Being Beta

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Grist. Mill. Liberalism: On being feral

Some thoughts and reflections on that speech:

1. The hunch is that, along with his address to the House of Commons in 2003, and his speech in Chicago on humanitarian intervention in 1999, yesterday's speech on the 'feral' media will be Tony Blair's most talked about set-piece address. And while that para is arresting, it's actually what comes in the para above it that gives the speech force:

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial. Watergate was a great piece of journalism but there is a PhD thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up.

I disagree with the esteemed Stephen Tall in that the fact that the speech failed to present either a new analysis or solutions to the problem meant that it lost some rhetorical impact. Its force came from the notion, however incohate, however late the call or tainted the messenger, that this was something that needed to be said.

2. The mass media then proceeded to reinforce Blair's points for him, both directly and indirectly. Above is the Daily Telegraph's headline on its first report of the speech from its website. Here's what Blair actually said about regulating communications:

The regulatory framework at some point will need revision. The PCC is for traditional newspaper publishing. OFCOM regulate broadcasting, except for the BBC, which has its own system of regulation. But under the new European regulations all television streamed over the internet may be covered by OFCOM. As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way.

How this is done is an open question and, of course, the distinction between balance required of broadcasters but not of papers remains valid. But at some point the system is going to change and the importance of accuracy will not diminish, whilst the freedom to comment remains.

That is a long way from saying he is backing or calling for a new online journalism regulator. One point to Blair.

Meanwhile, over at The Guardian, they had a more subtle way of making their feelings felt (see image 2).

3. Bluntly, the fact that Blair has made the speech - and got largely the reaction he was anticipating - shows that, as Emily Bell argued, the model for political-media interaction is broken. The question is what happens next.

The harsh fact is that, however valuable the fourth estate is to contemporary discourse and culture, it is the last institution that operates with relative unaccountability and state oversight. This is as it should be. But for this privileged position to continue, people in newspapers, broadcasters and elsewhere need to reflect on what about their methods and presentation needs to change so that people feel willing to pay the price that a free and vigorous media entails.



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