The Misuse Of Our Media

by Shane Thomas 

CUqzWoCW4AEgSdhLast week, I was at the Comment Awards, and one of my lasting memories of the event was the speech given by The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley – he won the Chair’s Choice gong. He opined that journalistic comment is the “indispensable vocation”, while waggishly adding that his profession is hardly one that is “crippled by self-doubt”.

While some may find these sentiments conceited, I largely agree with them. Thinking it impertinent to spend the entire ceremony using my phone, I had a look around the room, and came to an awareness that I had never been in a space before that housed so much power.

I’ve never thought timidity as much of a problem for the world of media. Nor should it be, not when a group of people have such relative influence. The internet has facilitated increasing avenues for societal discourse – such as this site – but for now, a hierarchy endures in terms of the reach of specific media outlets. Which is fine, if this reach is being used for positive means.

I’m of the opinion that the best type of journalism, the best media communication, is one that takes the uninformed, and makes them informed. To take what seems inexplicable, and make it explicable.

But I fear much of our media prioritises individual benefits (and coalesces around their own industry), rather than focus on their external good, with the most coveted currency being that of profile and attention. Rack up those Twitter followers, TV & radio appearances, and speaking engagements to give you sufficient cover from any legitimate criticism. Make sure people know who you are. And make sure you keep talking, because eventually, someone will probably pay you for it.

To give an example, The Church and Media Network recently held their annual conference, and invited Katie Hopkins to be on the panel. They’re not an organisation that gets much media attention, but lo and behold, this particular event did garner headlines. Can’t imagine why[1].

Speaking with Novara Media, journalist, Antony Lowenstein lamented that much of the established press are desperate to be close to the very powerful, stating that if you’re too critical, “you’re less likely to get access next month.”

I’ve sometimes wondered if this conduct is suffused by the vestigial desire for some kind of commonality, albeit in a professional sense. A desperation to be let into the metaphorical treehouse, where the important people are. It’s where I have to be, because it’s got to be better than where I am. Get them to like me, and then I’ll be important, too.

Beyond amoral editors, it’s this thinking that factors in producing online clickbait – the nostrum for decreasing readership. Whether it’s the authors of harmful rhetoric, or those who willingly publish it, no-one wants to be left outside the building, even if what’s primarily coming out of the building is toxic sludge.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with earning a living from media work. But the work should have value beyond paying one’s bills. Are you about something more than getting paid for your musings? Are you working for – and with – those who may not have the same reach as yourself? Or are you summarily using your talents as a “step-pad to fame”?

Our media is too important for it to be dominated by those who have unacceptable opinions for money, too important for hackles to be raised by specious restrictions to free speech, while seemingly unconcerned with how one uses that freedom. Even in the relatively remote environs of this website, my words travel farther than many. If you have a voice that people listen to, you’re obligated to give them good information – especially if it’s how you make your living.

There’s nothing innately wrong with disagreement in any dialectic, but such contention has little merit if it’s not to cultivate progress. If your work exists only to manufacture conflict, then it becomes capitalism at its worst, no better than the pharmaceutical industry or the arms trade.

I’ve little time for those who wish to paint a portrait of a servile press, whose power is overstated, simply satiating public demand, as if they were mindless helper monkeys. The press functions on its polity the way hot water and lemon does on a cold. It won’t singularly eradicate the cold, but it would be myopic not to acknowledge that it plays a significant part.

But if my argument is unconvincing, maybe – award winning journalist – Matthew Syed’s will be easier to digest; “It is about how thousands, sometimes millions of editorial decisions, not only in the mass media but also on social media, too (we are all editors of our own Twitter and Facebook pages), together with the 24-hour intensity of the news cycle, conspire to create tidal waves in the digital ocean, a bit like the individual, decentralised decisions of traders creating booms and peaks, and dips and crashes, in share prices.”

There’s a rum paradox in how resources are increasingly stretched for established media outlets, yet collectively, they seldom justify receiving anything more.

The Fourth Estate shouldn’t exist for the purpose of attaining money, but using the money they attain to ensure the public are thoroughly informed, instead of dealing in material that can range somewhere between the simplistic and the manipulative.

Pursuing your voice is fine. Doing so at the expense of the disenfranchised is not. Some of us not only have a voice, but have platforms where people actually listen to us. There’s a lot of people in this country that have something to say, yet never get such a platform.

Andrew Rawnsley is right. He and his peers are part of an indispensable vocation. But far too many are treating the vocation as if it’s as dispensable as a cigarette butt.

[1] – Similar questions should be asked of Brunel University, who also invited Hopkins to speak recently.

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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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