That headline does not refer to the fact that there is now going to be a tense negotiation between Greece and the powers of the eurozone and, most probably, currency turbulence in Europe. The election which has brought Syriza to power in Athens marks something a little broader: the end of a political phase, a change of mood.
Political periods are not always defined, however much paid-up members of political tribes (or parties) might wish it, by elections and changes of government. We are currently living through a moment of change which is proving hard for political journalists to capture because the people they most frequently talk to are politicians. And it is politicians who neither sense nor understand the shift of feeling about politics.
Those who have tried to describe this have often said that there is a revolt against elites under way. Who could argue that Syriza’s rapid rise in Greece (and the equally extraordinary collapse of Pasok, the once-dominant Greek socialist party) has been driven by resentment of a political class seen as indifferent, corrupt and out of touch? And of course established parties everywhere suffer because living standards have been hit.
But the target of this anger is also a political style: the managerial leader. The end of the Cold War dissolved a framework of political belief based around the rivalry between collective solutions (socialism, communism etc) and those of more liberal, laissez-faire kinds (liberalism, conservatism etc). Politicians then emerged who, confusingly, picked policies from either side. They paid due deference to ideas and principles, but their appeal was not based on them. They found political labels old-fashioned and restricting.
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I wrote a short ode to cartoonists for The Conversation UK today and you can see it here.
I think it is hallway of the Chicago Tribune building which is decorated by quotations on journalism and the freedom the press carved into the stone walls. Many are inspiring, most are sonorous and a few are pompous.
I have a new candidate for this collection. Its language is in the informal style of the 21st century rather than the more formal wording of earlier eras. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, wrote a 4,000-word memo to his staff this week brutally critical of both himself and some senior members of the groups’ staff (background here). This paragraph leapt at me:
“Editorial management’s mission for next year is simple. Here’s your budget. Break some stories. Expose the story behind that story. Say what others cannot or will not. Make us proud. This is the one of the greatest editorial openings of all time. Don’t fuck it up!”
Gawker has a claim to be the most successful online journalism start-up on the planet (despite the fact that some journalists don’t think it’s good journalism). What Denton’s rallying cry illustrates so well is that in the digital era much changes, but not everything does. Adjust the prose style and that paragraph could have been written or spoken by any galvanising editor of the past three centuries. It belongs on a wall somewhere.
I’ve spent the past few years being told repeatedly that investigative journalism is under terrible, terminal threat. The business crisis of newspapers and commercial pressures have gutted investigative teams and dumbed down the very idea. Owners and publishers don’t like it. Across the world, the future for penetrating and patient reporting of what powerful people don’t want revealed is bleak.
I’m pleased to say that this is doom-laden nonsense. Philanthropic money continues to flow into the most difficult and demanding investigations both in the US (the founding donation to ProPublica and Pierre Omidyar’s $250m being the most spectacular examples). Mainstream media continue to strip away layers of concealment. The British Press, Foreign Press Association and James Cameron awards – all in London within the last few weeks – have recognised investigative reporting by, among others, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, The Times, Channel 4’s Despatches and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (declaration: I’m a trustee). There are few weeks of the year when a conference boosting the skills or morale of investigative reporters doesn’t start somewhere. Today in London it’s the Logan Symposium (foundation funded).
But there is one example of the health of investigative journalism rarely mentioned and I think it deserves to be. I first came across a clue when I was in Hong Kong last year and had lunch with an old friend who brought an extra guest to the meal. This Australian worked, he said, for Reuters and I asked him what he did. He was an investigative reporter and I asked if he specialised in any subject. He did long-form reporting, he said, on the army of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Now the Chinese army is very large, very powerful and no doubt rich and fertile territory for investigations. But I was struck that Reuters, with its roots as a global news agency, should be deploying investigative reporters on that kind of scale.
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The annual conference of the Society of Editors heard two arguments this week for “shield laws” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources including a pledge from the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, that a future Conservative government would amend the Human Rights Act to give more “specific protection” to journalists.
There is a good account here of the speech by Gavin Millar QC, a very knowledgeable expert, and Javid’s speech is here. All this is well-intentioned and understandable: shield laws already exist in several American states. For a whole series of reasons stemming from recent disclosures, the protection of sources in the digital age is a big concern.
But there’s a big difficulty with shield laws, however tempting they might sound at first hearing. They require journalists to be a defined category of people. Once upon a time, that might have been easy: they were people who worked on the editorial content produced by printed newspapers and broadcast channels. Important disclosures are made by journalists; but they are also made by people who aren’t inclined to call themselves that.
Now, it’s not so easy. Anyone with a smartphone can “publish” to audiences large and small, simply by hitting a “share” button. Who counts as a journalist? In the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking and related wrong-doing, civil servants tied themselves into tangled knots trying to define “news publishers” who would be included in a new regulatory system.
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Serious people debating journalism in the digital age want to think more about trust. Trust in serious journalism is important and essential, but for reasons I’ll try to explain, it’s the wrong focus for efforts to adapt journalism to disruption. The better benchmark is value.
If journalists are to keep telling us what’s actually happening in an information-saturated world, they need, among other things, be trusted as reliable. Trust is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition for journalism to rebuild. Here are a few reasons why worrying about trust is both vital and a distraction:
- Digital democratises publishing by replacing one-to-many news distribution with many-to-many. Less attention and trust will be placed in large institutions churning out news when people can take news as recommended by people they know.
- Consumers of news are naturally and rightly wary of news publishers of any size who are in the midst of a business model crisis: editorial values get changed. Objectivity and neutrality are questioned as they have not been for a century. The extreme example: the British newsrooms where market share loss made editors so desperate they began hacking phones and bribing sources on a wide scale.
- The tough economics of digital publishing have led to “native advertising” which frequently blurs the distinction between editorial and paid promotion. No surprise that users of these sites are growing mistrustful.
- Trust is only indirectly connected to solving the business model problem. In the print era, Britain read a lot of newspapers per head (regularly in the world top ten). The BBC had high trust levels but papers did not and never did have. (In this brief Storify, Emily Bell of Columbia tries to get this across).
- Lastly, isn’t the fact that people don’t take everything the news media say at face value as a good thing? Some scepticism is healthy.
- In free societies, trustworthiness isn’t something that can organised. Outlets which want to be trusted have to compete to earn that reputation. And there will be arguments about how to judge reliability.
I’m in favour of everything which is being bandied about as likely to build trust with digital tools: Continue reading →