem is a much wider one than just the health service and its institutions, or the churches and their institutions. For example, the constant reporting of crime and criminality without any attempt to give the public a feel for the overall context of the general level of well-being in our societies is another distortion and one with all sorts of consequences – creating fear, anxiety, depression and distrust – which can undermine the values by which we try to live.

The integrity of the world’s media organisations has taken a severe battering in recent times. News International’s phone-hacking scandal now being investigated by the Levenson enquiry in the UK, the Irish state broadcaster’s destruction of an innocent man’s life and reputation, are but two instances of a sorry saga. There will be more until such time as the culture surrounding the news industry begins to identify the deeper values which must underpin its service to humanity.

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 myhome.ie 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.