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Tuesday, September 30, 2008 

On knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

For all the undoubted benefits that the internet has brought, one of its most malign effects has been on the state of journalism in this country. The big bloggers can moan all they like about the dead tree press, but without the dead tree press those self-same bloggers would have far fewer stories to write about. For that, without question, is what the MSM does: it provides the facts; the bloggers provide the views, very rarely indeed breaking stories, or at least stories that penetrate into the mass media.

More on which in a moment. Something that can also be linked to the rise of the internet, but more resultant on the multi-channel digital/satellite/cable boom and the decline in advertising is today's announcement
by ITV that it will be cutting an astounding 430 staff working in regional news. Just last week Ofcom rubber-stamped this apparent inevitability, disregarding completely a slight thing like the public interest. ITV is to condense its 17 separate news regions down to just 9, with the massive area which was previously the Border region, Tyne Tees North and Tyne Tees South to be"rationalised" into one, with those in the Borders region not unreasonably protesting vigorously about the likely outcome. Additionally ITV will only have to give over 15 minutes a week to regional programming in England, or a derisory 13 hours a year, all part of an attempt to save £40 million a year.

These cuts would not be so bad if there were other organisations that could pick up the slack. The "rationalisation" process however is not just limited to TV, with both the BBC and ITV cutting back on both local and national news, but also to the local press and the wire agencies. Where once local papers ran training schemes, with reporters subsequently spring-boarding to nationals, these have almost entirely dried up. Instead graduates are thrown in almost entirely at the deep-end, on pitiful wages and with excessive, monotonous hours spent in the office, rather than out cultivating the sources which are vital for any reporter to be able to present an accurate picture of their respective patch.
Nick Davies ably describes how this came about in Flat Earth News, with the benevolent families that previously owned the regional press selling out to the "grocers", whose only instinct is to make a profit, endlessly cut costs and make payouts to shareholders. The wire agencies which once had dozens of reporters covering the courts and elsewhere have either disappeared entirely or been cut to the bone, while vast areas of the country such as Greater Manchester are now covered by just five reporters for the Press Association, while Scotland has just 15. It's worth also pointing out that the local journalist and their sources are even further threatened by the prosecution of Sally Murrer and Mark Kearney, ostensibly on the grounds of "aiding and abetting gross misconduct in a public office", but almost certainly because of their role in uncovering the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP whilst visiting Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison.

In an apparent attempt to add insult to injury, Ofcom justifies the cuts on the basis that it will provide "credible means to sustain quality national and regional news services on ITV1." In other words, ITV was laughing at the regulator which has no clothes: it can't do anything about ITV cutting back, and so provides apologia on the basis that these cuts will allow it to keep broadcasting quality services despite reducing the funds to them. Confused by such contradictions? You're supposed to be. You're also supposed to be glad that this guarantees local programming until 2012, when the digital switchover will be complete and presumably the waste of time and money on such mundane things as local news will be abandoned altogether.

After all, aren't there other things that ITV could cut back on rather than on news production, which provides a undoubted public service? ITV has for example 3 digital channels, which for the most part broadcast block repeats. Possibly the two most notable original productions for ITV2 are
Secret Diary of a Call Girl, the ludicrously shallow, badly acted glamorous prostitute drama starring Billie Piper, and a "reality" show which turgidly and stupefyingly follows around Katie Price (aka Jordan) and Peter Andre as they showcase their mind-numbing stupidity to the world. It makes BBC Three look like BBC Four by comparison. Who knows how much could be saved by shutting down just one or two of these channels, let alone all three, and instead concentrating on just one brand, but the first casualties are always the worthy things that are considered expendable, while the stuff which gets media attention and the one-handed brigade excited are untouchable. ITV could also cut back on its "superstar" pay packets: fittingly, Ant and Dec, stars and culpable in the "fixing" scandals of last year signed up to a £40,000,000 contract, while Simon Cowell has a three-year £20,000,000 deal. Not bad money for humiliating those with delusions of fame with scripted put-downs.

The National Union of Journalists seems to be ready to strike over the cut-backs, but their chances of forcing a rethink are tiny to non-existent. This is the way that both TV and print journalism is going, typified by the thinking of the likes of Richard Desmond who upon buying the Express and Star thought that posts such as health correspondent could be filled by someone getting all their stories off the internet.

