Friday, July 15, 2011

‘Tabloid hacks will do anything to get a story’ shock

In other news, a large body of water has been discovered west of Portugal, the French language may be closely related to Italian, and studies suggest that native Norwegians have lighter skin tone than the Sudanese.

Let me explain this in very simple terms, not for the benefit of regular readers, who are a bright lot, but more for my own benefit, to see if I have missed something, because an awful lot of people don’t seem to understand it:

Newspapers are businesses. They exist to make money. The major papers are part of international corporations which are big enough to influence governments and legislators in their favour, and when they can they do so. People who work for these corporations are mostly interested in providing for their families and knocking off early on Fridays. Rupert Murdoch allows about 100,000 people to do this.

In order to make money a business must give its customers what they want. What most people want from newspapers is gossip, weird sex, and having their prejudices and intellect pandered to. And so the media provide a lot of that. Enough people are interested in a semblance of truth and serious analysis to keep the broadsheets loosely anchored in reality, but that is just the way things turn out, not what journalism is.

Journalists are employed by media to sell stuff and make money for their employee, like the rest of us. We have no value to our employer but what we can earn for them. They have no value to us but what we can get them to pay us*. (True artists, young sportsman and public employees are exceptions to this, perhaps).

The purpose of newspapers is not to uncover the truth, to hold the government to account (that’s supposed to be Parliament’s job, but you could easily fail to notice), or to defend our democratic freedoms. Their purpose, the purpose of journalists, is to construct a story that people will pay to read. Nothing else matters.

To discover that a company has used reprehensible or even illegal methods to enhance its profits is no great surprise. It happens all the time. The collapse of said company causes loss to its employees and to such customers as had an attachment to its products, but to the rest of us it doesn’t matter at all. If there is a market for that product someone will replace it and if there isn’t they won’t.

The media, like most organizations, are full of ambitious people- and journalists tend to take themselves far more seriously than they should- who will exceed the limits that even the organization itself sets on its conduct, in order to advance within it. That the editor of a national newspaper, with access to government and her own personal soapbox, should try to maintain her position by any means available, is not much of a surprise either.

Those who have broken the law will, I imagine, be punished. Those who have cost their company money and power will also be punished. Anyone who wants to punish News International can stop buying the Sun or watching the Simpsons**. The politicians have decided that the best solution is for them to decide who can own a newspaper and what they can print. Amazingly, a lot of people seem to agree with them.

*Of course it’s more complex than that. I enjoy my work, on the whole, and, like many people, take some pride and pleasure in doing it well, but mostly I do it for the money, and so does everyone else.

**A lot of people seem to think that are entitled to have their sex, gossip and cartoons provided by someone who is to their own personal taste. It doesn’t work like that. You may have to make a choice. It might even hurt.


Vincent said...

Yes but isn't there an underlying significance to all this which you haven't mentioned?

The Press were supposed to check on the powerful (politicians and others) to stop them being corrupt against the ordinary citizen's interest. The politicians are supposed to check on the opposing party so that the interests of those who voted for them are furthered. The police are there to make sure the laws are obeyed etc.

If the politicians, Press and police are linked by their common interest in corruption (press pay police, politicians court the press, etc) then the checks and balances are destroyed. Not to mention the public turning a blind eye to how journalists get their information when they are interested in the stories which result.

We've had the banks' self-interest causing financial crises, the politicians' expenses damaging faith in elected representatives. Now it's important to bring this other stuff in the open.

Because everyone must be held to account. There is no point to democratic freedom otherwise.

And when you say "In order to make money a business must give its customers what they want" it's important to remember the symbiotic nature of all such contracts. A business doesn't exist just to give customers what they want, but to stimulate new wants that people didn't think of wanting before (drugs, porn and mobile phones for example).

You seem to take a rather cynical approach, rather than tackle the moral issues here - that we all share responsibility for the intricate interactions that make up our society.

Not that I have any solutions to propose.

CIngram said...

It surprises me that people are surprised to learn how these things work in reality. The idea that the press, the media in general, exist to speak truth to power and to defend our democratic freedoms is a myth propagated by the media themselves to increase their seriousness and importance, in the same way that US journalists like to claim that the their trade is uniquely protected by the Constitution. It isn't. The First Amendment mentions the (printing) press to explicitly extend freedom of speech to the written as well as the spoken word.

Modern newspapers derive from the coffee house gossip sheets and the political pamphlets of the 18thC. Their purpose was to acquire power, not to control it. Although some outlets and journalists have and still do take it upon themselves to uncover and make known the acts and motives of the powerful, for which we can all be grateful, the great majority are simply not in that line of business and never have been.

We need to understand this, and also to understand that it's up to all of us to hold government to account, at all levels and in any way we can. It requires great effort and sometimes courage, which is why we prefer to think we can delegate it to 'the press', but the reality is that we can't.

If as a result of all this people begin to appreciate that newspapers and television statiions are part of multi-national corporations with their own interests, and need watching just as much as banks and oil companies, some good will have come of it.

(Another little hobby horse of mine, tangentially relevant, is Hollywood. One of the most brutally capitalist industries in the world, selling an essentially worthless product by ruthless marketing specifically aimed at people of limited means, manages to present itself and the people who make fortunes from it as somehow cuddly and full of moral rectitude.)