Sunday, October 17, 2004

Help! Au secours!

The complaining from the mainstream media about the way it is being treated by its customers (abandoned to an ever greater extent) is continuing. We have seen various efforts at special pleading from the American newspapers and networks.

A New York Times article, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune by Frank Rich, speaks of a situation in which the media is under attack from the administration as never before. Actually, they seem to be getting away with saying rather a large number of things that oppose the administration, which is as it should be, but is hardly a sign of rampant censorship.

Nor am I greatly impressed by the suggestion that somehow the American media is not allowed to report the Iraqi “quagmire”. To a reasonably careful reader of newspapers it would appear that nothing else is reported from that country. It is interesting that this sobbing should appear just as another well-documented report is published by the American Enterprise Institute of a left-wing/pro-Democrat bias in the established media.

So, there we are: readers and viewers are looking elsewhere and the President does not think it worth his while to give too many press conferences. Not quite in the same category as journalists being arrested and murdered in Russia or Belarus or many, many other countries but it all adds to the grievances.

The same edition of the International Herald Tribune carries a similar sob story from France, where the main newspapers seem to have gone into terminal decline. Written by Catherine Field, a journalist based in Paris and, therefore, not perhaps a completely unbiased observer, the article starts on a trenchant note:
“Those who care about democracy and public awareness in France can only wring their hands as they watch the country’s national newspapers wither away. In a country of 60 million, there are just four national news dailies of any significance – Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération and Le Parisien, a tabloid also sold in the provinces as Aujourd’hui en France.”
Apparently the circulation is going down but, equally apparently, it was never that high, people preferring to read local and regional papers. Those who are interested in the news have been moving steadily over to the internet (much of which is in English – quelle horreur!)

To begin with there is the outdated problem of:

“… the cost of printing and distribution, an area where conservative union barons and cosseted workers have long held sway. The unions press demands on pay and rostering that drive up prices, enforce early deadlines – making for stale news – and often arbitrarily throw the switch to keep an issue off the streets.”
How familiar to those of us with long memories.

The newspapers are struggling to find rich buyers who would not compromise editorial independence. And that, of course, is where the problem lies. Just how independent are those newspapers? Or for that matter any French mainstream media?

Do they, for instance, publish or present any views that are critical of the European project? Not so that you’d notice. Do they write critically about the French governing elite or openly about the scandals that darken the political scene with monotonous regularity? Hmm. On and off but not too much.

In the run-up to the Iraqi war when ferocious arguments raged in almost every country about every aspect of the issue, the only country outside the Middle East that presented a united front was France. Any criticism of Chirac’s opposition to the war was stifled (as Bernard Kouchner, formerly of Médecins sans frontières found to his cost) and no justification of the war was allowed to sully the high-minded columns of all those dying newspapers.

How much coverage has the food for oil scandal had in France? Absolutely minimal, despite the fact that several well-known French politicians seem to be involved. Haughtily the editors held their noses, announced that the story was old, though unpublished in France, and, anyway it was not fair that the French should be named while the Americans were not.

Faced with all this, can one be surprised that the French prefer to get their news somewhere else, preferably with a little less bias. Who knows? They might even chance on the odd blog that is critical of the great European Union, so magniloquently praised by French politicians for publication by their faithful journalists.

That brings me to the British mainstream media, which is apparently having problems recognizing that there is a problem. By a strange coincidence, on the same day as the above articles appeared in the Trib, there was a review in the Financial Times Magazine of three autobiographies by “[t]hree British cardinals of the Holy Media Church”, so described by John Lloyd, himself something of a papal nuncio.

The three authors are Michael Buerk, Jon Snow and Andrew Marr, well known and influential journalists, who do not seem to have noticed that their position is being eroded somewhat. Their pronouncements are no longer treated with quite the sort of respect they are used to. Even John Lloyd, their colleague and comrade in arms writes of them jocularly and acerbically, though he does not entirely dismiss their pretensions to intellectual authority.

Quite accurately he points to the parallels between the modern media and the mediaeval church, complete with not entirely credible self-laceration by the “cardinals”.

“The modern media, especially in the Anglophone democracies, are more pwoerful than any other institution, apart from the state, and they have increasingly seen it as their duty to challenge the state and its governing party with all the force they can muster. Like the mediaeval churchmen, they see that the media church has blemishes, faults, even sins, but it must as a whole be protected for it is Good – that is Good for Democracy. It is good because it is independent, questioning and open. Anything that goes beyond a bit of jocular ribbing is out: worse, it betrays the faith.”
Democracy, of course, involves responsibility and accountability as well as power and critical pronouncements. The media has none of that, not even, as Mr Lloyd concludes, necessarily any loyalty to truth and fairness. Our journalist heroes have been left to pursue their own agenda and their own interests largely unchecked by any consideration. So far.

Then there is the question of criticism. Journalistic criticism is capricious. It is necessary, but it does not have to be reliable. It is not, pace Mr Lloyd, always directed at the state, but at certain elements in politics. Has anyone ever heard even one critical reference to the EU or the various international and transnational organizations from even one of the three authors?

Poor old Michael Buerk is saddled with an enormous responsibility by John Lloyd who is, in fact, a great admirer:

“...there is a good argument that he [Buerk] is the most important journalist of the post-war period – as his pieces on the Ehtipian famine in 1984, themselves the result of dogged, sensitive and yet detached reporting, opened the floodgate of charitable giving and may have changed the way people and politicians viewed Africa.”

And the problems of Ethiopia were solved! And there was gladness everywhere! Oh no, sorry, the problems of Ethiopia seem to have become worse.

Is Michael Buerk really responsible for the view that Africa is a basket case and has to be supported by aid? Is he really the one who has opened the flood of charitable giving by people and organizations that has enforced a complete dependency culture, undermined the economy of various African countries, strengthened corrupt and kleptocratic political regimes which have spread violence across the continent? Was it the result of his reporting that the NGOs with their own anti-liberal agenda have tightened their grip on large chunks of that unfortunate continent and have used their power to prevent any real economic development? Surely not. No man should be made to carry a burden like that.

On the whole John Lloyd does not seem to be impressed by the pontification of the three journalists. Jon Snow uses his position to preach a simplistic anti-Americanism, which involves complete blindness to any other problem in the world.

Andrew Marr seems to think that the cheeky-chappie attitude of the British as opposed to the American journalist is praiseworthy, then agonizes about the need to be trusted and respected. Who knows, maybe he and his colleagues would be if they could be shown to have shouldered the responsibilities that should go with power.

While the “cardinals” engage in disputations, confess their sins, pronounce their lofty verdicts, their public begins to look the other way. A reformation is brewing. The situation could be retrieved but it would have to involve a change in the psyche and self-understanding of mainstream journalists on quite a dramatic scale. For one thing, they will have to stop seeing themselves as plucky fighters for the truth like the heroes of All the President’s Men. The real fighters for the truth are out there, beyond the reach of the grand seigneurs of journalism.

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