The Digital Gangster

In a new age of democracy, who really controls the web?


Finn McGovern: [to John Rooney] “You rule this town as God rules the Earth.”

John Rooney: “Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”

The digital revolution heralds the end of the monopoly of control that the newspaper industry had over access to news. The elitism of a few dictating to the many about how to perceive the world is long gone, and inspiring journalists now have to try and work out how to fit into this brave new world of free comment and hope to get a bit of cash out of it.

This provides an opportunity for journalists to define ourselves in a way that isn’t reliant on an umbrella organisation. I am now my own brand, with complete control over my media identity. I can mould and re-mould it in any way I want.

Surprisingly, I have some reservations and I’m going to try to articulate them through a slightly unusual prism. The night before I attended a lecture on online journalism I decided to host a personal tribute to the late Paul Newman by watching his last screen role as an Irish mafioso boss called John Rooney in Sam Mendes’ ‘Road to Perdition.’

Despite a strong start, which I’ve embedded above, the film is a pretty poor tribute. Newman’s performance is diluted by the needless intrusive direction of Sam ‘I used to work in the theatre by the way, can you tell?’ Mendes.  I went to bed disappointed but, during the lecture, the subject matter of ‘Road to Perdition’ felt strangely salient.

Although ‘Road to Perdition’ is ostensibly a fatherhood drama or a revenge drama, its real subject matter is the same as any other American Gangster film; It’s about very powerful men who dominate people’s lives in a way that is almost completely covert and impossible to quantify. In ‘Road to Perdition,’ Newman’s character has lovingly and carefully nurtured a universe in which his sphere of influence is almost total. Within this universe, Newman protects those under his stewardship, he rewards those loyal to him and punishes those who are disobedient. He governs right and wrong.

The irony and dramatic interest is that, of course, Newman and others like him are not always benign. They’re self-interested, they’re ruthless and unsentimental, and if something goes wrong they never take the hit because they’ve designed a system in which they can never be tied to anything.

There’s one very central factor that is bypassed in the current celebration of Web 2.0 and its significance for modern journalism. Let’s not forget about the big, pink but apparently very shaky elephant in the room called capitalism. As is the nature of a consumer-driven culture, where there is a demand for something there will be somebody making money out of it. This is true of internet platforms as it is of anything else but I feel that we the consumers have very little exposure to it.

In football, for example, this is glaringly apparent. Most Premiership football clubs who were traditionally owed by shareholders are now leering and flashing a bit of thigh at billionaires from around the world in the hope of a massive cash influx. Manchester City, for example, have had a Thai dictator who is facing a trial for crimes against humanity and a multibillionaire from Dubai who has, in the past, sponsored Islamofasict organisations, currently sat in their director’s box. In both cases, how they procured their wealth appears to be a shady topic, but no-one seems to mind because they are providing something that the blue half of Manchester, and the nation as a whole, have an insatiable appetite for; high-quality football.

To be honest, I do not profess to have much of an idea about how internet companies make their millions. I haven’t up to now met anybody that has. I suspect it isn’t just created by advertising (which seems to be the simple and accepted answer) and the truth is far more complex and far more dubious. Maybe I’ve read too much Orwell, but I can’t help but suspect that there are some very powerful figures present in the digital world whom the general public know very little about and have little compulsion to investigate.

The commentator Jeff Jarvis wrote:

“Give the people control of media, they will use it. Don’t give people control of media, and you will lose them.”

This begs a question; who does actually control the internet media? He seems to be suggesting that whoever has control must bestow it upon the masses in order to survive. But, from watching films like ‘Road to Perdition,’ we know that those at the top don’t give up power easily to those below them. Instead, they pretend to relinquish control and slip into the background where they can pull the strings and get the button men to do the dirty work if any serious threat arises.

Can we, therefore, sign up to the notion that Web 2.0 is a democratic platform in which no single individual or group of individuals have control over the internet? Or are we in fact, in a Durkheimian way, just sheep bleating away and being herded from one pen to another by invisible and pernicious puppet masters? Master’s of the Universe, the Godfather’s of the Internet, loosening their ties, chinking their glasses and toasting the mirage of web 2.0, safe in the knowledge that they will never take a hit.

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