Inventory-taking time for post-Gutenberg.com

Outside La Scala - photograph by MIL22 - photograph by MIL22

– photograph by MIL22

april 14 2015 Google 10 item window for pG

Indoors or out, no one relaxes
In March, that month of wind and taxes,
The wind will presently disappear,
The taxes last us all the year.

Ogden Nash, ‘Thar She Blows,’ Versus (1949)

How spring came to be blighted by reckoning is a mystery we must remind ourselves to investigate, some day. At post-Gutenberg — in the spirit of the season — we have been taking stock of what we have been doing in this space. Here is a capsule history, to be expanded over the next few days with links to posts in our archive:

In 2011, an unexpected development guaranteed an audience for proposals for new economic structures or ‘business models’ for media organisations – such as the scheme with which this blog began. The British prime minister ordered a judicially supervised public investigation of the practices and culture of the British press, in the wake of a scandal about the widespread, routine hacking by reporters at — chiefly tabloid — newspapers of private communications of targets who included celebrities and prominent public figures, extending all the way up to government ministers and heirs to the throne.

In the prelude to this Leveson Inquiry, supervised by Lord Justice (Sir Brian) Leveson — charged with making recommendations for press reform, if necessary — the Lord Chief Justice at the time, Lord (Igor) Judge, made a historic speech reminding his fellow-citizens that:

‘the liberty of the press is the birthright of every citizen, that is, the community as a whole. It is birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right.’

Because traditional media in Britain are unhappy about the competition from citizen journalists and feared that the Leveson Inquiry would lead to government regulation of the press — ending the historic independence of the Fourth Estate — this speech went virtually unreported.

But the LCJ’s theme perfectly fit the reasoning behind a proposal for an inclusive ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ scheme as a gentle transition towards, and possible replacement for, the traditional economic structure for media.

The Leveson hearings, commencing on 15 November 2011, were closely monitored by media round the world. In spite of this interest, for several weeks, the traditional British press virtually boycotted or (very) selectively reported on the Inquiry – as if blind to the unique parade of witnesses that included newspaper proprietors, chief editors, famous columnists, leading politicians and ex-prime ministers and their advisers. Post-Gutenberg.com and INFORRM (The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog) — a site administered from London by a prominent barrister, Hugh Tomlinson — and a scattering of other bloggers, ran analyses and long excerpts from the extraordinary testimony broadcast live and in full by the BBC.

The Inquiry helped to establish post-Gutenberg.com’s focus on:

+ what might be gained from harnessing the greater, international inclusiveness of the internet in various spheres – not just citizen journalism, but regular attention to the cultural traditions, achievements and conversations of large and increasingly important countries, such as China and India; challenging mutual biases against literary taste and conventions in English-speaking cultures on both sides of the Atlantic; contributing to the conversation about literature that can and cannot be translated from other languages successfully with detailed, specific examples.

supplying and proposing corrections for biased reporting and analysis by the traditional press – about, for instance, the Snowden leaks, and the subsequent debate about ‘mass surveillance’; and of distortions of the historical record, such as the mistaken assignment to Steve Jobs of credit for the user-friendly technological core of Apple’s well-loved products.

drawing attention to the weakening of democracy and cost to society of a proudly partisan press, parts of which feel under no obligation to present opposing views or information that undermines their positions.

highlighting examples of successful power-sharing in collaborative and consultative organisations, such as cooperatives – and, in more than one post-Gutenberg.com entry, the inspiration that Switzerland and Swiss institutions provide; as well as suggesting how digital technologies might be used to overcome traditional handicaps of democratic decision-making (slowness; difficulty sharing complex information; quarrelling between members of organisations and groups).

non-traditional media organisations and specialists leading and accelerating the pace of the post-Gutenberg revolution – responsible not just the explosive growth of indie e-book and self-publishing, but novel journalistic enterprises operating on schemes closely parallel to the sketch of a keiretsu-cooperative (De Correspondent in the Netherlands, for example.)

chatty, informal, often lighthearted commentary on effects and implications of the transition to a post-Gutenberg world – and nods to the spontaneity, intimacy and friendliness of social media, including entries to mark personal experiences of the seasons and religious holidays.

 

Why attack ♯Leveson, our best chance to save real journalism?

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.

But, …

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

and

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.

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Lord Justice Leveson interrogating Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief.

Why is this blog keeping a close eye on the progress of the Leveson Inquiry? Not because of minutiae about Rupert Murdoch and his henchwoman Rebekah Brooks jumping in and out of bed with British prime ministers, metaphorically speaking – as important as those shenanigans are to grasping the extent to which the governing of Britian has been infested by parasitical media magnates.

Under his Inquiry’s terms of reference, Lord Justice Leveson will have to make recommendations about the future of press regulation in Britain. These are bound to influence the debate about policy in other parts of the world. The expectation about the effect of his prescriptions that we at post-Gutenberg find most exciting is in this advice the judge has received:

…[I]f you do get the regulatory framework right for print journalism, I think that will have a profound effect on the way the Internet develops. […] What I think is happening is that we’re going to end up in a position where there has to be a redefinition essentially of what a journalist is.  … [I]t would be absurd to expect you to have regulation for every single person who is on Facebook and Twitter because then you’re not far off from saying we have to regulate the content of text messaging and so forth. […] So I think there has to be a definition of what a journalist is, what a media organisation is, and [though] this is where I have some sympathy for the print industry, it’s not just about the print industry.

