George Brock: Is News Over?

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Inaugural lecture Professor George Brock, Head of Journalism, City University London March 17, 2010

If you pause to look at the state of news media in the developed world, you may well be reminded of the story, alas apocryphal, of the conjuror and his parrot who sailed on the Titanic. The ship sailed with a large complement of bands, orchestras and entertainers. Down at the foot of the bill was a conjuror whose gimmick or unique selling point was a parrot who sat on his shoulder and gave a running comme ntary on where the conjuror was hiding a ball or a handkerchief. ³It¶s up his sleeve,´ the parrot might squawk, or ³Watch his other hand!´ And so on. The ship hit the iceberg and sank. The conjuror and the parrot found themselves in a lifeboat. The bird wa s out of sorts and said nothing for four whole days. When the parrot did finally speak, he asked the conjuror a question: ³OK, so what have you done with the ship?´ When we look at news, in the same way as that parrot, we¶re failing to grasp what¶s happeni ng around us. And the failure of journalists to see the whole picture is the worst of all. What I want to do this evening is to use my own experience in the news business to try to paint in the rest of that picture. I want to talk about the trajectory of c hange in my working lifetime, as well as trust and alienation. In doing that I hope to achieve my basic aim, which is to rescue the ideals of journalism. For they are in need of help. Debate about news is almost exclusively doom -laden. There is gloom econo mic: print advertising income falling in newspapers, online publishing failing to find a business model, the financing of local television news uncertain. There is pessimism journalistic: original reporting, it is said, has been replaced by ³churnalism´, a mounting to the rapid rewriting of press releases by underpaid serfs, wholly owned by unscrupulous and manipulative tycoons. Steve Coogan, in one of those question -and-answer features which magazines love, was asked recently: ³If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose?´ And he replied: ³Genuine journalistic inquiry.´ Other voices don¶t just ask: is news over? They ask if journalism exists or adds any value at all.

To meet that question head on, we have to start by asking once again what journalism actually is. Perfectly easy to recognise, you might say: a person equipped with anything from a spiral-bound notebook to a handycam reporting events to the rest of us. But anyone can now do that if they choose. Can anyone relaying new s to anyone call themselves a journalist? Journalism has now become a word wandering around in search of a definition. In the past decade and a half, the ability of very small computers to swop, replicate and link vast quantities of data at high speed and at almost no cost have changed more than news. These technologies push slow transformative shifts in human communication, the public sphere, privacy, politics, the division between work and play and the distribution of power. Distilling the effects on news , we can separate out three irreversible shifts:

First, in the quantity of information available. When journalism began, reliable information was scarce; despite the inaccuracy of much that you can find nowadays, news is in glut. Perhaps the most dramatic effects of this explosion of information are still to be felt in regions like Africa and South Asia where the internet¶s riches arrive on a mobile phone, equipping the poor with information which they haven¶t had before. Across the world the internet adopt ion rate is now eight times faster on mobile phones than it is on PCs. Here is one small example from villages in Uttar Pradesh, the beneficiaries of an experiment being conducted by the International Media Institute of India. The villages may or may not have access to radio or television, but if they do, little of that news is local enough to matter. But everyone has a mobile phone. A couple of people in each village, chosen as reporters, gather the stories. They may be thefts, fires, holes in the road, f loods, births, deaths, prayer meetings. They record the stories in the local dialect and send them to an editor, who can filter and perhaps add in region -wide information on crop prices, weather forecasts or even advice on sanitation or childcare. A compan y in Hyderabad then sends the ³news´ back as a voice call. Thanks to speakers on phones, the twice -daily bulletins have become a social event.

Second big change: the instant alteration of information. Cable and satellite gave us rolling 24-hour news. The i nternet allows that to be updated, nuanced, corrected continuously from many different directions. Those who enjoy this say that news has become a ³process´ or a ³conversation´. Those who do not enjoy this say that news is losing at least some of its autho rity, clarity and coherence.

The third change is the most profound. I would call it the decentralisation of news. The production and consumption of news has been decoupled from advertising and its previous sources of income. First and foremost that causes an economic crisis.

