Sunday, 10 March 2013

What is journalism and how can we improve it?

A 17th Century coffee house.
It's interesting how new technologies work different effects in different places. Printing, for example, appeared in Song China in about the year 1045. In Europe it appeared (independently) in 1450 and led to what we now call the Renaissance efflorescence of innovation. I won't here go into why the outcomes were so different in these two places; it might be germane to say that Europe was made up of many countries compared to monolithic China; you can talk about European dynastic ambitions, or European disputatiousness, or cultural and geographic differences. Scholarship will have answers but I have not read everything there is available so I'll have to gloss over the point and merely say that it took 180 years from the introduction of the new technology in Germany to the publication of Francis Bacon's "guide to science", Novum Organum, in 1620. At this point we can sit back, relax, and go "Whew!", sure in the knowledge that from the time that Bacon's treatise appeared in print it was just a simple hop, skip and jump to the invention of paracetamol. Yay science! Yay learning! Yay the Enlightenment!

Generations of scribblers, then, with inky fingers. And generations of typesetters and printers, with inky fingers too. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Upper case, lower case, upper case, lower case. Print, print, print. But hang on. There's more. Yay democracy? Yeah, what about that?

Let's step back a bit and keep an eye on the date 1626, when Ben Jonson's play The Staple of News was registered into the Stationer's Register in London. News had always been a valued commodity in places like London. Originally, royal courts and wealthy merchants would maintain emissaries in foreign cities where these men of parts could gather information and send back letters informing their paymasters of local events. But at the beginning of the 17th Century people started to print up recounts of events on mainland Europe and sell them to the public. These 'corantos' from Holland were translated into English and published in England. Then local businesses started up in England doing the same thing. Jonson's play features such a business and the way he treats it tells us that, even early on in its history, the news business was viewed askance and with a critical eye by the intelligentsia (Jonson was nothing if not well-read, especially in the Latin classics). But there was nothing he could do to staunch the flow of ink; there was too much demand.

We can shift sideways here and mention Jurgen Habermas, the German scholar who published in 1962 a book, not translated into English until 1989, titled The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. It's a good read if you can tolerate density and the use of technical terminology. When I read it as part of my media degree I was thrilled and stimulated. But I am not an expert on Habermas and I do not pretend to be. Other people with far higher intelligence than I possess, and with far greater learning, can talk with a lot more authority about this important book. But the reason I bring Habermas into the discussion is because he posits the origins of the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere) in England in the 17th Century; specifically in its coffee houses where men (and some women at times, too, no doubt) came together in an atmosphere of temperance and sociability. And they talked politics. It goes without saying that newspapers also featured in the mix.

News, information, people talking. In public. How dare the public talk about politics! Hop, skip, jump! And bingo we're at 1639 and there's the king, wearing a white shirt (on a cold day) walking to the block. He puts his head on it and with one stroke of an axe Parliament forever alters the course of history. Americans talk about the foundation of their country in terms such as "No taxation without representation." Well, Charles I made the same mistake as George III, only 150 years earlier. (You'd think the Brits would learn.) For us here the salient fact is that the introduction of newspapers preceded the execution of the king by only just under a generation. The roles of Parliament vs the king in England became a public trope at the end of the 17th Century with the introduction of the terms Whig and Tory. These terms precede the use of the terms Left and Right by about 100 years, and they appeared at about the time that a (to us) recognisable middle class emerged in Britain, a middle class that was literate and loved to read. Magazines (or popular miscellanies) started to appear in the first decade or so of the 18th Century to cater for this demand.
It was a time of discovery, both terrestrial and academic. So you've got Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe, which is part travel story and part political treatise. At the same time there were magazines such as The Spectator, edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele [and first published in 1711]. These miscellanies had everything, from advice about polite behaviour to information about the most recent scientific research, from literary criticism to political commentary. They brought the world into the private drawing room. 
And again we can go "Whew!" and anticipate Jane Austen (whose most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, was published 200 years ago this year) just around the corner. Austen was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines.

One of Austen's stylistic resources when she was a girl and a young woman developing her own talent was Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784), a Tory (like Austen), who at the time of the American War of Independence wrote screeds against the colonials that he published in London for broad consumption. Johnson's life story includes a stint as a parliamentary reporter, magazine writer, dictionary compiler, novelist, and public figure. He was an extraordinary man but he lived in a world saturated with ink and made words his metier. Of course he was not alone; the public sphere by this time was profoundly mediated by news production. As for America, it can hardly be denied how influential the newspapers were in galvanising people in the settlements up and down the long Atlantic coast in support of a single, common goal. Compared to the news, democracy is a Johnny-Come-Lately. Same in Australia and, as we have seen, same in England itself. News doesn't just influence the democratic process, newspapers were keenly instrumental in the making of democracy itself.

