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How smartphones have changed the news

20 December 2019

This year has shown the extent to which the digital revolution has eclipsed traditional media, says Andrew Brown

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IN THE days of print media and television, readers were even more superficial than journalists were. While everyone scanned the headlines on a page, not many people read to the beginning of an article — and fewer still made it to the end.

In a world of digital media and of news consumed on smartphones, the process has gone much further, and that is the long-term story underlying everything that happened in the media this year.

So, The Guardian’s pre-election study of how six mobile-phone users got their news about politics was a sobering reminder of just how far this process has now gone. There was “Shazi”, a 37-year-old health worker: “She doesn’t own a TV and doesn’t read newspapers, with her news consumption almost entirely existing of reading Twitter. She strongly believes that the mainstream media is negative and untrustworthy.”

“Charlie”, an accounts clerk from South Shields, “saw a handful of headlines from the BBC and Sky News, he did not click on any of them. . . A keen gamer, he is considered to be one of the most politically engaged individuals in his social group and friends often ask him who they should vote for.”

People used to call this democratisation, but the point about a democracy is that it is a method of government. It produces decisions that can be enforced against the wishes of the minority. The internet, in contrast, is an anarchising device. Minorities there carry on as if the opposed majority did not exist. Arguments are not so much interminable as non-existent. People just don’t engage with others who disagree with them. They don’t want to, and no one can make them.

That long-term process has been the most important media story of the decade, underlying all the others. And it will continue next year, too, as all but a handful of newspapers disappear.

As traditional media have lost power, politicians have shifted position, too. One sign has been the assault from the Right in the United States, and in the UK, against the weakened old giants of broadcasting, among them the BBC. But there have also been attempts, so far sporadic and feeble, to control the digital media. The backlash against Facebook and Google has been steadily growing all round the world. The assumption that the internet would be run according to the ideology of 1990s California is now completely groundless. The question for national governments — and, indeed, for the European Union — is now only “Who is to be the master?”

In part, this is driven by the belief that advertising — and particularly political advertising — on social media really works, and amplifies messages from the top down, but I suspect that that view is a misinterpretation. What social media — including YouTube — do that the old propaganda media could not is amplify prejudice from the ground up.

AGAINST this background, the stories that lasted in traditional, top-down media were few. The only times that the Church of England cut through were unflattering: the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) hearings, and, in the elite press, the scandal at Christ Church, Oxford, and the partial rehabilitation of George Bell.

The most damaging sex scandals for the Church of England were more indirect: the support given by Prince Charles and Prince Andrew to the sex offenders Jeffrey Epstein and Bishop Peter Ball. The involvement of Lord Carey was not the important factor here, I think: it is more that the twin mystiques of the Established Church and the monarchy nourish each other, and to weaken one is to weaken both.

Otherwise, not even numerical decline was a story any longer. This was part of a wider marginalisation of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon public life, beautifully summarised by a wire-service headline after fire gutted the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris: “Tourist mecca Notre Dame also revered as a place of worship”.

Black-led churches were entirely ignored in this country, with the exception of the scandal around SPAC Nation (Press, 15 November), which was broken by the website HuffPost UK, not by any established outfit. Africa is largely ignored in the West.

The struggle within the global Roman Catholic Church between Pope Francis and his enemies continued to make news. The attacks on both sides were quite extraordinary in their bluntness. Francis on his clerical enemies really was harking back to the language of the Early Church: “They hide behind good intentions in order to stab their brothers and sisters in the back and to sow weeds, division and bewilderment. . . Behind these sowers of weeds, we always find the thirty pieces of silver.”

So much for Steve Bannon and Cardinal Burke.

This was the year in which Pope Francis managed to appoint a majority of the cardinals who will appoint his successor, but that is no guarantee that the next Pope will follow the present one’s lead. After all, Francis was chosen by the cardinals appointed under John Paul II and Benedict.

THE splits within the RC Church are to some extent echoed within the Church of England. I don’t think that the driver here is sexuality so much as it is nationalism or cultural rootedness: to what extent can Christianity survive as a pure ideology, unanchored in any forms of social life?

The sociological explanation for the decline of the Church of England, as Abby Day has pointed out, is that it is no longer carried in the lives of middle-class women (Features, 23 June 2017). The England of which it was the Church has disappeared. That was not caused by immigration, either; but what gives the question its edge is the fact that different forms of social life — different cultures, if you like — are mutually exclusive. The question “Who is your neighbour?” cannot have for its answer “Everyone,” although it can be “Whoever’s in front of you.”

But whom you see in front of you is determined, increasingly, by your smartphone. In my end is my beginning, as the ghost of T. S. Eliot howls in anguish at my ear.

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