The irony is that is exactly what is now taking place, as Davies' rules of production are increasingly followed. You'll have probably noticed it on news sites: the latest decree from on high is to go big with celebrity stories, which draw in massive amounts of hits and and boost sites
up the ABCe tables accordingly. Up until very recently the Guardian website for example punched way above its weight because of its early investment in the internet; since then the Daily Mail has come out of almost nowhere to reach very nearly the highest reaches in terms of hits. This is partially because Paul Dacre famously originally said "bullshit.com" to the idea the internet was the future, something he has since changed his mind over. It's also though because the Mail Online concentrates on celebrity and entertainment stories which can be quickly copied off wire services, and which gain most of their hits from overseas. Seeing this was working, the idea has since been pilfered not just by the other tabloids, but by the likes of the Telegraph as well. Even the Independent is currently running the Britney Spears sex tape story which was the front page splash on today's Daily Star, economic news being far too depressing and boring for paper's demographic. Again, this wouldn't matter so much if other resources were still being placed elsewhere, but increasingly this is where the funding is going.

A case in point was the recent revival of the Satanic panic, this time in Russia.
The Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph all published the gruesome details of a group which had apparently murdered four other teenagers and eaten some of their remains, having stabbed their victims exactly 666 times. The natural sceptic will immediately wonder about the truthfulness of such claims, and a quick search for an original source proves futile: there doesn't appear to be one, neither a news wire source or one from Russia, so where on earth had they came from? An investigation suggested that the story had in fact originated on that notoriously factual Russian newspaper site, Pravda, but the story has even disappeared from there. Searching Google now still doesn't turn up a Russian source, and searches on the Moscow Times and Russia Today sites also turn up nothing. Wherever it came from, no one actually seems to have done any checking whatsoever other than repeat the claims completely verbatim. After all, contacting the authorities in Russia would doubtless be costly, and if it turned out the story wasn't accurate, that would mean that a sensationalist story that would naturally bring traffic to a website couldn't be published. The changing rules of journalism now in fact mitigate against the original purpose of the craft: to report facts. Ninja turtle syndrome, where if somewhere else is reporting something, everywhere has to report it, is becoming the norm.

One Telegraph hack has become so concerned with what they are now tasked to do that they wrote to Roy Greenslade with their anxieties:

The growth of blogs and online communities seems to be contributing plenty in the way of opinion, of which there's already plenty and not much in the way of facts. This is creating a brand of journalism in which it doesn't really matter if you get things wrong.

Again, it's becoming all too clear at the Telegraph, whose online business plan seems to be centred on chasing hits through Google by rehashing and rewriting stories that people are already interested in. Facts are no longer the currency they used to be.

I don't have a particularly rosy view of the past and I am all too well aware that many of the things I've loved about papers, particularly the craft of putting them together, are becoming obsolete.

But I do worry that without the professionalism of the career journalist, society will be much less well equipped to hold the powerful to account and that serious and intelligent debate will be lost under a global shouting match between anonymous partisan supporters of particular opinions or interests.

As the journalist also relates in a paraphrase of C.P. Scott's quote, comment is cheap but facts are expensive. To pull out and slightly paraphrase another quote, this time one of Wilde's, we are in danger of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. As the media becomes ever more "rationalised" around London, those outside the bubble become ever more enraged by media which they find no longer represents them or even tells them anything that they are interested in. All politics may be local, but the news no longer is. There was no golden age, but what is certain is that now is as far away from that as it seems possible to get. As the Telegraph journalist states, this isn't based on parochialism, it's based on the fact that as news retreats every further into the obvious and cheap, while the comment becomes ever louder and brash, we risk completely losing the ability to hold the powerful to account, and fundamentally, democracy itself is and will be undermined. The really depressing thing is that things, especially with the "credit crunch" and the increasing flight of advertising to the web, are only likely to get worse.

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Unfortunately its got nothing to do with economics, or with rationalising around London as you conclude.

It has everything to do with the EU, and the 9 regional governments that England will be split into in 2010.

The BBC has already done its regionalisation, it was only a matter of time before ITV followed the EU edicts as well.

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