The readers and watchers of mass media news have never paid the full cost in subscription or cover price. In print, advertising is somewhere between half and three-quarters of the income needed to keep a quality newspaper going. Many newspapers, and particularly local and regional ones, get a big slice of their income from classified ads, usually for jobs, houses and cars. Those small ads have transferred to the web. Not ³will´ transfer, but ³have´; past tense. The analyst Claire Enders estimates that between 2007 and 2013, the value of print advertising coming to UK newspapers will fall by almost half. A similarly respected American consultancy has just predicted that for the first time in 2010 in the US, more advertising dollars will be spent online than in print. One report this week reckoned that in Britain a hundred newspaper titles stopped publishing in 2009.

What I¶ve called decentralisation does not stop there. The ability for anyone to produce something called ³news´, circulate i t, discuss it and edit it brings an oligopoly to a brutal end. Until recently, journalists could define what they did as a craft or as a mission, but they could rest secure in the knowledge that it wasn¶t easy for anyone to claim to be a journalist unless they owned or operated the capital -intensive equipment to publish or broadcast. That barrier to entry has gone. Over the last 15 years, a lot of authority ± not to mention social status and sense of identity among journalists ± evaporated.

The last decent ralising effect is that the large communities of shared knowledge formed by newspapers don¶t survive or grow in this new information environment. We have to go back to de Tocqueville, reporting what he saw in the early American republic, to see what a rema rkable social reshaper the newspaper once was. He found that ³In democratic countries«it frequently happens that a great number of men who wish to or want to combine cannot accomplish it because«they cannot see and do not know where to find one another. A newspaper takes up the notion or the feeling that had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them. All are then immediately guided towards this beacon; and these wandering minds«at length meet and unite. The newspaper brought them together, and th e newspaper is necessary to keep them united.´

This is journalism which requires psychological insight on a level which I fear many editors may not achieve. And of course now online audiences and communities form, congeal, dissolve and disperse at a speed unimaginable to de Tocqueville.

This description of the alterations wrought by the web, email and mobile wireless technology cannot cover all that will happen. The only confident prediction I make is that the unexpected will occur. But the changes that we have registered ask us: do we know what journalism is? Does it have a distinctive purpose? Or does the idea just dissolve in a sea of media?

Digital technology allows mainstream news outlets to enrich what they do with a stream of pictures or words fro m non-journalists. In the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London, many of the first images that reached us were taken on camera phones by eyewitnesses. Few of the images which reach us now of demonstrations in Iran, Burma or Tibet are taken by professional jou rnalists. When The Guardian seeks to fill gaps in the story of the man who died at the G20 demonstration last year or the Trafigura case, its reporters tweet for help ± and get it, drawing on a pool of expertise that may always have been there but is now m ore instantly accessible than ever before.

Commenting on what he calls the ³mutualisation´ of journalism, the editor of The Guardian , Alan Rusbridger said:

³Is any of this journalism? Does it matter? You could waste many doctoral theses arguing the point but it seems futile to deny that something interesting is going on here.´

No doctoral time will be wasted here at City and there¶s no dispute that something interesting is going on. But I respectfully disagree about whether it matters. Journalism is the systematic effort to establish the truth of what matters to society. It follows that expertise and experience, for example, should count for something. There is a fascinating debate starting over what Clay Shirky christened ³algorithmic authority´. Shirky argues that for centuries, intellectual authority rested with the individual experts and that this is now having to give way to collective, evolving judgements made Wikipedia -style by groups of knowledgeable, interested people. Applied to news, this is jou rnalism as fluid process, always provisional, always being improved ± and always open to contribution. In short, the distinction between qualified professionals on the inside of the machine and amateurs outside collapses.

This is a competition for trust b etween two different forms of collective intelligence. This argument is not being openly and clearly mapped by those who run news media. Perhaps understandably, no editor wanting to encourage the highest level of participation online

wants to underline tha t the suggestions, tweets, tips and facts flowing in from this rich new sources are being filtered in a traditional way.

But the facts of news consumption on the web tell us clearly that filtering is exactly what people tend to prefer when they have the c hoice. Filtering used in the old days to be known as ³editing´. If it¶s done right, it should be for the benefit and protection of the viewer or reader. It should create trust.

