Archive for January, 2008
“I guess I’m just one of those people around whom myths tend to develop”, Alastair Campbell said – with a straight face – to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications where I spent this morning. His use of the passive voice perfectly captures the way in which Blair’s ex-Director of Communications manages to accentuate his own influence while at the same time downplaying his significance.
But whether Campbell created the myth or the myth developed around him, the myth exists. The belief that Campbell was as much the cause of the deterioration of the relationship between the media and politics as its victim. Therefore, the theory runs, anything he now has to say about the state of the media should be dismissed as self-serving and hypocritical.
Should it? Given how long Campbell spent at the heart of government, and the supposed influence (mythical or not) that he had on relations with the media, shouldn’t we be curious to hear what he has to say? Taking, of course, everything he says with a healthy dollop of scepticism and with a keen ear to when his reflections may have been clouded by self-interest.
But, as long as you bear this very much in mind, then it’s worth listening to some of the things Campbell has said this week – first in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture and then again today at the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.
It should not surprise anyone that his views are not a million miles away from Tony Blair’s, and he acknowledges this in his frequent references to Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech last year at Reuters. Therefore he laments the decline in standards, the lack of reflection, and the pervasive cynicism. But Campbell has also not lost his ability to spit out a telling soundbite and adds some astute diagnoses of his own.
Asked by the Select Committee about the Press Complaints Commission (whose chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, had just left the room) Campbell dismissed it as “just out of date”. “The world in which it’s operating has completely moved on”. Well, yes, that pretty accurately sums it up.
Questioned on whether the press influenced voters Campbell countered that if it did, it was only “at the margins”. There was a difference, he stressed, between “what they [the public] are being fed and what they choose to digest”. Whether people can always avoid digesting some of what they are fed is debateable, but otherwise Campbell captured the difference between setting the agenda versus determining people’s opinions.
And when it comes to individual newspapers, Campbell showed none of the reticence of Tony Blair – who was accused of being ‘cowardly’ for critiquing the Independent in his speech rather than the Daily Mail. No such shyness from the ex Director of Communications: “I think the Mail is evil” he said. The Mail group, Campbell continued, bears significant responsibility for the “denigration of cultural and political life” in Britain. It is, he said, “the real poison”.
But though he called for the ‘culture of negativity’ that characterizes today’s media to be challenged, Campbell was unable to come up with any suggestions as to how we should do this. Indeed taking his lead from Rupert Murdoch, Campbell seemed to throw his hands in the air and write the future of the media off as too “chaotic” to control. This is surely too fatalistic.
But it does illustrate the paralysis affecting many of those within the media right now. What to do about the oodles of space that now needs to be filled? How to cope with the demand for speed with which the news can – and so has to – be delivered?
It is these technological and structural changes that have led to many of the problems with standards. The need to fill space makes news necessarily speculative and repetitive (and, Campbell suggested, more predictable). The need for speed militates against the journalists’ discipline of verification. ‘If true…’ Campbell pointed out, have become the most over-used two words in news. All media outlets, from the BBC through to the Mail, publish allegations without verifying them and then qualify them with the caveat ‘if true…’. For Campbell, this exemplifies the insubstantial nature of today’s media.
Of course mixed in with these perceptive comments about the media were some galling Campbell-isms which helped remind you to remain sceptical. It was difficult to accept, for example, his protestations that he had not hectored the BBC before, during and after Iraq. And his description of Tony Blair’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch was simultaneously frank and dissembling. Tony Blair’s “like anyone else” he said, “he just finds some people more interesting then others… and he found Rupert Murdoch more interesting”.
But Campbell’s lament about the state of the media should not simply be dismissed because of his own history, however flawed. Neither should his identification of some of the (other) culprits. The only thing we should ignore is his fatalism.
The English language, it would appear, lacks the vocabularly to describe some of the massive changes engulfing media. So, stealing a trick from the Germans, people are squishing words together to capture bigger concepts.
One of my favourites is ‘infobesity’, coined by Anthony Lilley in his inaugural lecture as the News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media. “We live in an age of infobesity” he told his Oxford students. “Information overload. Too much choice. You can’t stop it – as even the Chinese are finding – by building virtual walls any more. The behaviour of players on the network is simply too massive, chaotic and connected to give you a chance. Fighting it is like bailing a sinking boat with a spoon.”
Better than Cass Sunstein’s ‘infotopia’ (the title of his recent book about the power of networks) and superseding the concept of ‘infotainment’, ‘infobesity’ is both inventive and topical. Maybe it’ll catch on.
