Observations of an ex pat: Media attack

The press is under attack. It is accused of disseminating fake news, invasion of privacy, distortions, half-truths and conspiracy theories. Journalists are demonised, denigrated, locked up and even murdered.

The media has always faced such problems. Power brokers pay lip service to press freedom but are, at best, reluctant supporters.  In rare rational moments they  acknowledge its value. But they throw up barriers  the moment  the media spotlight shines on their unsavoury activities.

The press has always managed to see off such opposition because the courts were behind it, and because its operations were based on sound commercial foundations.  The former is still true, but changing in countries where populist governments are twisting the law. The latter is definitely no longer the case.  The media’s commercial base is rapidly eroding and public interest is suffering as a result.

For three centuries the press prospered, and it is no coincidence that those same three centuries saw the fastest growth and the greatest advances in science, technology and political thought in the history of mankind. Newspapers and magazines have been a channel through which flowed world-changing ideas and information.

By the turn of the twentieth century every city in the world had at least one newspaper. Commercial restrictions were dictated largely by geography and technology. General circulation of the  New York Times and Washington Post were limited to a radius of about 100 miles from their respective printing plants because that was how far the newspaper lorries could drive in the time available. The British London papers did not achieve a national reach until the development of the railways.

Market forces dictated that the editorial content reflected the varied interests of the readers in the respective geographic areas. New Yorkers read about events in New York with a focus on the business and financial world.  The Washington Post was the paper to read for American government happenings. The national distribution of the London newspapers were different. They pointed the way to a readership base based on ideology rather than geography.

Then along came the broadcasters.  The received wisdom was that they would destroy the printed word. Wrong. They complemented it.  If stories broke in print they were reported on air. If they broke on air they were analysed in print.

That was not the case with the internet.  Within a few short years the creation of Sir Tim Berners-Lee has brought both the broadcast and print media to their knees.

The ultra-fast global internet turned news into an instant on demand commodity and abolished geographic limitations at the click of a mouse. In doing so it undermined the differentiated markets of the press. It also lowered the economic entry threshold. Now, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can enter a world that was previously reserved for deep-pocketed billionaires.

In theory this was a good thing. And much good has come from it. Then  cyber space started to fill with lies, half-truths, and conspiracy theories leavened with an underlying message of hate, bigotry and racism.  These news sites survived either because their owners were more interested in their cause than profit,  or because a global reach coupled with free distribution  meant they would almost always find a big enough audience to attract advertisers if their content was outrageous enough.

The traditional media tried to compete by going digital and carving out editorial niches which were no longer targeted  on a wide range of interests in a narrow geographic area.  Instead they aimed at a narrow range of views in a wide—even global– geographic area. The New York Times, Guardian and Washington Post became the global voices of liberalism. The Washington Times, Fox News and the Daily Telegraph became their conservative counterparts.  The Daily Mail became the global disseminator of news about the Kardashians and the Beckhams. The shock jocks of American radio became more shocking as figures such as Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity competed for audiences by trying to outshock each other.

Governments have responded by threats of “regulation.”  But the answer lies in measures to return the press to a sound commercial footing. Only a financially sound press can be free.

* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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One Comment

  • Peter Hirst 19th May '18 - 4:31pm

    When many media outlets get most of their revenue from advertising, how do you secure financial security for them? Competition is important. There needs to be some independent regulation. At least, paying people for their private information is honest and transparent. A free press is important and so is preserving individual privacy and maintaining accurate reporting.

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