Editing isn¶t uncontroversial: the risks of selection and judgement are requi red, as well as a practised reflex for accuracy. Editors have to ask old questions. How do we know this is true? How reliable is the record of this source? Can we check this down some other route? What is the level of risk if we run this on one source only ? The nature of research may have changed but the responsibilities of the researcher have not. News may not be over but it doesn¶t reach you in the same way and the way it is assembled is also altering. But it is equally true and important that buried insi de these changes, something essential needs preserving. In the words of the great Harry Evans, at the very end of his latest book:

³The question is not whether internet journalism will be dominant, but whether it will maintain the quality of the best prin t journalism.´

The most visible and obvious factors which have brought journalism to an inflection point are technical and financial. But there¶s also a half -acknowledged crisis of consumer confidence. If journalism is to be valued ± and perhaps even to b e paid for ± that worth has to be clear to those who are not journalists. Thoreau said that it takes two people to tell the truth: one to say it, another to hear it.

Journalists have to start by accepting that they don¶t automatically hold the powerful p lace in the new information system that they held in the old. William Perrin, a local blogger in King¶s Cross who was once a Cabinet Office civil servant, says that journalism ³as a belief system´ is over. Chris Anderson, a professional exaggerator and aut hor of the books The Long Tail and Free, says that there¶s no longer any such thing as news. They¶re nearly right. Many journalists speak as if and seem to believe that their assistance to democracy is so vital and self -evident that it is up to society to provide a route out of their current problems. At least some people watching the news media¶s travails are, rather, waiting for its practitioners to rethink their way of thinking and working. There are already

people ± William Perrin is one of them ± who are rethinking ways of supplying people with the information they need without caring whether anyone calls it journalism or not.

Journalists should start by narrowing down the elements which make the core of what they do. There are four of them:

First, verification: the elimination of doubt about what has happened, especially as to events which are disputed. When news media began, information of any kind was scarce, reliable information even more so. Today, the reliable information is still scarce; but it is liable to be hidden in a torrent of data.

Second, sense-making. Some facts are easier to establish than others but there are very few that are ³pure´ in the sense that they can divorced from context or values. There never was a golden age when newspapers ³of record´ just stuck to the facts. There was a past age when dull, formal, deferential reporting got nobody very excited. That is not the same as good journalism, whose tasks include making sense of what it transmits. That involves the exerci se of judgement, which involves risk. Sense-making may go under the labels of reporting, analysis, comment or opinion.

Third, witness. Irrespective of the hugely amplified power of digital recording, there remain situations best captured, with whatever tec hnology is available, by an experienced eyewitness. New technology has eliminated the need for the vast quantities of blanket, routine reporting that was needed in the past.

Fourth and last: investigation. Irrespective of greater transparency, there remain hidden stories. They require skill, experience, patience and resources to tell. It¶s a specialist skill.

These four overlapping functions should be the pillars of trust. They will be at the heart of what we teach here at City. This isn¶t supposed to be a list of what journalists do. I¶m concerned here to frame the essential moral, democratic foundation for what journalism lays a claim to do. None of these four things can be done by an algorithm. There are plenty of other things that news media will do. They might include«distilling and selection, argument, simplification, taste -making or arts criticism, gossip, rumour, covering public and political institutions, what the media scholar Michael Schudson calls ³social empathy´ (his term for the expansion of r eporting to cover real lives), crosswords, mobilising campaigns ± and simply poking fun at the ridiculous. Disclosure can now be done by anyone, experienced or inexperienced, with a bundle of motives or none. Significant disclosures can be made by red-top papers, bloggers in their pyjamas, by political activists from Fox News to John Pilger.

