e live in a media-ocracy. Tackling
the big issues of the future requires the media
to agitate, and assist organisation, just as much
as our politicians. The media are key to whether
the public knows what it faces, yet there are problems:
- How to keep the modern public engaged in
politics when research shows us that they are
either indifferent or indeed hostile to politics.
- How to persuade a modern consuming public
that there are problems that can be made better
- but for which there are no simple, easy, quick
or comfortable solutions.
- How to persuade the public to be prepared
to pay a cost now for the future.
- How to maintain enlightenment scepticism
as the fundamental media value.
- How to avoid indifference and cynicism.
- How to reconcile freedom of speech with the
increasing need to explain authoritatively,
and make informed judgments.
- How to enable the public to appreciate limitations
on types of reporting, for example when front-line
journalists can describe vividly how a battle
is progressing, but cannot be expected to report
its impact on the war.
- How can we handle the new celebrit-isation
of politicians? How to maintain the necessary
discretion, without unnecessary secrecy.
Modern societies suffer from a collective attention
deficit disorder syndrome. In a world flooded with
information and seemingly endless capacity to communicate,
the problem is to get us to concentrate. Moreover,
it may be about to get harder. A two hundred year
old relationship between the media and politics
is about to be turned on its head as new technologies
re-engineer the relationship between how views
and information are exchanged, judged, assigned
significance, and now public opinion is formed.
Alexis De Tocqueville observed, ‘Newspapers
become more necessary as societies become more
equal, and a multitude of individual opinions more
diverse and less deferential'. He pointed out that
in democratic societies many have different opinions,
which get lost in the crowd, but that when newspapers
held such ideas up for all to see, ‘all are
immediately directed toward that light and those
wandering spirits who had long sought each other
in the shadows finally meet each other and unite.’
It is against this background that the media‘s
relationship with contemporary opinion forming
and politics has taken a new, and savage twist.
The emergent communications revolution makes it
urgent that we begin to be more aware about the
role of the media in democracy. The public is busy
building new networks. In John Lloyd’s challenging
book, The Power and the Story, the contemporary
media have become a threat to democracy rather
than a means to democratic deliberation. Meanwhile,
the political will to protect news and information
as a public good has weakened, at least in America
and much of Europe.
The changes over the last twenty years are clear,
measurable, and perturbing. The public votes less
and less and distrusts politics more, and despises
politicians (if it thinks about them at all) even
more than it used to. There has been a distinct
generational shift. In the past people used to ‘mature’ into
an interest in politics as they grew older; they
appear to no longer do so. People increasingly
fail to make any connection between these things
that matter to them and the political institutions
that manage them.
Meanwhile, the media have been happy to go along
with the culture of ‘transparency’ for
political actors, though not remotely prepared,
with the possible exception of public service broadcasters,
to expose their own decisions, predicament, choices
or finances to any public scrutiny at all. While
the public demands media scrutiny of politicians
and political structures, media moguls want to
feed audiences hungry for sexed-up, exciting stories.
Politicians are increasingly ready to oblige the
media, as evidence by for example, former cabinet
ministers Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett, and
as a consequence debasing political life in the
eyes of the public.
As politicians disconnect, an open access media
revolution is gathering pace. Traditional media
forms face declining circulations, declining audiences
and more insecure futures. The dominant worry is
the same: how to relate to individualised audiences
who spend more time communicating with each other,
and less with the established media? Communications
technologies have altered more rapidly in the last
five years than since the beginning of broadcasting.
At the same time the public has become more fragmented,
less secure in its habits, living in more varied
ways (and more and more of them living alone).
People want to be heroes in their own story and
are perhaps hungrier for more highly charged fun
than before. They want to choose what they think
in the same way that they want to down-load their
own music selection on to their i-pods. The media
response from music to publishing, from movies
to games, from newspapers to broadcasting reflects
an acute anxiety about audience ratings.
This is manifest firstly, in the emergence of
opinion over reporting. But it is opinion that
is devoid of political ideology. This twenty year
old print media trend has been followed by television
news, that has become more opinionated in a narrow
sense too – now celebrity reporters ventriloquise
politicians. Secondly, there has been the development
of 24-hour news - a sadly repetitive and empty,
format. Thirdly, has been the pursuit of detail
without context as a substitute for ‘investigative’ journalism.
So, we have become accustomed to getting our news
on the cheap, which serves the purposes of elitist
politicians well. Now, traditionally produced and
financed news may be, like the dinosaurs, about
to experience an evolutionary catastrophe. Indeed,
it is the news vehicles that traditionally have
provided the democratic glue, that depend most
on adjudicating evidence and least on shouting,
that are most threatened by the swift delivery
of information on the Internet. The single most
troubling problem in reporting, felt acutely in
all those news organisations that attempt accurate,
realistic scrutiny of contemporary life, is objectivity.
In older, less fragmented political systems broadcasters
often hid behind ‘balance’, claiming
to report somewhere in the middle of a couple of
competing ideologies. But this is no longer sustainable.
Nevertheless, a new version of ‘balance’ remains
a key task: how to attract and represent all the
view points in a diverse society is more important
than ever. Indeed, ‘objectivity’ even
an approximation is an expensive process. When
the media fail to scrutinise political decisions,
Local political parties emerged to mobilise voters.
Yet today local political party activity has declined
as broadcasting offered political leaders the media
means to communicate with voters over the heads
of members of local political parties. For the
media, the problem now is anybody listening? The
BBC News website will get 10,000 messages on an
average lunch time, but if a popular comedian dies,
messages could increase 6-fold.
‘Citizen reporting’ is already transforming
political coverage and thinking. But it is more
investigative journalism that is needed on the
front-line of the enlightenment project. It is
about the attempt, even if always imperfect, to
find out the truth, and we need it more in a more
complex world. This requires professional journalistic
skills. But instead journalists tend to work in
packs. They report a consensus. It takes an unusual
relationship between editor and journalists to
enable reporting skills, experience, authority,
knowledge (and perhaps temperament) to produce
stories that get closer to the truth. Training
more educated, more historically sensitive, more
able journalists would help. Going out, talking,
seeing, asking, evaluating, making sense, combined
with a stroppy-minded scepticism is the basis of
much that we need to cling onto. We also need to
be alert to the wider culture in the media beyond
newsrooms that shapes public comprehension and
enthusiasm so powerfully. The form of news is weary.
The impact of current conventions of political
broadcasting, especially the political interview,
and the changing conditions under which exploring
a politicians’ views and policies are explored
in public must be discussed.
There is a stealthy, swift, revolution taking
place in the media, in politics and in the public:
we must all self-consciously begin to ask what
we can do to sustain our capacity to discuss together,
in public, in a rational way, things that matter.
Good reporting – however it develops in a
brilliant moment of technological innovation – will
keep the public whether local or international
alert. It will hold governments, businesses and
international agencies to account. It will also
nurture intelligence. We have to get the right
policies in place for ourselves and for the world.
And our lucky, comfortable children will need every
source of intelligence and reflection, and every
skill to assess what is happening if they are going
to tackle the future problems we leave them with – and
all of the ones we have not yet imagined. Getting
the media right is not a luxury. It is a necessity
of everything else we have to do. The world is
too dangerous a place – and the opportunities
too exciting – for us to continue to censor
thoughtfulness. But are we willing to pay the price?