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Press: Mass media find profits in activism, not ads

27 August 2021

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AS I settled down to write this, Twitter served me a video clip of an American woman (naturally an anti-vaxxer) telling an interviewer how she understands the world: “I watch prophets of God, and Newsmax, and maybe a little Fox. I’ve kind of turned away from news because I’m not interested in it. I’m interested in what God is saying, what He is fixing to do. That’s all I’m concerned about.”

Let no one say that this column is parochial: the context for her remarks is supplied by a review in a New Zealand webzine, The Spinoff, of a book published in Canada by a Russian émigré about journalism in the Anglo-Saxon world. The book, Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers, by Andrey Mir, sets out a thesis about the changing media landscape which explains perfectly the American anti-vaxxer.

The review, by Danyl McLauchlan, tells a story that starts in 1631, when Cardinal Richelieu established a newsletter, La Gazette, as a propaganda outlet. Both the Cardinal and Louis XIII were frequent anonymous contributors, although their copy was rewritten by the editor. That transaction remains an essential part of political journalism to this day.

The newspaper was a great success, with an even greater, quite unforeseen result. The existence of newspapers brought about “the creation of the idea that there is ‘a public’ and that it should know what’s going on in the nation and the world, and have opinions on it, and that these opinions should count for something”, as the review puts it.

This “public sphere” is implicit in most people’s idea of journalism. It still operates in some niche forms, such as the church press or local newspapers: the readers of the Church Times are, after all, influential in the decisions taken by some of the people whom they are reading about. But it is no longer true of the mass media. A central fact about contemporary democracy is that most voters feel that their votes are meaningless and that their opinions are of no interest to the people who take decisions. This is a political problem, but one that has huge implications for the news business.

It’s combined with the great technological change that the internet has brought: as McLauchlan says, the unit of information is no longer the newspaper or magazine, and it’s not even the story: it’s the headline.

But not any headline will do: “If I click on an ‘objective’ news story about the fall of Kabul to the Taliban I don’t learn much that I don’t already know, i.e. that Kabul has fallen to the Taliban. I’m probably not gonna pay for that. But what if I could click on a highly editorialised story, or even just an opinion piece that blamed the fall of Kabul on a politician or party or ideology I don’t like? A story that validates what I already think about the world? What if I wasn’t really paying for the news, but donating to make that editorialising news free to other people who I wanted to persuade to the worldview it promoted? What if the news was less like a factual description of the world and more like an activist cause I strongly supported? The world the way I want it to be?”

That is now the business model of both the liberal and the conservative press. It’s the only way that they can make a profit in the mass market, now that the advertising has all gone. And the social effects are immense: “The ad-driven media produced happy customers. The reader-driven media produce angry citizens. The former served consumerism. The latter serves polarization.”

 

I SUPPOSE there is always Private Eye, which picked up an excellent story about the horrendous mess that is the clergy discipline system (News, 13 August). Given that everyone now agrees that the system is dysfunctional, cruel, and ineffective, the obvious remedy is to conceal it from the world. So, the Eye reported, “the Clergy Discipline Commission has revised the code of practice governing such cases, bluntly commanding: ‘All matters should be kept strictly private and confidential.’ Since the CDM has the force of English law, anyone who disobeys the new rule may be referred to the high court for contempt.

“Henceforth, if a cleric is accused of misconduct, their accusers and supporters — and journalists — must ‘refrain from making statements, posts, comments or similar on social media, websites, print media or other public fora which in any way reference the detail of the allegation, the individuals involved, or give an opinion as to the merits or otherwise of the alleged misconduct’. While designed to keep people like [Martyn] Percy from speaking in their own defence, the new measure has a much wider effect, silencing victims of clerical abuse and preventing the media from reporting their claims.”

 

THIS is not going to work. In any case, it will do the Church no good in the impending revival of the John Smyth/Iwerne scandal, pegged on Andrew Graystone’s forthcoming book, Bleeding for Jesus. Harriet Sherwood had an early preview of this in The Guardian, quoting apologies for the scandal from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Titus Trust. The more that comes out, the less adequate those will appear.

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