A Cheap Massage
Whilst feebly attempting to ingratiate myself to journalists on various regional papers in the North of England, I have had to field the question on numerous occasions of why I want to be a journalist at a time when the entire industry is going to hell. It is tempting to sit here and characterise this view as the doom-prophesying of a few small-time, washed-out, pint-gripping, sermonising, brow-beating no-hopers clinging on for their retirement before the sea of change can sweep them away.
It seems, however, that these concerns are shared by widely respected and internationally renowned journalists. Guardian News and Media Executive Emily Bell used the phrases “systematic collapse” and “unprecedented carnage” in a recent speech to the think-tank Polis. In a similar vein, the current assistant-editor of the Guardian, Dr David Leigh articulated an impending dystopia for good old fashioned reporting in his Inaugural lecture. He talks nostalgically of cutting his teeth on The Scotsman in the 1960s before concluding:
“This primitive process of heavy engineering was romantic and dirty. None of us realised at the time just how absolutely doomed it was, from top to bottom. What remains is now produced in a glass rabbit-hutch with a bank of computer screens, by two men and a dog. It is dying quietly.”
The uncouth Marxist that exists within me wants to suggest those at the top are more concerned about the loss of a media unconfined to a liberal elite rather than a general decay of journalistic standards. Maybe this across-board horror at the prospect of a digital revolution is indicative of a liberal elite out of touch with and therefore resisting the tools of the next generation. But, if Leigh and Bell are right and the page is turning on the world of the newspaper, it is worth acknowledging that the current debate about Web 2.0’s significance for modern journalism is framed by a very simple physical hinderance. The internet and particularly the gleaming screen of internet news is still a very new thing. I was born before it was, and my generation are really the first to be versed in its uses and workings.
My Mum had to learn how to use a computer and it was quite literally a blood, sweat and tears job. Hilarious to watch. My Dad still employs the classic pose of index finger poised over keyboard, tongue sticking out at a peculiar angle, forehead like a Klingon. Watching him write an email is a bit like watching a guy with a broken arm eat a boiled egg.
As I am inherently far more media savvy than my parents, so my kids will be receptive to new media in ways that will render my technological ability as roughly equivalent to the chimps at the start of 2001. Around the same time I’m sure will be probably be heralding the death of journalism due to the erosion of values and standards by the usurping generation.
Therefore, it’s probably worth listening to people like David Leigh, and to reject the notion of an indiscriminate, sourceless media, obsessed with the next new ‘platform’ and 24/7, up-the-minute breaking news whilst failing to give due notice and attention to a credible voice saying significant things.
“The mass media can shine a light,” he says. “Or they can reflect back light. The Daily Mail, for example, deliberately make a highly-profitable business out of telling people what they think they know already. They reflect back their existing beliefs. They reassure their target audience by hammering the world into a shape that suits their prejudices. This is less an information service than a form of cheap massage.”
For all the convenience of Web 2.0, for all its rich potential for journalism, communication and as a tool for information in a democratic hyper-reality, it seems to be giving rise to a something-for-nothing-culture. Then what will be left with? The inexorable tabloidisation of our media, a blogosphere based on inference, agenda and an axe to grind over carefully considered analysis, indisputable information and a statutory obligation to objectivity. An unmediated media acting as a cheap massage – convenient and soothing, but fleeting and ultimately (sometimes hopefully) inconsequential.