Which brings me to the thing that started this little blogpost: a story in the Guardian brought to my attention by a person I know who is earnestly animated by the news. The story focuses its attention on the dangers of becoming involved in the news process, for the private individual. The columnist writes:
[T]he one piece of advice I always offer with absolute conviction, if ever my counsel is sought, is this: never talk to the newspapers. Never. Talk. To. The. Newspapers.
Which is fine, but the problem is that the person the writer is talking about is the ex-wife of an ex-cabinet member in the UK, and she's just been convicted of perverting the course of justice by lying in a statutory declaration about driving her husband's car, when it was caught speeding on a motorway, in 2003. She wasn't. He was, but he didn't want to admit it because it would have meant losing his driver's license temporarily. It's a grubby story about a venal crime, and it could happen to anyone. Vicky Pryce is, of course, a private citizen who at the time of the events dealt with in the court case was a public servant; from 2002 to 2010 she worked in senior positions in public organisations. And now the new threat is that some of her correspondence might appear in the media.

The case resembles the Dominique Strauss-Kahn debacle, but in a minor key. Pryce had been a public servant, which means that her probity and honesty were matters of public interest. Strauss-Kahn intended to nominate for high public office when he was accused of rape by a hotel employee in New York. It's a bit murky in both cases, but there you go.

For private citizens the advice from the columnist is valuable, to be sure. But public figures cannot be treated by this standard because of what they do. The lesson is, in both cases, that if you are going to benefit from public notoriety, and especially if you predicate your public success on notions of honesty (which we demand from public servants) and probity (likewise) you must in fact, and not just in appearance, be squeeky clean. Look at Julia Gillard and the AWU Workplace Reform Association thingy; rumours that just won't go away. As a public servant you probably have no private life. Love it or leave it.

For journalists the message given by the columnist is not something new. A "seminal" work on journalism, Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), is well-known to any journalist who has gone to university to study media. The columnist and Malcolm talk about the dangers of having your story told to a journalist, and it's really in the end about who controls the message. If you agree to go on the record with a journalist you waive control over how your story will be portrayed. On occasion you might say, "I'll only do the interview if I can see the story before publication," and the journalist might grit her teeth and agree. Or not. Or you might ask at the end of the interview, a little apologetically, "Can I see the story before it's published?" and the journalist might send to you for checking, prior to publication, those parts of the story that contain bits from your interview. This is routine practice but some news organisations, notably Reuters and the New York Times, do not allow it for ethical reasons. I've done it, sure, because I wanted everyone to be happy about the story (and on one occasion because it was a condition of the interviewee, who would otherwise have refused to do the interview). But it is a HIGHLY contested thing. Your phone conversation with a prospective interviewee is fraught with overtones that are predicated on this issue of control.

Private individuals such as the woman who demanded to see my story prior to its publication, are one case, however. Public servants, politicians and the like are another case, and in the main they are more astute when it comes to dealing with the media because it is part of their primary business. I spoke to several politicians during my time as a freelancer and I found them to be open and comfortable with the entire process, unlike the woman I referred to above. They talk on the record as the voice recorder chugs along and they know that not everything they say will be included in the story. They know you are going to talk with other people on the record. They are aware that you are going to "write a story" and that nuances and meanings contained in the quotes you extract from the interview may be dramatically emphasised or suppressed because of their location in the story, and because of what comes before or after them. But they do it because they are in the business of negotiating the public sphere (unlike the woman I keep referring to). They are natives.

They have media liaisons too, men and women whose business it is to mediate between the public figure and the media. The liaison will take your initial call and organise for the politician to speak with you. You arrange a time, or you do it straight away; it depends on their availability. As for government departments, they have media offices that are staffed with men and women whose job it is to mediate between the media and the staff working for the department. It should be noted that in Australia it is virtually impossible to talk directly and on the record with an expert in a government department, including with the police. All calls have to go through the media office. You get someone on the line and tell them what you're writing about and they say, "Put your questions in an email and send them through." It's about control, controlling the message. With emailed responses there's no danger of off-the-cuff remarks being "taken out of context" (politicians use this defense routinely; sometimes it's valid, and sometimes it's not). No danger of spontaneity. Less danger of damage. The practice underscores the lack of trust that government has in the media and, by extension, in the public itself.

As Habermas points out in his book the public sphere is a highly contested space. For journalists there are corporate imperatives that can also inflect meaning in a news story. (I can't talk with much authority about this as I never worked for a news organisation, I only freelanced.) And there's also the issue of time. In a real sense it is unreasonable to take a news story "out of context": the context being the sequence of news stories that appear in a variety of vehicles over the course of a day, a week, a month or even over the course of several years. Truth is modulated by the emergence of new facts.

To get back to the opinion piece that my acquaintance brought to my attention, there's also this to highlight:
As for journalists, they usually know better than to comment if they become caught up in a story. They don't want journalism done to them.
And I think this is a shame. A couple of days ago I wrote a blogpost about how I thought that secondary students should be taught media literacy because of the new technology of the internet. There is just so much stuff out there and there are also now so many ways that private individuals who are not in the media business can easily resort to publication themselves. The paradigm has dramatically shifted, just as it dramatically shifted in 1450 when Guttenberg built his first printing press, and introduced movable type. The fact is that we need more people talking about the media, and the quality of the discussion can only improve if more people understand how the process of journalism works, how media businesses operate and prosper (or not), and how people and organsations that publish news stand in relation to the law. 

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