That was part of yesterday’s testimony by Alastair Campbell, the much-reviled political strategist and press adviser to Tony Blair. Further justifying this blog’s praise for his contribution at an earlier hearing a few months ago,  Campbell has proved to be incontestably the clearest and best-informed thinker among those assisting the Inquiry.

Lord Justice Leveson’s obvious grasp of the most subtle aspects of what Campbell told him was particularly welcome after undercurrents at last week’s hearings suggested that perhaps David Cameron’s government – even though it commissioned this Inquiry – had been warning the judiciary, off-stage, about excessive zealousness.

The presiding judge’s unfailing good humour had up to then been as striking as his scrupulously fair treatment of all witnesses. But a newspaper quoted him as having said, last Thursday, with unprecedented irritability, that he was impatient to reach the end of the hearings and get back to ‘productive judicial work’. As this followed his rejection, the week before, of the government’s request for privileged ‘core participant’ status in the proceedings, it seems most likely that friction between the executive and judicial overseers of our democracy played some part in darkening his mood.

There were other apparent reactions to unpleasant, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – as in the somewhat tortured and meandering summing-up by the chief interrogator, Counsel Robert Jay, of the chief issues raised by the hearings. Formally addressing the Lord Chief Justice, he delivered a sort of pre-mastication of findings from witness testimony to date. In this, he partly echoed quixotic attempts by the media to justify a partisan press – of which the most bizarre has been an argument offered by The Economist, dissected in an earlier post on this blog.

‘The fearlessness and vibrancy of our press is something of which we should be enormously proud,’ Counsel Jay, usually a model of calm rationality, said in a rare rhetorical passage. He also said:

Newspapers are entitled to be partisan in a democracy, to campaign in favour of causes, policies and political parties; and were the State to legislate otherwise that would be undemocratic, as well as, under our current settlement, an abrogation of human rights.

This paean clashed with his clear understanding – obvious from his thinly veiled outrage, in one interrogation after another – of the damage done by partisanship.  On Friday, grilling Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, he sought to underline that the payoff for newspapers, for pushing the agenda of their chosen political parties, is the ability to influence policy — and that this seriously undermines democracy. A New York Times report spotlighted his repeated insistence to Brooks that

…. media executives and editors were ‘unelected forces’ influencing policy by exercising power over governments …

Post-Gutenberg wondered, watching a video feed from Leveson:  since when has the concept of press partisanship been warped by being treated as an essential component of press freedom?  Not everyone is taken in by this Orwellian obfuscation. Gus O’Donnell – a Whitehall mandarin who has served three governments as cabinet secretary —  testified just before Alastair Campbell yesterday. In his written statement submitted to the Inquiry in advance, he said unequivocally,

Newspapers can and do actively support political parties, meaning it can be difficult to obtain objective information from them …

… then, in his live testimony, added:

 … [I]t’s in their strong interests for politicians to talk to newspaper editors and proprietors to try and explain their policies, try and explain why that newspaper should support them.  That’s been going on and continues to go on and that’s the structure we have.  And as long as you have newspapers which are allowed to strongly support and come out very overtly in favour of political parties, that relationship is going to continue.

Where I would like to see a change, perhaps, is […] if you contrast the newspapers, say, in the United States with the United Kingdom, you’ll find in the United States newspapers in general tend to separate out opinion and news much more.  So you’ll get a page of opinion, which basically says, “We strongly     support this politician or this set of policies”, in a very kind of almost propaganda-ish way, and then you’ll get the news columns, which tend to be pretty straight.

I think if you looked at our newspapers, where they differ is that you’ll find that you get all the opinion in the same way but in the news stories. [my ital.]

… Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present — the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in what O’Donnell characterised earlier in the day as ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

Alastair Campbell noted:

Because Murdoch’s the biggest figure and because the phone hacking has led to this Inquiry, there’s been a huge amount of focus on him, but this goes right across the media panoply.  I mean, I was in charge of Tony Blair’s  media operation and we had strategies for all of these papers and we had approaches out to all of these papers.

Let us hope that Lord Justice Leveson, when he sits down to write his report, proposes a regulatory framework that puts an end to the toxic mutual manipulation that goes with press partisanship. Let us hope that he can resist the huge pressure being brought to bear on him to stop citizen journalists and other outsiders from breaking up the exclusionary symbiosis of old media and government.

One thoughtful witness after another has recommended greater transparency and accountability in press dealings with the government and politicians. Excellent and essential ideas, yes. But the Lord Justice should, in addition, do all he can to let the new technologies at our disposal open the way to many more disseminators of facts, and to challengers of media warping or omitting inconvenient facts.

New voices must be heard from – in whatever framework he advocates — on equal terms with today’s media powerhouses, even as the lights dim in these institutions, and they bow before the force of the onrushing 5th Estate.