Oh, the squealing!
People, we are told, must stop re-publishing Sunday Times pieces, for free, because it is bad for journalism.
Which begs the question. Or perhaps muddies it. Because this argument has two quite distinct aspects. Do we mean this is bad for individual journalists? Or bad for a particular model of journalism?
Socialist solidarity: slogan of convenience
On the first count, I am instinctively sympathetic. Creatives have a hard enough time making a living: so devaluing a fellow worker’s work always feels a tad shitty. Albeit, I do find it strange that people content to write for some of the most right-wing outlets, subtly promoting right-wing politics should play the” fruits of my labour” card.
Much sympathy, too, to the authors of the piece in question, a gutting of the government’s approach to the coronavirus crisis, which is both excellent and evidence of what can be done when real journalists get their teeth into a topic.
Yet I am unconvinced by suggestions that we are taking food from out the mouths of their babes: suspect the “pity me!” argument is deployed here because it is increasingly difficult to defend the model of journalism sat behind it.
Never mind the news: just feed the bottom line
Somewhere in here is the high-minded claim that journalism represents some great abstract ideal: the fourth estate, pillar of democracy, and up there with parliament in defending us from tyranny. We NEED it, goes the rhetoric.
The problem with this is that the press and media have themselves become agents of a very particular tyranny: that of the wealthy media owner.
The press are first and foremost commercial enterprises: to make money they must entertain: must provide clickbait. Because clicks mean readers, and readers mean ad revenue. This, in turn, influences content in two ways: the amount of it; and the way in which it is packaged up.
Just how much of those bloated beasts, the Sunday papers, with their fashion supplements and lifestyle features and country living spreads, really count as journalism?
A few years back I was proud to work at The Register, run then, as now, under the guidance of an old-fashioned managing editor. Proud because it was about news and features and very little comment.
Which is not to diss the latter. I have worked as a journalist, reporting on stories for national press and magazines: as ad copywriter, commercial blogger (hint: hire me, somebody!) and commentator. Those are separate functions and only when I am working on the first do I get to call myself a journalist.
The rest of the time I am but a pretty scribbler. Oh: an interesting scribbler, an artful, entertaining scribbler. But merely writing artfully and being interesting is not and never can be journalism. To equate the motley assortment of fashion writers, opinionated columnists and “humourists” with journalism does a massive disservice to those who actually take serious risks with life and limb in their efforts to uncover the truth.
Likewise, the equation of the cut and paste artists who populate many a news desk nowadays with real journalism. One thing I discovered early at “El Reg” was how any half decent story I covered would swiftly, magically re-appear near verbatim in the pages of the nationals. Early indignation gave way to resignation. Nothing to be done: no hope, even, of an attribution.
Perhaps those now up in arms about the gratis distribution of one Times piece could reveal what they were doing a decade or so back to defend smaller publications from the incursions of the national predators?
Facts are scarce…
Real journalism, also, implies a degree of accuracy. For which reason, while writing Taming the Beast, a book about the regulation of online porn, I was amazed to encounter a piece on that topic, published by the Sunday Times back in the early teens that was, to put it mildly, poor. It appeared to be little more than rehash of a load of stats long since debunked by serious analysts.
I wrote as much in my book: it was a good example of mainstream press distortion. But as journalist, I did my due diligence, dropping the author of that piece not one but two emails asking to comment. I also asked them, in person, if they would like to respond to my concerns.
Nothing. Nada. Not a peep.
It struck me then that a publication that identifies so magisterially as a “newspaper of record”, ought not to be making student errors. And if it was doing this in an area I knew about, what else was it getting wrong? According to experts that I have interviewed in other areas, quite a lot. Much of the time, their coverage of generic subjects is shallow, superficial and clichéd. Although, in fairness, that is an issue with all newspapers.
If the inaccuracy does not worry you, perhaps the skew should. As a trustee of Trans Media Watch (TMW) I know a fair bit about transgender issues. Researching coverage of these for TMW, I found one tabloid including comment from Trans people in just 5% of articles hostile to Trans folk (out of over 120 in the study period).
I’ve not done figures for The Times. I suspect they may not be quite as bad since mostly they do ASK for comment. But I have seen the asks: brusque, rude, pretty much already decided on the story to be written. Seen, too what is done with those asks: extended thoughtful responses reduced to a one sentence soundbite and tacked on at the end of articles where they will be unread or have minimal impact.
…but comment is freely available
A related and significant issue is how much nastiness and downright inaccuracy goes into comment pieces. This almost needs an article on its own. The bottom line, though, is that according to press regulator, IPSO, comment does not need to be strictly “accurate”. Because it is opinion. Though that seems odd to me, since I would draw a clear distinction between an opinion that Jeremy Corbyn is a good (or bad) man: and that the moon is made of green cheese.
It gets worse: IPSO and other media bodies argue that if a report expresses things the way the public might generally understand them, even if it is “inaccurate”, that is fine.
Don’t get me started on “humour”. For thus it was that Rod Liddle, erstwhile Times columnist, wrote in the Spectator a few years back, in respect of trans folk: “one day the chill wind of Odin will blow down from the icy north and cleanse our nation of all purulence and disease”. A call to extermination? Perhaps. But all for laughs! Like Boris Johnson ad nauseam on Muslims, or race, or child abuse.
Yet these — all of these — arguments are regularly used by The Times to cover nastiness. I should know: I was witness at a court hearing in which they did just that.
Free speech is great: for us, not you!
As for free speech and debate — another justification for journalism: just how much debate really goes on when such massive skew exists? What, indeed, is meant by free speech? Because many of those sticking up for The Times are swift to silence others through litigation, or the threat thereof.
That, too, is odd. If you truly believe in FREE speech, why should a group of self-selected individuals, the press, be allowed to slur entire minorities — trans, LGB, Muslims as category — while slurring of individuals is classed as, a priori, bad thing. I understand the argument for libel as special case. Understand it: but do not wholly agree.
That is why, shortly before lockdown, I was working on a campaign to give some protection from press attacks to minority groups.
A new journalism is stirring
And there you have it. Almost. Except, trends are now colliding. On the one hand, this week brings us Meghan and Harry deciding the press is so pisspoor that they will no longer speak to much of it.
On t’other, the ultimate irony for those — writers and media owners alike — who claim to believe in the free market: the idea that people will pay as much for an item as they think it is worth. There is growing demand for real journalism, citizen journalism, which can be very good indeed. The likes of Bellingcat and Byline Times (and Medium itself) point the way.
At the same time, the growing movement to republish while not making media fat cats even fatter reflects a growing distrust, disdain for the mainstream press. It began with the likes of the Sun and Daily Mail, who don’t half publish a load of piffle at times. The mass disrespect for The Times’ ipr suggests the rot is spreading.
Because increasingly people regard it as being as bad as all the rest. Not honest. Often, not real journalism. So not to be co-operated with, and definitely not deserving of financial support.
Therefore, let the entitled rage (and squeal). In the end, though, this is mostly their own doing and little surprise that we have arrived where we have arrived.