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Media in need of dental work

15 July 2016

Parlous state: Kath Viner’s essay on the state of the press in Tuesday’s Guardian

Parlous state: Kath Viner’s essay on the state of the press in Tuesday’s Guardian

UNDER the circumstances, it’s astonishing that any news of the General Synod got into the papers at all. Once more, John Bingham was well served by his headline-writers. “Take off dog collars for sex talks, clergy advised” was how Telegraph readers learned of the Shared Conversations.

Many of them must have wondered, after last week’s story, whether it was permissible to enter the conversations in a mankini, but this important point was not addressed. The shallowing out of journalistic standards con­tinues.


A LONGER and more wide-ranging view of this was provided by Kath Viner, The Guardian’s editor, in a 5500-word piece in the middle of the paper on Tuesday: “How technology disrupted the truth”. The short form of her argument is that social media, and especially Facebook, have made it possible for people to choose the news they want to read, and it turns out that objective truth has very little bearing on this choice.

In fact, as might have been predicted, people really don’t like being told they are wrong, and will actively avoid news sources that offer them this experience. Journalists, of course, prefer to think of themselves as tellers of uncomfortable truths even while they devote much effort to flattering and gratifying the tastes of their readers. The Independent was launched with a manifesto of robust independence of all political parties, and a silhouette, rather daring for 1985, of a breast and nipple on the skyline to illustrate a medical story of limited urgency.

The rise of social media may have made this tendency worse, but its real threat to traditional journalism comes from the way in which it has stolen all the online advertising revenue. This comes about as the result of a paradox: because Facebook shows fewer advertisements than news sites end up doing, it can charge more, and readers mind them less.

That puts traditionally ad-driven news­papers into a death spiral, where they can charge less for advertisements online and so need to show more and more, which in turn repels more readers and causes them to turn to adblocking software. The Guardian boasts of millions of readers online, and it has them, but the revenue per reader from advertising is about 8p a month, as pointed out by Charles Arthur, who used to be its technology correspondent. Facebook makes eight to ten times that from each reader in its much larger audience.

Charles is also responsible for the def­inition of news as “stuff people want to share and to pass on”. This is worth thinking about, although it is entirely neutral as to truth — indeed, Kath Viner’s piece starts with a consideration of the old story of David Cameron and the pig’s head, which was almost certainly entirely untrue, but at the same time something that was pleasurable to share, as millions did.

Obviously, it is not open to the editor of The Guardian to blame original sin, but in this context it may be helpful to remember that, even before the internet, it was possible for the news to conceal all kinds of salient truths.

This worked so well that it was normally only ever foreigners who were fooled. I remember travelling in the United States in 2004-05, when it was completely obvious from here that the occupation in Iraq would lead to a military disaster for the US. To anyone who read the papers there, this was literally un­­thinkable. The stories and the concepts that would have made it credible were just un­­available.

Something similar laid the groundwork for the catastrophic referendum result here: it was not so much the lies told by the Leave campaigners, but the absence of stories that would illuminate our powerlessness in the world. Only in the reporting on the fortunes of the England football team would reality intrude.

This produces another rule about news: people care about accuracy only when they are going to make decisions on the basis of it. That is why the Financial Times gets things right, and why, I assume, the Racing Post does, too. But who makes political decisions?


LET us follow the readers, then, in retreating from ugly facts into the lovely and comforting world where things work as they should. The New York Times carried an obituary of a notable Adventist, whose early training was entirely different: “In the biography C. D.: The Man Behind the Message, Harold L. Lee and Benjamin Baker chronicled the spiritual awakening of a North Carolina farm boy who appeared destined for a career as a dentist until he attended a tent meeting run by E. E. Cleveland, an Adventist evangelist and civil-rights leader who pioneered mass baptisms. . .

”‘Charles had thought that in his career as a dentist he was going to fight tooth decay,’ the authors added. “Now, a higher power had determined that he would fight truth decay.’”

A calling for all of us these days.

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