The coercion which the police state exercises on thought and art is indeed appalling. Yet the damage done may, in the final analysis, be no greater than that caused by the absolutism of the mass market. … The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so than that of political despotism.
George Steiner, My Unwritten Books, 2008
That Fleet Street editors are once again ganging up to attack the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and practices — concentrating their salvos, this time, on its as-yet-unpublished first report and recommendations – could turn out to be a great good thing.
Their aggression is inviting attention. It is giving everyone who cares about getting reliable news and facts undistorted by hidden agendas and special interests — for instance, the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) — a chance to remind the 4th Estate that public opinion is firmly on the Inquiry’s side.
as the INFORRM blog warned, last week,
… there is an important case to be fought in the court of public opinion over the next couple of months. A careful eye needs to be kept on press attempts to distort and manipulate the arguments to support the self-interest of its proprietors.
The self-interest to which it refers is, of course, the profit motive. That is true despite the longstanding tradition in which most of those proprietors have supported newspapers losing money decade after decade, as if red ink were simply natural for them, as intrinsic as spots for leopards or nuclear scent for polecats. Hardly anyone needs to be told, any more, that the reason why these proprietors have long competed ferociously for the privilege of owning papers is because of the fantastic levers they are for piling up profits in other spheres, and buying political influence.
We have quoted those words of George Steiner in this post’s epigraph before and we will quote them again – as often as necessary. That is, until it becomes common-or-garden wisdom that, just as the Wikipedia has brought us closer to the ideal of what an encyclopaedia can be, we need to refine forms of collaborative journalism. It has to be universally understood that journalism at its best has to be divorced from the profit motive. Just as the excellence of the Wikipedia has no connection whatsoever to improving any corporate ‘bottom line,’ there is no reason why journalism has to be directly or indirectly wedded to it any more.
The reason why no leader at the head of any prominent newspaper has risen to post-Gutenberg’s challenge – ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders‘ – is because they are beholden to the old system of organising the dissemination of facts. They are well-paid indentured servants of the profit motive, enshrined as the ‘advertising-based business model’ for running papers.
The best possible outcome of the Leveson Inquiry is not in the least complicated. It would be an evolutionary restructuring of journalism to restore as its fundamental and only raisons d’être:
the quest for truth
forcing transparency in the exercise of political power.
It is this parallel with the Wikipedia that matters. The co-ownership of media and various forms of collaborative operation, in the practice of journalism, are simply the most logical means to that end.
Until we reach it, passages like this — from The Sonderberg Case, an Elie Wiesel novella about the harm that Nazism inflicted on the Nazis’ own descendants – will seem depressingly unattainable:
Actually, I had discovered journalism well before working in the field. My uncle Meir, early on, considered it the finest profession … He ranked the committed journalist as the equal of writers and philosophers.