But all of these functions can be done, and are being done, by thousands of others who neither count themselves as news organisations or journalists. The coverage of p ublic and political institutions is not in my core list. I am assuming that routine coverage of hearings, parliaments , some local and national government data will happen, if gradually, with greater transparency made possible by new technology. That doesn ¶t mean to say that these institutions may not deserve eye -witness reporting, verification, analysis or investigation from time to time. They certainly will. Why does tightening the boundaries round the definition of journalism matter? Because of what has happened over the past half century. A 20th century graph of all newspaper sales in Britain shows a peak in the 1920s and a downwards slope since then. That decline may have been accelerated by the arrival of both radio and television, but since neither newcomer forced more than a handful of newspapers out of business, print publishers were gratefully surprised to be still in the game at all. Once the panic over survival had subsided by around 1970, far less attention was paid to the slow but profound cha nge which then took place in newspapers. With broadcasting giving people their first inkling of news, print was gradually nudged into territory where papers had the natural advantage over broadcast: descriptive writing, investigations, context, analysis an d opinion. Much of this was excellent and appreciated, but the shift marked the weakening of the hold which newspapers had on their hitherto captive market. Broadcasting channels multiplied. And the audience naturally fragmented. The amounts of time and money spent on news media grew in the 1980s and 1990s; newspapers grew ever larger on the back of a long advertising boom. But the big audiences shrank, split between more and more choices. Twenty years ago the main evening news bulletins on the BBC and ITV commanded nightly news audiences of 8 -10m viewers each. Both are down to half that number. Competition for attention became more expensive and difficult. Investment in reporting which took a long time to research and write shrank. And it wasn¶t just the p roducers of news who were short of resources. The consumers of news saw themselves as having less and less time to read and watch. In 1997, the number of people saying that they ³never have enough time to get anything done´ hit an all -time high of two -thirds of the sample. By no coincidence at all, that was just after London¶s first free morning newspaper, Metro, became available in the capital¶s commuter trains and subways, offering travellers a quick read only as long as their journey at no cost in effort or money.

These gradual changes started the long process of the hollowing or thinning of news. Competition for attention became tough both between proliferating outlets on the same platform and between radio, television and print. Justin Lewis of Cardiff University has shown that many journalists are today turning out up to three times more material as they would have been expected to produce 20 or 30 years ago. The long term effect on the consumers of news was twofold but not surprising. People began to lose both interest and faith in what they read, heard and watched. Now it¶s possible to exaggerate the loss of trust. Exaggerate, that is, by suggesting that journalists have ever been much trusted. There wasn¶t much trust in the past. But the trust levels for those who enjoy higher ratings ± BBC and broadcast journalists for example ± are slipping in Britain. Journalists have been long accustomed to write these ratings off as inevitable or irrelevant. But in the era when people have the choice to opt out o f established media, the public impact of fiascos and disgraces - the handling of MMR, the worst excesses of the reporting of the search for Madeleine McCann and the widespread use of phone tapping - is far greater. The same development can be seen in Ame rica, where trust levels in news media began declining in the mid -1970s. To capture the change, think of the difference between the movie All The President¶s Men in the mid-70s and the fifth season of

The Wire just a few years ago. I probably don¶t have to describe Watergate, and if you
haven¶t seen the last series of The Wire , I won¶t spoil the plot. Suffice to say that the later drama does not show journalists in anything like such a glamorous or flattering light as the earlier film. The other effect, the loss of interest, is less easy to measure but more important. It is picked out most strikingly in the Ofcom report New News, Future News in 2007. It disclosed a gap between news and daily experience: more than half the people surveyed for Ofcom¶s report did not think that news as presented to them was relevant to their lives. This alienation and indifference was explored in an excellent Reuters Institute study whose authors found that journalists were seen as ³«´insiders´, looking out from the citadels of power rather than outsiders looking in, journalists were seen as being compromised by their proximity to social power«. our focus groups did not consider journalists to be dishonest«. Distrust took a more oblique form. The participants seemed to be questi oning the institutional integrity of news.´ And again:

³When distrust in news was expressed«it was because people felt that their expectations of the news were not shared by news producers; that they were being told stories that were not adequately explain ed; that their lives were being reported in ways that were not adequately researched; or that new communicative spaces were opening up in which useful, reliable or amusing information could be accessed without having to subscribe to the authority of the ma instream media.´ Those new communicative spaces opened up for users of news who felt taken for granted. And they have been making full use of the opportunity. As these changes work their way through, what do we see? What we actually have at the moment is a mixed news economy: part industrial old mass media (printworks, terrestrial broadcasting and so on) and part a networked digital information economy. Consumer loyalties are divided: affection for a favourite newspaper or the appointment with the evening news doesn¶t decline just because the business model is going to run out of steam. But very gradually, the habit of using old media is wearing off; and the young are not picking it up.

