The media and the subversion of democracy

The media, both old and new, is currently under intense scrutiny. Last week James Murdoch was back before the Media Select Committee, making his bid for the title of least inquisitive Chief Executive in corporate history. On Monday we witnessed a fascinating encounter between the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Privacy and Injunctions and four high profile members of the blogging community. The bloggers adopted more or less abrasive approaches when responding to the Committee’s questions. The aim was to explore the ways in which privacy issues are handled online. I suspect that not all the bloggers’ answers would reassure the Committee that the bloggers’ power, such as it is, will be exercised responsibly. Perhaps more worrying was the fact that several members of the committee did not appear to have a strong feel for the relevant law (as discussed by one of the four bloggers, David Allen Green, here). The Committee had an even shakier grasp of what this “blogging” lark was all about. That didn’t stop dark mutterings about the need for greater regulation, the practicalities of which were not explored.

But the biggest and, in the end, most important show in town is the Leveson Inquiry.

The inquiry is only just getting into gear, but some of the evidence already presented clearly suggests that unethical and illegal practices among tabloid journalists were even more widespread – and more objectionable – than feared. Again, there are concerns about regulation: mechanisms of self-regulation, through the PCC, are entirely inadequate for the task.

On top of all this, the judge has just handed down the verdict in the harassment case brought by the woman who bore a child with Hugh Grant. The claimant’s evidence was accepted largely unchallenged (as discussed here, again by David Allen Green). The press is found to be at fault. An injunction is now in place. Again the ineffectiveness of the PCC is demonstrated. But another structural problem facing the industry is evident. Much of the most problematic practice is subcontracted to freelancers and effectively beyond the reach of the PCC.

There are thus wide-ranging concerns about contemporary media practices. The challenges facing those who value a free press, but wish it to be responsible, are only too apparent. The danger that the future will be one of overly intrusive state regulation is only too real.

If we have any hope of achieving change then it is vital that we have an adequate diagnosis both of the problems and how we have arrived in this situation. So it is timely that Malcolm Dean’s book Democracy under attack: how the media distort policy and politics has just been published.

Dean is a career newspaper man, spending nearly 40 years with the Guardian, interrupted by a brief sortie as a government press officer in the 1970s. Dean’s experience in reporting on social policy issues in and around Westminster and Whitehall over such an extended period gives him an insider’s perspective on the changing nature of the relationship between government and the mainstream media.

At the core of Dean’s discussion is the question of the influence of the media upon social policy and how that has changed over time. He is also concerned with whether the media has the power to shape public opinion or, more salient for understanding policy-making, whether senior government ministers believe the popular press have that power and, if so, does that affect the content of policy.

Dean reviews the way in which the contemporary media – primarily the print media – has reported on six areas of social policy, including law and order, drugs, asylum, child poverty and housing.

His conclusion are stark. He accuses the media of subverting democracy. More specifically, he argues (p391) that:

The media still do good work, but their overall contribution to policy-making is negative: cynical, sarcastic, scornful and contemptuous.

He identifies seven ‘sins’ of contemporary media practice:

  • Distortion
  • Dumbing down
  • More interested in politics than in policy
  • Group think – hunting in packs
  • Too adversarial
  • Too readily duped
  • Concentrating on the negative

Dean is not the first to identify these problems, but he brings them together into a convincing portrait of the current state of practice in the mainstream print media. Equally, he provides a plausible account of politicians’ willingness to ascribe huge influence to sections of the popular press, with direct impacts upon the content of some areas of policy.

How did things get this way? The story is one which brings together the power of News International, the impact of NI’s editorial practices on other papers in an increasingly competitive and declining market, and a changing focus from news to celebrity. Dean cites Roy Greenslade approvingly (pp394-395). In 2004 Greenslade argued:

Popular newspapers have forgotten what journalism is about. They have become organs of entertainment. Even that old halfway house – infotainment – is no longer an appropriate description of what they purvey in their meretricious diet of glitz, tits and naughty bits. Celebrity is no longer an aspect of the popular press agenda: it is now its raison d’être.

Dean argues, rightly in my view, that the ‘broadsheet’ newspapers have at best only partially resisted joining the tabloids in the move down market.

Dean does not spend a lot of time addressing the question of how we might get out of this mess. He highlights the need to reform the PCC. Or, more plausibly, to abolish it and replace it with something more clearly independent of industry interests. He notes the need for more transparency in meetings between politicians and the media, and he notes the desirability of stricter controls on media ownership. He also notes that while there is some momentum behind media reform following the hacking scandal, it is all too easy for that momentum to dissipate as the various inquiries wend their way to a conclusion.

There are at least a couple of other topics that warranted further exploration.

