Dogs, lamp posts, politicians and journalists
If politics is about the gestation of power than one can say that there is hardly a more upbeat politician than a media owner. In our society media organisations are generally more powerful than political parties; media owners are more powerful than party leaders and prime ministers while journalists are more powerful than politicians. Berlusconi epitomises all of this. He is the natural and logical conclusion of a long process that led to the supremacy of the media in contemporary western societies. He is a media owner and a Prime Minister. On paper it is difficult to think of someone who has more power than he does. Is it so?
Does the fact that Berlusconi is also a Prime Minister increases or decreases his power? The answer is partly yes and partly no. His prime ministerial role puts on him a lot of responsibility and public attention than his role of media owner does. In the latter role he has a lot of power without any real responsibility. Things should not be like that as media power should carry with it a lot of responsibility. But in actual fact it does not.
In certain respects, therefore, Mr Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate is (or better "was") more lucky than Berlusconi. I do not want to be or sound cynical. There is though the distinct probability that in a few months' time things will calm down and he will live happier ever after. Instead of the disgraced News of the World he will have the Sun on Sunday to rule the roost.
No news of the world – just gossip
Isn't it ironical that the paper which was called the News of the World actually had very little to do with news but a lot to do with gossip? This was not a casual occurrence or an invention of Murdoch or the work of a few unethical journalists. The aggressive commercialisation of the media brought with it the transfer from normative journalism to market driven journalism. (I discuss the ethical dimension of the debacle in my regular column in The Sunday Times July 17 cf. http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110717/religion/It-s-the-ethics-stupid.375927 )
McManus discusses this at length in an interesting book called: Market Driven JournalismLet the Citizen Beware? (London: Sage Publications. 1994). Profitability instead of public service takes the pride of place in this type of journalism. Journalistic responsibility has been largely replaced by accountability to markets and shareholders while the advertiser became the prime client, and this particular client is always considered to be in the right. Instead of serving people's right to know, journalists start serving people's want to know i.e. curiosity. This is what the News of the World did to perfection! One can make a pseudo-democratic statement, saying that if that is what people want than that is what one should give them. I posit three questions. Is that what the people really want? Do we make the same argument regarding junk food, cigarettes and drugs? Does not society take steps to channel the markets and change tastes and attitudes when these are considered to be negative or unhealthy? Further down I suggest some steps that can be taken.
No sex, no news
Tabloids journalism realised than when one draws blood from the famous and the powerful the masses approve with the same enthusiasm of the plebs at the Coliseum. At first glance this could be seen as the climaxing of what once Jeremy Paxman, the famous BBC journalist, had once said in a Guardian interview i.e. that a journalist's attitude to politicians should display the same degree of respect which dogs reserve for lamp-posts. But Paxman, with his BBC ethos wanted to say that this attitude should be there where policies are concerned. He was saying that journalists should take no nonsense from politicians. Journalists should be the voice of the people grilling politicians to get to the truth. Tabloid journalists have a different mentality. They are more interested in peccadillos (generally sexual) than policies. Murdoch's people were not interested in the spending scandal of British MPs because they said there was no sex attached to it! Besides, tabloid journalists tend to be selective in the politicians they target. Being on the wrong side of Murdoch makes one an easier target.
It is wrong when politicians bully journalists; but it is equally wrong when journalists bully politicians.
Silver linings and concrete steps
There are silver linings to the story. It was a newspaper – the Guardian – that let the cat among the pigeons. However, many other papers treated the whole fiasco with kid's gloves. Could it be that their reaction signals use of similar methods? Healthy pluralism presupposes a varied system of ownership of media organisations not just multiplicity of media organisations. Variety balances the power of one media organisation with that of another hindering the growth of journalistic type of Mafia.
The closing down of the News of the World was partly an example of people's power. The same people who helped the monster grow now cried for its blood. They showed that even those fed on the tabloid tripe for years still have their own mind and their own sense of dignity. The hacking of the mobile of a kidnapped murdered girl was a big no-no for them. People reacted big time. Imagine how more effective people would be if they are empowered by programmes of media education.
Efforts should be made, preferably within the industry to make the media more accountable and transparent. In Malta self-regulation is as strong as a toothless baby poodle. This situation is not acceptable. The British are grumbling about their Press Complaints Commission which is one thousand more effective than ours. Over here people simply do not care.
Why should not editors, for example, declare their income and assets every year just as elected politicians do? Why should not newspapers be obliged to publish audited circulation figures? Why should not media organisation publish detailed audited accounts? We could then have a possible inkling of potential conflict of interest between advertising income and editorial stories. Their mixing is unethical, but mixing there is and worse. One story regularly circulating in media circles is about a particular functionary in a media organisation who bluntly asks for adverts in lieu of killing negative stories. People comply because they do prefer not to be bothered by the media.
Which Maltese media organisation will appoint its first independent ombudsman to be the voice of the readers and the conscience of the media organisation? In the USA there is even an association of media ombudsman. The media are the defenders of the national Ombudsman and were particularly supportive of the MEPA ombudsman aka auditor. It seems though that "hadd ma jrid lill-pulizija wara biebu"! What are journalists afraid of?
I am not in favour of more statutory control but I am in favour of these and other measures which make our media more accountable.