Above all, what we have here ± and journalists find this the hardest of all to accept ± is a fall in the perceived value of what mainstream news organisations produce. It¶s a double whammy: mainstream news itself isn¶t, in a connected age, as useful or interesting as it was. And the bundle that is the news programme or new spaper no longer makes the sense it did. If you can get only the item you want, why pay the cost of the whole package?

Imagine a common enough event in any large city. It is a Friday evening and a young woman on her way home after a night out is attacked and robbed. The attack is not fatal, but serious enough to put her in hospital overnight and to involve the police. By the next morning, her social network will have been alerted. She might have triggered this by tweeting, posting on Facebook or another so cial networking site or simply by sending emails or texts from a phone. Before 24 hours have gone by, anything up to several hundred people will have read and discussed the details. What does the local paper do? A routine police check which might put a few paragraphs on the website on the Saturday and in Monday evening¶s edition. It wasn¶t a murder after all. In print, more potential readers but less engagement.

Conventional news¶s disadvantage is not really lack of speed, although it will be slower. It is also that the formal, one -size-fits-all ³news´ arrives in less satisfying form. For this is both a public event (police, hospital and a possible court case) and a private one belonging to a network. The private version of the news will be swifter, richer and more detailed and

authentic, carried by voices who know eachother. As young consumers of news say nowadays: ³If the news is important enough it will find me.´

None of these developments are being witnessed or described here with much pleasure by me. I spent many years in newspapers. Historically speaking it is true that news media are regularly turned upside down by technological innovation, by competition and market forces. But the fragmentation of channels and instant interactivity is a huge adjustme nt. There are risks and loss to society as a whole. Elected and unelected powers will be left less closely watched. For the first time in one or two centuries, major cities may soon have no community conversation in print. For there is no law of economics which guarantees that when one business model fails, a replacement one is immediately available.

Before asking what we might hope to do about this, let me highlight one issue which gets neglected as we move away from an era dominated by print and broadcas t.

If, as seems likely, most news consumption is on electronic and wireless devices and not in print, any story can be told audio -visually. The only barriers to portable TV news are ones of technology and cost and they will be crossed fairly soon. Most n ews websites now carry video and we are well on the way to wireless networks which will carry video easily and at bearable cost to iPads, smartphones or any of the new lightweight touchscreens which will multiply in the next few years.

Words can carry more complex meanings than sound and picture can sometimes manage. That¶s not to take anything away from the irreplaceable immediacy and power of witness which television and radio have. And we should be grateful that ever -cheaper and everlighter devices mak e capturing the history of the present easier than it ever was. But we have to find a way to make sure that words survive in the equation. Each technology tends to affect the way news is reported on that particular technology. No such rigid conventions have grown up yet for online and some of the most successful ways of telling stories seem to weave words, video and sound together in new combinations, in a new grammar if you will. I only plead that words ± so beautiful and so useful ± don¶t get squeezed out of the equation. There¶s no avoiding any longer the issue of how we make this pay. Big established news organisations with large fixed costs are looking for ways of getting you to pay for what you learn. In a lot of cases this probably won¶t work. Not so much because the younger audience is used to online news and information for free ± that is an issue ± but because the business logic is the wrong way round. Most great news providers of today began small: they found a


demand and supplied it. The business model often came later. When radio became popular in the United States in the 1920s, no one who started it had any idea how to make it pay. Proctor & Gamble, then as now makers of detergents, offered to pay money to stations if the company could be ident ified as the sponsors of a show. They went for drama. Thus was born the first ³soap opera´. I don¶t have a magic fix answer to the burning question of how we pay for sustainable journalism. I¶m in good company: neither does anyone else. Journalists need to be quite sure and clear about what they¶re offering. We¶re past the era when we could assume that journalism¶s usefulness was self -evident. Experiment has now to match value to demand. The media most likely to succeed in creating new income streams are th ose which throw most spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. If you¶ve ever thrown spaghetti at a wall, you¶ll know that very little of it does actually stay there. It isn¶t just messy; the failure rate is very high. It¶s expensive and it¶s risky. If you¶re looking for a job in a news organisation or ± less likely these days ± buying shares in one, look for the one with the most unsentimental ability to run through the largest possible number of tests and the agility to discard all the ones that don¶t wor k. The first attempts to replicate the old print business model in a digital context haven¶t worked. Selling advertising at a good price depends on scarcity of supply to keep that price up. In print, radio and television, the number of channels was limited and the advertising inventory thus rationed. On the internet, the supply is almost infinite and digital technology renders mass, one-size-fits-all advertising gradually obsolete and being replaced by more targeted ads tailored to groups and individuals. T hat suggests to me that the old model isn¶t going to work in the new digital context. But if people keep experimenting, we¶ll know. By far the most interesting examples are taking place below the radar of most metropolitan journalists. It is in these small online news laboratories ± even if they don¶t call themselves that ± that the rescue of what matters is most likely to succeed. It would require another lecture to describe and analyse the variety of what is occurring in dozens of local news sites like Pits µn Potts (coal mines and potteries: it¶s in Staffordshire), Litchfield, Leeds, « and inside London in places like King¶s Cross or Greenwich. For an example of what has worked really well in a country whose local media were once in worse shape than here , let me take you eastward to the Czech Republic. There a large insurance company has invested in a chain of small coffee shops. They have also set up small newspapers and websites, but they are ± so far and commercially - less important than the coffee shops, which provide income while the journalism finds its feet. The coffee shops are also the local newsrooms. The journalism is local, parochial and stays close to its


