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Media power: telling truths to ourselves

John Lloyd
4 February 2004

What is a news story? Journalists are (sometimes) taught the essentials of news- gathering, writing and broadcasting when they take journalism courses: but those who make it onto national newspapers and TV channels are inducted into a different process. They learn – if they have not already intuited - what constitutes news for the organisation of which they are part; and that is quite different from the relatively high-minded, information-based stuff they learn at college. News stories in the United Kingdom have become, over the last ten years, both very specific and very similar. They have retreated from information: they have become obsessed with gaining power.

The best news for the UK national media is anti-establishment news. The best hunting grounds for anti-establishment news are the royal family; the Church of England; the government and politicians. Other areas include the police; the European Commission and European Parliament; regional and local authorities: though none of these has the sheer power of the top three.

More on openDemocracy about journalism and politics after the Hutton report: David Marquand on a very British tragedy, David Elstein on the BBC’s future, Douglas Murray on press cynicism, and Anthony Barnett on control freaks

Companies, in the UK, are in a lower category still. In large part because they are covered by specialised business reporters who don’t often “do” scandal (sometimes to their retrospective chagrin, when a spectacular collapse reveals what they had long missed), and also because companies are more prone to sue than the top three – who usually must grimace and bear it.

The problem with laser-guided journalism

Yet the best reporting - that is, reporting which has a chance of approaching the truth - is done with an astringent human sympathy. It involves a narrative which can discriminate between sympathy and sentimentality, and which does not pretend to sympathy when it is in fact an obeisance to power – still and always a prime journalistic temptation, especially when that power is illiberal to one degree or another. It is that journalism which takes as its task the illumination of its subject, from within as well as from the outside.

‘From within’ doesn’t mean the private life: on the contrary, private life shouldn’t be touched by journalism, except with the express volition of the person who wishes to explore his or her private life: or in these rare occurrences – the British monarchy’s behaviour is one – in which the private, that is often sexual, arrangements actually have a bearing on public life. Instead, the reporter should try to enter into what he or she deduces is the ‘inner public’ life of the subject: that is, seeking to understand what the choices really might be, and what life really is like for the person described.

Orville Schell, dean of the journalism school at the University of California says that the New Yorker training he experienced led its writers to adopt “a basic presumption that you’ll find some fundamental empathy with your subject. You could be critical, but to write from a perspective of mockery, disdain or overblown cynicism is dangerous…the whole point was to try to find where you connected with your topic and cared about it. That’s certainly not the predominant sentiment behind much of what gets written nowadays, which is very flip, even savage, and often contemptuous. This tends to create a climate where everybody, writers included, feel very vulnerable, very attacked and insecure.”

The UK is the apogee of this latter approach: in political writing, it can be called ‘laser-guided’ journalism. It is the opposite of that invoked by Orville Schell: it is also the opposite of what good news journalism demands.

News journalism demands that it describes issues, events and public figures in the round: with an understanding of the environment in which they work. Laser-guided journalism goes straight to what it conceives of as the heart of darkness and remains there, demanding an explanation for the darkness on its own terms.

The weight of this perceived heart of darkness in relation to other issues, including different elements in the same narrative, is not the business of such journalism. By shining its laser-guided beam on it, it elevates it to an absolute importance.

And since media are much lighter on their feet than democratically-mediated power – which is rooted in institutions, legislation and office – they can pass on to the next heart of darkness while the first is still having palpitations. Such a technique can at times be useful: occasionally, inevitable. But it’s unusual for a heart to exist without a supporting body.

The press: lapdog, watchdog, attack dog?

Ian Hargreaves, formerly director of BBC news and current affairs and editor of the Independent, writes in Journalism: Truth or Dare (OUP, 2003) that “journalists are not lone rangers with a pocketful of silver bullets; they are individuals operating within an understood economic, cultural and political framework”.

Laser-guided journalism rejects this thought. It depends on a pervasive contempt for the governing classes, especially for politicians; a definition of all official or corporate public relations and briefings as ‘spin’; a concentration on process at the expense – often to the complete obliteration – of policy and outcomes; a privileging of conflict and complaint and a dramatisation of ordinary conflict, as within government, as crises, irrespective of any tendency to contain the conflict with compromise.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, has used a three-stage structure to describe what happened to US journalism before and after Watergate: from being a lapdog (1941-66) to a watchdog (1966-84) to an attack-dog (1984 onwards).

In fact, neat as it is, the trilogy has been present in different forms since the modern press began. At different times or at the same time, journalists have passively reported what power says, tried to understand and describe power by interrogating it, and striven to destroy or supplant power by mocking or delegitimising it.

It was, after all, W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who (while in prison in 1885 for running a string of sex scandals) wrote an essay which claimed that journalism should become the government in partnership with, or in place of, politicians – because newspapers were an incomparably better means of knowing what the public wanted. He looked forward to the day when a press baron had deep enough pockets to bring his vision to reality.

Television: stirring up apathy

This was a fantasy, even if a revealing one – and prescient, in the age of Silvio Berlusconi. Italy’s prime minister is Stead’s dream come true, in astonishingly close detail – adjusted for time and for technology. His television, advertising, publishing and public relations businesses exist on the basis of constant interrogation of the views and desires of the Italian population.

Berlusconi has striven for more than a decade to create a political system which would be, in Stead’s words, “more elastic, more simple, more direct and more closely in contact with the mind of the people” than any government could possibly be. And his control of the explicit and subliminal messages which stream from television means he has more influence, real or potential, over people’s choices than any leader in an advanced democracy is supposed to have.

The UK has nothing like Berlusconi. Where he has conquered political power through the media and the money it brings him, the UK media themselves strive for political power through the frames they put on political life. The frame is everything in news. The dominating frame in TV news is: the government has problems, you (the audience) must wait to see how these politicians sort them out and we (television) will bring you the next instalment just as soon as we can.

Television has that frame because it makes ratings and money from having as many people as possible spectate: it thus has a quite unalterable desire to turn people into an audience, rather than treat them as citizens.

This is the essence of TV, and it is what it does to events: unless we work against this trend, it will get worse and worse. Yet to work against it is to counteract what seems to be a natural trend: the power of television, and of television people, derives from their ability to have people sit and watch. Civic and intellectual activism is the reverse of that: but it takes effort. It can’t hold out anything as instantly attractive as the nightly Schadenfreude of TV news.

Can we imagine a television journalism which isn’t like this? Which defies its own natural instincts to make celebrities of its presenters and reporters (this is, naturally, their instinct too: for there lies fame and fortune)? Which acts as an adjunct to activity and reflection? Which presents to its audience first drafts of history which are absorbing and subtle, strong on narrative but attentive to the complexity and context of every story? Which is not struggling with political power, but struggling, together with that power’s best instincts, to make the contemporary world at once comprehensible and open to the participation of its citizens?

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