The Truth Shall Make You
The Age of Stupid
We live in The Age Of Stupid.
We live in the age of 24-hour rolling noise, masquerading as “news”; a world of sideshow sensation and ersatz outrage. Global media conglomerates bring us “the world in one minute” – events and incidents, instantly bitesized and pre-digested for easy consumption.
We are presented with the “what” – but rarely, if ever, enough facts to understand the “why”. To borrow a quote from a fine and angry song:
“Everywhere I go, I hear what’s going on
And the more I hear, the less I know”
(“Everywhere I Go”: Oysterband, 1995)
This is a blog about the practice of journalism and why it matters. I have been engaged in this trade for almost four decades. I began in 1978, a year before the Thatcher government began dismantling the post-war consensus which honoured the ideal of public service and recognised the importance of strong journalism to the public interest.
I have worked in newspapers, radio and television, in addition to writing a succession of non-fiction books. And now this. Why a blog ? Why now ?
Because, more than any other factor, it is my trade which is turning the world stupid.
The years since 1978 have witnessed a media revolution. Back then there were only three television channels, the Independent had yet to emerge on Fleet Street, and the world wide web was the stuff of science fiction. Pictures – still and moving – were recorded on film and sometimes took days to get back to base. A toxic combination of poor management and cynical print unions held the newspaper industry in a corrupt and choking grip.
Advances in technology have steadily made our trade easier, quicker and cheaper to pursue. First video, then digital imaging replaced expensive film; ancient hot metal presses were chased out by clean, quick and less expensive methods; the internet and smart phones have now made instant publication possible (and sometimes mandatory). All of this should – logically – have led to a new golden age of serious journalism in which enabled the Fourth Estate to fulfil its traditional – and vital – role as a public-interest watchdog, exposing corruption, injustice and oppression the world over.
Instead, a strange thing happened. The amount of good, serious public interest journalism declined in almost exact correlation to the advances in technology which should have freed it. Which is how (note: ‘how’, not ‘why’) we live today in an age where we know almost instantly whether a Z-list celebrity has engaged in a Twitter spat with another equally vacuous nonentity, or that a fading model has flashed a ‘side boob’ at a red carpet premiere.
It is also the reason that we are endlessly blasted with ‘factoids’ about the vast size of Greek debt and the plight of its impoverished population, while learning nothing about how this debt arose in the first place. Or why we see horrific images of ISIL atrocities without being given the facts which would enable us to understand how – and with whose backing – it emerged in the first place.
Instead we pick over the sterile bones of a synthetic argument about whether broadcasters should use the term “Islamic State”. If, as Lord Reith once envisioned, the value of the BBC was that “nation should speak unto nation” today it – and the rest of the media – delivers little more meaningful than a shallow parade of grotesques and lip-flap: newspapers and television infantilise their audiences and readerships. To the point of stupidity.
And here’s the “why”.
There has been one constant in this age of media revolution: one unending and unchallenged thread running through all the changes. We have stopped regulating my trade.
If anything is guaranteed to unite most journalists (a process usually akin to herding cats) it’s the idea that journalism and journalists should be regulated. The very idea of any state control of the media is anathema to British hackdom. Our constant demand is for red tape to be resisted (or, better still, cut) and for regulation to be rejected.
And here’s the truth my colleagues in this trade don’t want you to know. We were always regulated – at least until recently. And it was entirely A Good Thing.
In television it led to – and guaranteed – the serious journalism of World In Action, Panorama and Dispatches in their trouble-making heydays. In print it ensured that non-dom newspaper moguls could not control an over-sized slice of the market. The only people to lose out from media regulation were those in power, be that government or corporate: a free – but regulated press – snapped at their heels and shone unwelcome light on their sins.
Which may well explain why, since Thatcher, successive governments have first weakened, then abolished almost all media regulation. Turkeys, after all, would prefer Christmas to be a vegetarian event.
We live in The Age of Stupid. And it will become ever more so until we understand the paradox that strong, free and revelatory journalism needs the safe harbour of rigorous regulation to protect both it and the public whose interests it should serve.
Journalism – muscular, serious, difficult journalism – maters: it is vital in keeping a free society free. Hence this blog. Hence this attempt to tell at least some truth.
It may not make you free: it should make you fret.