market. That ³hyperlocal´ reporting is balanced by a headquarters newsroom in Prague, which serves the whole network, staffed by a handful of editors with some experience. They lend a hand when asked with design or reporting and can tie together story patterns (the provision of GP services right across the country, say) which emerge from the localities. The formula works: dozens more coffee shop newsrooms are being rolled out now. They plan more outlets and newsrooms for their country than McDonalds. The discussions over paywalls and charging online have to be seen in this context. Risks will be taken: the market will learn. If charging for online content works, the rules of the game will change. It seems unlikely that putting a paywall round an entire paper, as the Editor of The

Times has said that he plans to do, can work. But we¶ll see; and it looks as if we¶ll see in as
soon as May. Others argue that links are the currency that counts: ³do what you do best and link to the rest´. The odds are that a wholly new formula may work better than either. The more experiments, the more discoveries, th e more journalism sustained. There may be no single, magic-bullet formula for success. There may be several or many. Philanthropy is bound to play a role for the foreseeable future, at the very least in bridging the old and new eras. Not merely in providin g a platform for some journalism but in assisting empirical experiment. Take investigative journalism, along with war reporting perhaps the hardest and most expensive reporting to keep going. Here at City we already run a specialised one-year MA in investigative journalism. We host the Centre for Investigative Journalism which acts as an influential network for teaching and discussion. Next month will see the launch of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, also based here, established by a generous donati on from David and Elaine Potter. This team will not only research and publish investigative stories but research and reflect on which business models work. The inspiration here is similar philanthropically -funded initiatives in the United States. Can or should public funds ± in addition to those already raised for the BBC - be used to ensure that power, local power particularly, will be held to account? We can confidently expect that this question will be asked as regional papers start to fail in greater nu mbers. Public subsidy cannot be the right answer: if journalism has public value, it is as an independent source of knowledge and known to be that. Independence is not a sufficient condition for useful quality but it is a necessary one. If public funding f or news media must find its way onto the political agenda, let¶s at least observe two principles:

That if the state wants to help, that help should be transparent and indirect. The model is the modest help for the pilot schemes for independently -financed news coalitions in local television news.


Second, that what should be supported is experiments in any media and not devoted to the propping up of business models that are failing. Help should be ³platform agnostic´, available to whatever scheme or medium l ooks likely to work.

