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.