Is democracy well-served by our media?

27/07/08. (as presented to the ‘Culture, media and democracy’ workshop of the European Cultural Parliament group on 25/07/08).

Most thinking people would agree that a free press is fundamental to the health of a functioning democracy. Dictatorships around the world are characterised by their restrictions on what domestic media can report, even if such controls have become more difficult to maintain with the growth of the internet.

So we tend to take it for granted that the western world in general enjoys a free press, unshackled by and unafraid of the powers that be. And yet, I ask, is our press really so free?

NUJ Brussels hosted on 3rd July 2008 a seminar called ‘Trust Me – I’m a journalist! Lead by award-winning author of ‘Flat-Earth News’ Nick Davies, the participants discussed his proposition that, in fact, a combination of powerful media barons, a burgeoning PR industry and lack of editorial power have brought an industry to the point where journalists on most media channels are either too overworked or too cynical to produce any kind of quality output .

Davies points to national stories that turn out to be pseudo-events manufactured by the PR industry, news stories that are shameless rehashes of corporate press releases, and a general failure to ask the kind of difficult questions that readers would like answered.

Why is editorial quality falling?

Why has the quality of editorial output fallen so fast? Davies suggests that changes in the industry mean journalists are required to churn out more and more news, in a shorter time, with no chance to check the information spoon-fed to them by newswires, PR firms or lobby groups. He cites astonishing figures from his own survey which showed that only 12% of articles in a sample of 2,000 showed evidence of fact-checking.

Davies’ claims are backed by over a year of media analysis from researchers at Cardiff Univerity. They are confirmed by another recent study, carried out by Leipzig University under commission from the North Rhine-Westphalia Regional Media Authority, which also shows the effects of time pressures on modern journalism.

The Leipzig University study indicated that journalists are increasingly copying from each other, and relying too much on Google and other journalists’ output rather than accessing primary sources such as the websites of political, scientific or cultural institutions. The study results were presented on 23 June 2008 at a conference in Berlin .

Both studies demonstrate the outward effects of a once-proud industry in decline. Talk to most journalists, staff or freelance, and they will tell a similar story. Disillusionment, dissatisfaction and weariness tend to set in after years trying to stand up for quality reporting, often, it seems, against a management which puts short-term profit above all issues of quality.

No wonder then that many journalists are quitting the profession to work in more mundane but more rewarding occupations in the PR industry. In my own conversations with other journalists, there is a clear view that even in the more quality-driven sectors of the press such as the BBC, long-term employees are leaving after decades of loyalty to their profession, out of disenchantment with their managers’ attitudes to their work.

An industry that is fragmenting

The NUJ (National Union of Journalists) itself is concerned about the increasing fragmentation of the industry. There are fewer and fewer big employers that say they have the resources to maintain strong editorial departments. Yet those same companies can often show profits in millions of euros, and are capable of awarding big increases to staff at director level while cutting the staff who work at the coal face.

Even established UK quality channels such as the BBC and The Guardian are cutting staff or combining print and online editorial functions. The BBC World Service for example (which is financed by the UK Foreign Office) is pushing staff to give up their full-time jobs in the UK and accept short-term contract work in countries such as India, Pakistan and Nepal.

The Guardian is investing hugely in its online operation, and as a result the Guardian Unlimited site is of high quality. But senior managers will readily admit that they don’t really know where the industry is going, and that the online investment could go into reverse at any time. In the meantime, editorial staff have lost the known regularity of a daily print deadline, and instead are being loaded with more and more short-term work to meet the needs of constant publication online.

This, then, is the state of the media industry in the western world at the start of the 21st century. An industry where standards take second place to profit, where senior managers don’t know where the industry is going, where younger (often non-editorial) managers are interested only in the next step up the career ladder, and where, as a consequence, staff journalists are routinely burning out from stress or overwork and leaving in their 30s and 40s.

What kind of reporting can we expect?

What kind of journalism can we expect from such an industry? Insightful analyses that inform people and politicians and help us to make good decisions? Or ‘happy slappy’ shallow pieces which make us feel good for a moment, but seldom guide our thinking? BBC Panorama style investigative reporting? Or the big-headlines and big-tits style of the Sun?

Only when the general public begin to understand and recognise the need for quality reporting can editors and reporters who believe in quality hope to climb back out of the abyss that is the media industry today.

There is some hope still – thanks to a small but strong market for quality media. The Guardian and the Independent in the UK have carved out niches for themselves as national purveyors, both in print and online, of accurate news and current affairs, while the FT is considered the paper of record for international and EU news. In other parts of Europe the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Le Monde and El Pais all have loyal followings.

In broadcasting the BBC has a strong fan base throughout the United Kingdom, as well as in other parts of the world. And enough support remains within European governments for the principles of public-service broadcasting to ensure that national broadcasters such as TF1, ARD, ZDF, VRT/RTBF and others remain in business.

Politicians recognising importance of independent media

What is encouraging is that the politicians themselves are starting to explicitly recognise the importance of strong and independent editorial. The European Parliament has voiced concern in a new report about the increasing concentration of ownership in the media business. The report, by Marianne Mikko (PES, ET), warns that the private media’s pursuit of profit could compromise its ability to act as a watchdog for democracy.

The report was adopted by the Culture and Education Committee on Tuesday 3rd June 2008. MEPs advocate ‘editorial charters’ to prevent owners, shareholders or governments from interfering with editorial content, and ombudsmen to protect media freedom. They also want the status of weblogs clarified, and suggest introducing fees for commercial use of user-generated content.

Certainly, for the media to fulfil its rightful role in defending democracy and challenging vested interests, certain safeguards are necessary at government level to ensure that the over-mighty of this world don’t turn it into a toothless bulldog. Enlightened governments recognise the need for an independent fourth estate, even if they sometimes suffer from the arrows aimed at them in response to less thought-out executive decisions.

But what is clear is that working journalists themselves need to keep a vigilant watch on the sometimes siren-like call of the PR world, and focus on what their readers, rather than the advertisers, want. In these times of cultural diversity to the point of societal confusion, the NUJ’s own Code of Conduct for journalists on what to report and how to report it can prove an invaluable guide.

My thanks, as always, to the EJC and J@YS for making this discussion possible.

© Philip Hunt 2008.