As might Nick Davies’ ‘churnalism’ (see previous blog) – the process of taking agency copy or PR material and ‘churning’ it into an article or news package. Needless to say, when using it in his new book, Flat Earth News, Davies is not being complimentary.
And in the spirit of word squishing I’ll throw in ‘infocycling‘ – the endless recyling of information content on the web. Copying and pasting photos from one site to another, grabbing chunks of text or slices of video.
Anyone got any more?
As the Clintons are accused of playing the race card – and losing – in South Carolina, so the Daily Express once again plays the race card – with yet more virulence – on its front page today.
‘Migrants send our crime rate soaring’ is emblazoned across the front of the paper. This is topped by a non-news story about Madeleine McCann (‘Amazing lookalike: “I did not kidnap and kill her”‘), and tailed by ‘outrage’ about the news that – according to the Express – Maxine Carr is expecting a baby. Together these must represent a new low in the paper’s desperate scramble for dog whistle populism.
The main story picks up on a leaked letter from the Chief Constable of Kent, Mike Fuller, who is asking the government for more money. When the letter was leaked, Fuller was presumably not unconscious of the fact that, by using phrases like ‘migration surges’, his request for more money should earn a certain amount of publicity.
Yet given Fuller focused on population increase rather than migrants per se, he might have been slightly surprised by the rampantly xenophobic headlines the letter elicited. Three newspapers ran with the story: the Sunday Times (‘Police chief: “migrant tide adds to crime”‘), the Daily Mail (‘Top black officer warns of “migrant crime surge”‘) and the Daily Express.
The Sunday Times story was reported by Jonathan Oliver – recently headhunted from the Mail after his David Abrahams scoop at the end of last year. Nick Fagge meanwhile, the author of today’s Expess piece, had to take time out from reporting on the McCann’s – having written over 20 articles about the McCanns since the beginning of November (including ‘Is Madeleine a child slave in Morocco?’, and ‘Maddy: mum faces ten years in jail’).
The Express story itself is based entirely on Mike Fuller’s statistics, a reaction from the Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green, and a quote from the anti-immigration spokesman Sir Andrew Green. In other words it is almost entirely lacking any actual journalism. It has been spread across the paper simply to appeal to public fears of migration and latent xenophobia.
When Roy Greenslade wrote critically about the Sunday Express’ reporting on the McCann’s a couple of weeks ago, one commenter asked him why he was wasting his time on a paper no-one read. But that’s the problem, over 700,000 people are still buying the Daily Express, and over 650,000 buying the Sunday Express, according to the latest ABCs.
Sales are dropping, but the further the drop, the more aggressive and downright nasty the paper becomes. One can only hope that, as some point, they go into freefall.
Last year it was broadcasting’s turn. This year it’s spreading to the rest of mainstream media. Nor is it just pinpricks and scratches, but gashes and body blows.
Mainstream media is under attack – for being too powerful, for getting too close to the establishment, and for being opaque and unaccountable. And that’s no bad thing.
In his new book, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’, Peter Oborne accuses those within the media of colluding with the new political class. This is a wounding accusation which, if true, undermines the credibilty of the media’s claims to be acting as the watchdog of power on behalf of the public. It also exposes those within mainstream media to scrutiny by new media ‘watchdogs’ (ie. bloggers), under the guise of ‘public interest journalism’.
Indeed this is exactly how bloggers like Guido Fawkes rationalize writing about the private lives of media folk. The people I write about, Fawkes says, are ‘at the heart of the politico-media nexus that constitutes the new ruling class’. Were they ‘soap stars, footballers or chart-toppers [their private lives] would be all over the papers’ he writes, but because they’re within the media establishment they’re not reported.
But a much more serious – and justifiable – attack on mainstream media is on its way in Nick Davies’ forthcoming book, Flat Earth News. Davies, a Guardian journalist and author, claims to have written a corruscating critique of British newspapers – particularly of the way in which they use public relations material and agency copy and make it look as though it is independent journalism.
He bases this critique on his own experience and on a major research project he conducted with Cardiff University’s School of Journalism last year. During the project Davies and Cardiff went back and checked the sources of hundreds of newspaper articles to distinguish between those that were based on original reporting as opposed to agency copy, or PR material. The findings, Davies says, are frightening. So much so that he has nicknamed much of modern journalism ‘churnalism’.
Since neither the book nor the research is out yet I don’t yet know how convincing they are – or damaging to the newspapers. But based on the material Davies has already released (e.g. see this week’s Private Eye and New Statesman) the book should shed some much needed light on the murky hinterland that exists between the press and PR.