Before finishing, I want to return to those functions which define journalism. In everyday journalism there is a practice so regular, so little questioned that it can almost be called a default mode. Not bias or inaccuracy. They both h appen but so do many efforts to prevent them occurring. To witnessing and sense -making, many journalists add a third element: telling us whether something is morally acceptable or not. Usually it isn¶t. This is what Martin Bell calls reporting that ³cares as well as knows´. Martin Bell may be sparing in his caring but others aren¶t so careful. Indignation is now a routine commodity in news. Reporting without the judgement and selection involved in sense -making does little worthwhile. But the style and post ure into which much reporting has slipped goes much further ± a mission creep on a grand scale. We need to go back to Paul Dacre¶s speech to the Society of Editors in 2008 to read the manifesto for moral outrage. The Editor -in-Chief of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday was complaining about the decisions of Mr Justice Eady in the case which the News of the World lost against Max Moseley, who, the paper claimed, had been taking part in ³sick Nazi orgies.´ (I quote) ³Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour,´ Dacre argued. ³If readers don¶t agree with the defence of such values, they would not buy those papers in such numbers.´ He then gave the gam e away. ³If mass-circulation newspapers , which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don¶t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying im plications for the democratic process.´ This is self-deluding arrogance. Revealing genuine scandal is right and Mr Dacre has done that. But his claim went much further: that journalists are moral arbiters. This assumption has a catastrophic distorting effe ct on the mission of journalism and a corroding effect on public trust. There are many people in any society entitled to defend moral standards. Some of them may even be better qualified than journalists to speak on the subject. Many developments, probably starting with Watergate, have contributed to this inflation of journalism¶s work but whatever the causes, the result has been an epidemic of attitude masquerading as analysis, emotion trumping reasoning from the facts. No one wants or will read journalism stripped of any passion. But synthetic outrage repels readers.


Editors might profitably concentrate on the moral behaviour of their own journalists for the simple reason that they should fear other agencies doing so. Over the past 20 years there has been an enormous quantity of judge -generated law in the UK which affects the news media from the development of the Reynolds principles in defamation to the cumulative creation of what is new privacy legislation. These judgements amount to attempts to define what good journalism might be in law. This has been argued out, piece by piece, by judges because the news media stayed out of the debate. They did so because, influenced by the editors and proprietors of the red -top papers, they feared a new privacy law. Th ey relied on a self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission, which lacks credibility because it is dominated by the media itself. And a new privacy law could not possibly be worse than the haphazard jigsaw we have now. But in general, rules won¶t help journalists to connect better with their audiences in the changed context I¶ve tried to describe. And nothing at all can make journalism lovable, uncontroversial or risk -free. Good journalism lives close to the edge of the rules. Journalism discloses things that no one else gets into the public domain because risks get taken: the

Daily Telegraph buys a CD-ROM, running the risk of censure for its methods, but thus
ensures that Parliament can¶t edit the truth. It¶s not even e asy to put a professional frontier round journalists. It¶s a porous business: people are recruited to it and discovered to be talented, both things happening in random accidents as much as by careful choice. Not even training will guarantee quality: althou gh naturally here at City we believe that it can do a great deal of good and we are hard at work trying to adapt our curriculum to the needs of the future. We¶re entering a new communications age and no one can accurately predict what exactly those needs will be. We can only equip ourselves better to navigate change. You can only do that with a clear idea of the value you want to add. And the value is that systematic attempt to get at the truth of what matters. Making the argument for journalism all over a gain needs a little more self -critical appraisal than we have been used to doing. For the worth of journalism is real and its case will need to be made often in the next few years.



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Professor George Brock's inaugural lecture, delivered at City University London on 17 March 2010. Prof Brock uses the speech to discuss the current state, and future, of news and journalism.

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Irma left a comment

How can journalism be objective if journalists have to cater to the taste of their readers for the sake of monetary considerations? From the time of medieval minstrels, reporting news has been perilous for the reporter. Wouldn't it stand to reason that taking reporting to the masses would ensure better news, since reporting is decoupled from financial considerations?
Sinisa Zugic readcast this 07 / 01 / 2010Learn more about Readcast.
Sinisa Zugic readcast this 07 / 01 / 2010Learn more about Readcast.

suzanner left a comment

Worth the read if you're questioning what's informing us these days.
suzanner readcast this 07 / 01 / 2010Learn more about Readcast.

Helen Winslow Black left a comment

Scribdchronicity, George, yesterday I was just thinking that Rupert Murdoch's slow trigger-pull gives me time to contemplate which is the better new title for one of the last bastions of serious investigative journalism: Mall Street News, or Newsaway Today.

Helen Winslow Black replied:

whoops I meant Mall Street Journal. Am a little sunsick right now after driving all the way across Idaho today. In any case, get your votes in now, and if you're a journalist, your vote counts twice.
06 / 30 / 2010
Shweta Reddy readcast this 06 / 29 / 2010Learn more about Readcast.
Cathecsar readcast this 06 / 29 / 2010Learn more about Readcast.