Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Journalistic Manipulation... since the Crimean War

I was listening to the person currently calling himself Prime Minister of Great Britain on the news a few days ago. In an attempt to distract the media and the public from his impressively demonstrated economic failures, he has taken that most traditional of routes - start a witch hunt.

I despise politicians who take such stances, and have ever since the time in my teens when the military junta in Argentina decided that the best way to distract their populace from their failures was a short victorious war... like invading the Falklands. The dislike only grew as I watched a series of Australian PM's distract a compliant media and cretinous public with such things as "no child shall live in poverty" during the last "recession we had to have"; followed by "great betrayals" and "republics" the next time the polls were bad, and "gun control" and "children overboard" the next time. A pox on all their houses.

It did make me reflect however, on the dangers of a media that can say "oh look, shiny things" whenever their political meal tickets start pulling irrelevant rabbits out of hats. The fact that the media can then whip up a frenzy amongst people who should know better is even more scary. (I still shudder to remember how the last time France exploded a test nuclear weapon at Muraroa Atoll, the Australian government led a chorus of media frenzy which had mindless mobs smashing the windows of French restaurants within weeks. A warning to any Nazi hater who thinks it could never happen here..)

It is not that newspapers themselves are evil ( despite the complaints of voter manipulation from many who do not understand basic concepts of supply and demand leading to a voice for any opinion big enough to pay). It is more a matter of modern journalists being so ignorant of the possible effects of playing with fire. Certainly those I have spoken to have been genuinely shocked to think that their fortnight long rants against someone who has not yet been proven guilty of anything, are leading to lynch mobs in the street. The 'ethics' components of any journalism courses I have looked at seem to have more to do with how not to be sued, than with handling media power judiciously. Don't they study their own history?

In the 1850's for instance, we get the first conflicts where modern telecommunications (meaning telegraph wires), allow journalists at the front to influence popular opinion at home to force politicians into things they are not very keen on doing.

The first 'modern' war correspondent were people like William Howard Russell, who now receives renown for revealing the truth about army conditions at the terrible Crimean Campaign, and for creating a cult of adulation for Florence Nightingale. (Actually the more interesting heroin of that campaign was Mary Seacole, who lacks the modern cred of Ms Nightingale, possibly because she was coloured.) Much is made of characters like Russell, but little is thought about their influence on the causes of wars.

The British government of the day was not remotely interested in being involved in a new European war against Russia. Unfortunately for them, unscrupulous journalists were ready to whip up public opinion to force them to it. What eventually happened was that the government was backed into a corner that required a guarantee of some sort to the Turks, who promptly sent their ragged fleet on a suicide run to be destroyed by the Russians. Result? The British Empire moves in to grant the 'decaying old man of Europe' another 6 decades of subsidised existence.

Oh there were other things going on as well. The most important of which was Napoleon III having a fit of grandious-ness: which meant that a bit of one-up-man-ship between France and Britain could also be played up in the press. Nonetheless the issue was one which should never have led to British involvement in a war. Certainly not a major international one, unless journalists were willing to drive a PR cart (or do I mean barrow?) through government policy.

Another great, if slightly later, example of journalistic integrity being the theory that the American William Randolph Hurst encouraged the Spanish-American War for the sole purpose of expanding newspaper sales.

It was bad enough when journalists were doing it on their own. It was appalling when newspaper magnates became convinced that they could influence their readerships, then national politics, and eventually international relations, by fiat. (See, for instance, Lord Beaverbrook in the lead up to World War Two.) But the nadir is reached when politicians realise that they can direct their fawning lackeys (many of whom are even more pathetic for their self deception that they are fearless investigators) down any blind alleys that suit them.

And so we get witch hunts. Enquiries into problems that everyone knows the answers to, but which are too politically sensitive to act on. (Like students learning to read, write, and behave like human beings). Committees to report on things beyond anyone's control. (Some of the more exotic fantasies of 'environmentalists' spring to mind.) Commissions into things that are the governments fault, but they think they can distract people into blaming someone else for. (Yes, I am thinking specifically of the Victorian Bushfire Commission, where they are not even looking at the state governments failure to follow through on what many previous commissions have told them needs to be done, while steering public attention towards convenient scapegoats who are also victims of the government's policies.) Or yet more reports on things that have had at least two or three reports already. (The PM fellow announced yet another inquiry into the Iraq war.)

Personally, I preferred it in the days when journalists tried to steer people themselves. There is enough variety in newspapers that most journalists are steering the self selecting group who read their particular rag exactly where their preconceptions want them to go... no real issue there. What I can't stand is that journalistic standards have gone so far down this path that they do not even seem aware, let alone interested, that they are putty in the hands of politicians. Do they not know? Do they not care? Is it policy? Is it 'keeping up with the net'? (Or is it an acknowledgement that they can't keep up with the net on news, so they will play shock-jock instead?)

The interesting thing is that the tactics of modern journalists are self defeating. Already there are debates on the collapse of 'quality journalism', simply because there is not the advertising revenue to support it. What the debaters are missing is that the modern media is not about quality journalism. If people want investigation, they go on line and do it. (Or try the new method of contracting online an investigator to look at it... enough people interested can buy a tailored investigation.) The rest of the consumer base only tunes in to have their opinions validated. (When organisations like the BBC, with it's massive resources, rarely bothers to run anything but party politicals on pre-determined lines - see anything on Israel for instance - then quality mass journalism is pretty well finished.) Falling revenues and falling standards become a fairly 'chicken or egg' argument.

What started as manipulating the news for the journalists own beliefs, became tailoring the news you report for your readership; which then becomes limiting what you report to what the readers want to hear about; which then becomes being manipulated into 'newsworthy' items by smart politicians (and others). In practical terms, this progression of 'journalism' seems a quite logical flow from the Crimea to Celebrity Big Brother.

It will be interesting to see whether the net does manage to come up with something well enough done to replace investigative journalism. Something has to.

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