First, all of Dean’s reform proposals relate to the supply-side. They do nothing to address the demand side. He makes a good case for arguing that the media has been successful in creating a demand for dumbed down celebrity-obsessed copy. Correspondingly, they supply readers not with extended dissections of the complexities of policy issues, but politics as a Manichaean soap opera. Rather than investigative journalism and specialist reporters we are presented with armies of commentators willing to dash off 800 words giving their opinions on whatever the topic du jour happens to be. But those views need not be anchored in anything other than personal experience or may, indeed, be entirely evidence-free. As Hopi Sen has recently pointed out, commentators are not even under any particular obligation to hold consistent views. So some don’t.

Dean also illustrates the challenges which have ultimately defeated editors that have tried to move back up-market. Given those experiences, how can does one engineer a move back towards a more informative, news-based press?

Second, Dean’s book – in part because it is backward-looking and focuses upon the mainstream print media – has almost nothing to say about new and social media. He observes that Twitter was not as influential in the 2010 election campaign as some had anticipated. And he contrasts the differing responses of NI and the Guardian to the advent of a broader online culture. While one has taken the paywall approach, the other has sought to tap into a wider community of contributors – not only through Cif but also though the Professional Networks and associate sites.

Does the increasing availability of ‘news’ and current affairs discussion online offer the potential to increase readers’ appetite for policy rather than politics? For teasing out the complexities rather than simplifying things down to an easily digestible ‘good’ or ‘bad’? I don’t know.

Are you bored yet? I only ask because you’ve now got through about 1,300 words.

I post pieces of this length here, rather than the various other sites that I write for. Why? In some cases is it because the editorial line is that posts should be around 800 words. Yet, Dale & Co allows contributors to write at whatever length we feel like. And I still don’t tend to send pieces much longer than 900 words. Why? I guess I’ve internalised the received wisdom – 800 words good; more than 800 words, bored. Self-editing. And that may well be no bad thing.

Yet, on the other hand, many of the more popular posts here on my own blog have been much longer and more detailed, drawing on academic literature and developing a bit more of an argument. I am, of course, aware that my experience may be unlike anyone else’s. Maybe some circumlocution and prolixity on my part is tolerated because I’m a Professor. After all, aren’t we expected to be verbose?

I don’t think it is just me. Some of the bloggers I enjoy most and who command a much wider readership than me – such as Frances Coppola, who blogs at Coppola Comment – produce fantastically informative, but often fairly long, expository posts on complex topics.

So perhaps the absence of effective space constraints online does open up the space to rediscover more extended reflection on policy issues. But we haven’t yet fully broken away from the presumption that we need to serve up bitesized chunks. Readers are willing to consume something more substantial, if we offer it.

And the fact that being online opens up the scope for public dialogue is, perhaps, under-explored. We all know that looking below the line on a blogpost is frequently to descend into a cesspit of vituperation. But there are some more positive and innovative uses of this function. One of the best examples I’ve come across is the use by Guardian Professional Networks of the comments thread to hold real time debates on specific policy issues. A panel of expert practitioners is available to answer questions that are posted and debate among themselves. The comments can then be summarized and publicised. When it works well it can make some real progress on an issue. You can find examples here.

I get the impression that the publishers – The Policy Press – are hoping Malcolm Dean’s book proves controversial. I’m not entirely convinced it will be. But, interestingly, in the process, the publishers have explicitly attempted to bridge the old media/new media divide. They’ve sought to solve the problem of co-ordinating a Twitter conversation by proposing their own hashtag – #democracyunderattack – rather than waiting for tweeters to converge on one. This is first hardcopy book I’ve seen with the hashtag as the running header throughout – just in case the reader feels the urge to tweet a reaction to what they’ve just read.

It will be interesting to see whether that approach takes off. The hashtag isn’t looking too active so far.

That’s a pity because there is an urgency about this debate. The quality of democratic practice and policy in this country is suffering from the lack of informed and thoughtful scrutiny from the media. That in turn impoverishes citizens’ ability to engage critically with their representatives. Yet, the array of protests we are witnessing clearly indicates that many people have discontents and criticisms to voice. What we lack at the moment is, firstly, effectively means by which popular protest can meaningfully interface with representative politics and, secondly, well-informed and rigorous thinking about alternatives. Perhaps the lack of hashtag activity is simply a sign that Twitter isn’t the right medium through which to try to facilitate these debates.

Even if that particular approach fails, it no doubt indicates that we are in a period of experimentation during which publishers seek to integrate old and new media. What sort of hybrids will arise? Some coming together of old and new will surely happen organically, rather than being engineered.

After all, I’ve been blogging about a book – an old-fashioned book, with paper pages and everything – and its wider implications for a while now haven’t I? 🙂

Image: © Paul Turner – Fotolia.com

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