Is our press failing us?

The time has come to work with the media to define its role rather than seek tougher measures to control its excesses.

We are told that journalism is in crisis and our tabloids are running amok. That responsible journalism is being replaced by sensationalistic headlines and reporting. People, notably celebrities, increasingly claim that their privacy is being invaded. The number of successful defamation actions brought against the press is on the up, with the defence of qualified privilege all but having been abolished. Successive Attorney Generals have found it necessary to issue repeated cautions to the press when it comes to contempt. The public are buying less papers, yet people are demanding more news. So what has gone wrong and whose fault is it?

Well to some the answer is clear. Several politicians and judges suggest there should be stricter editorial and other controls over the media. Tabloid editors are irresponsible, look at that former Mirror editor Morgan chappy (earning millions on american TV) and those ‘fake’ torture pictures, or the Sun and its various campaigns against ‘hoodies’ or gypsies. However the fact and truth of the matter is far from clear and that is where the problem lies. The shameless use of an inquiry to smokescreen what was a state-led assault on the media harbours serious implications for the democratic process and freedom of expression. Did we ever find out beyond reasonable doubt that the photographs that Morgan allowed to be published in the Mirror were fake or staged? The issue they exposed was very real and the year after they were published and the story exposed, several soldiers were court martialed for the crimes the pictures and story had exposed.

It’s very easy to say the press or the wider media has got it wrong and is responsible for the moral degradation of our society but who ever said they were responsible for society or defined the scope of that which should be printed? What often gets left behind in debate about media content is the spectre of commercialisation. The modern media and press are businesses with shareholders, employees, turnover and profits. They happen to deliver news but it would be unfair and unrealistic to assume that they should put commercial considerations to one side when deciding what to print. So unless the press subscribe to a mutual moratorium over sensationalistic headlines we can safely assume these will continue to be used to sell papers. The problem is that the press is part of the democratic process but it is also part of the commercial world and a sector that contributes to the GDP of this country. It therefore has to respond to both societal and commercial pressure. In relation to the latter, convergence, competition and an online, on-demand, 24-7 media means that times are tough and the press needs to fight hard for its slice of the action and part of the profits.

In relation to the press as part of the democratic process and its duty to society, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has in the past referred to the “quiet understanding” that used to exist of what newspapers were for. That understanding has been lost in our modern, competitive, high-tech and accelerated living age. To the extent that the press can be seen as responsible for lowering the moral fabric of society with their headlines of death and destruction or sex and sensation, society is itself to blame for providing the stories that lie beneath these headlines.

So if we are going to reserve the right to criticise the press we first need to redefine its role. Dialogue, debate and proper scrutiny are what’s called for rather than tougher regulation or censorship. The rules and laws that are in place can be made to work, the confusion that arises concerns their application as much as anything else. Here too, it is a consistent approach that seems to be lacking and this is down to the fact that there is varied consensus as to what this should be. There needs to be a far greater level of engagement with the press and media over what it is there for and what it should deliver. A competitive and diverse media market has led to fragmentation whereby people mix and match their sources as they grab news on the go. The result is that for many, they will know more about which celebrity has had a boob job than what’s in the political parties’ manifestos for the forthcoming election. It would take the politician being the one with the boob job to guarantee that the manifesto makes the front page.

Not just media professionals, their advisers and academics but the public at large have a duty to engage in debate and inform themselves and the media about what they want from their press. Like any other business, editors are busy getting their product out the door and will continue to follow the supply and demand chain that is reflected in the current news agenda. If we want to alter that chain then we need to define our demands. Like any other business, it’s not fair to criticise the supplier when we haven’t specified what we want. The way ahead and to answer Alan Rusbridger’s call it to set up a centre and forum that will facilitate this debate and allow press, public, academics, lawyers, financiers and politicians to proactively place the press under scrutiny and come up with some answers to the issues of the day.

If we want the press to report something different then we need to make better news for them to report and that starts here and now.

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