Sunday, May 30, 2010

"The Medium is the Message"

I don't know whether Marshall McLuhan's famous quote was ever intended to reflect upon the situation we have today with the media.

It would be kind of comfortable to think that the news media were detached observers, providing information about the state of the world to people who would not otherwise have access to it. For at least a century, this has failed to work in the context of newspapers. Even a relatively concise history of the early part of the century, such as The Making of Modern Britain: From Queen Victoria to VE Day, highlights the way in which the newspapers barons sought to influence opinions, and eventually to shape the political dialogue.

For a long time, it felt (at least, to those of us with no real axe to grind - okay, so by not being "part of the solution" perhaps we were really "part of the problem") as though whilst the newspapers were partisan, it was at least possible to trust the BBC to be detached and objective. But in the last few months, I have become less confident in this.

It has always been the case that certain programmes ("Today" on Radio 4, "Newsnight" on BBC2, "Question Time") had a public profile that was large enough to match the gravitas of anybody they chose to interview. But at some stage, either the editorial staff or at least the presenters seem to have become aware of this, and no longer happy with merely presenting the news, have seemed to want to direct the news.

Interviews on "Today" rarely seem to be opportunities for a genuine give and take between journalist and interviewee. Instead, the journalist jumps from thread to thread, trying to find a way of getting the interviewees to say something ill-advised or lose their patience, or find a subject that the interviewees aren't able or willing to give a straightforward answer to, feeling little compunction about interrupting them, and more intent on preventing anything being broadcast that the interviewees have prepared to say. The debate on the political side has ended up controlled by spin doctors, who are priming people at government level about what to say. But the net effect is that interviews cease to be an opportunity to hear how politicians justify the issues of the day, and instead becomes a verbal sparring match between two people, with little interest as to what useful information, if any, the listening audience will take away from the interview.

On top of that, particularly over the last few weeks, with the establishment of the new government, it has become obvious that not only the newspapers, but also the BBC, have a bias to "generate news". So news organisations with editorial input, including the BBC, directed much effort to trying to find weak points as the coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives was established. In its presentation, this moved beyond a simple scrutiny of policies, and much closer to a sustained attempt to attack the coalition, and undermine the government. That is no longer news reporting: that is an attempt to generate news.

The same thing happened this week, in my opinion, with both the Question Time issue, constructed by the BBC, and the David Laws issue, largely constructed by the Daily Telegraph. In the case of Question Time, in the week of the Queen's Speech, a platform was given to relative diehards - John Redwood, Alastair Campbell - who frankly have little to do with the attempts to forge a new form of government in the UK. In the case of Laws, the media have not really done anything to improve the financial accountability of elected representatives, but have succeeded in generating coverage of the private life of an MP (something he had specifically been trying to protect) and depriving the government (and thus the country) of an intelligent minister. But no doubt they got lots of hits on their website, and got themselves talked about.

It is too much to expect that any news organisation can be a completely detached observer anywhere. But surely most people still believe that what they read, hear and see should reflect the issues of the day, not be seeking to shape them. It would be great if the mainstream media spent less time convincing themselves that McLuhan gave them a mandate to try and shape society.

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