A danger that besets anyone who tries to tackle what is happening to our media in the digital era is that it’s a lot easier to set out what the problems are than to propose solutions for them.
That’s partly because of the speed of change – and we’re not talking only about technology here. Just 12 months ago, we were preoccupied with how social-media operators were sucking the advertising economy out of newspaper groups and with fake news. Since then, illicit data-harvesting, alleged Russian interference in elections on both sides of the Atlantic and US policy-making through the Twittersphere make 2017’s issues look now rather tired.
It was G.K.Chesterton who said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t then believe in nothing, they believe in anything. To paraphrase that for the internet age, when anything can happen, nothing can be done about it.
So much of the recent work in this arena – such as former journalist and political spin-doctor Tom Baldwin’s Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy – has restated the media narrative of the Nineties and Noughties, without offering much constructive vision for where and how it might go.
Commendably, Tackling the Information Crisis, a report from the LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission, under the auspice of Professor Charlie Beckett, doesn’t add to the library of whinge-without-way. It offers some bold assertions as to what is needed to wrestle the surfeit of information with which we’re bombarded into some manageable shape, in the UK at least.
Among these is the establishment of a statutory Independent Platform Agency (IPA), constituted by but independent of Government, to co-ordinate and encourage information reliability. Elsewhere, the report has practical and original suggestions to make regarding fiscal policy (rather than simply punitive tax levies on social media operating in the UK, these would be tax breaks for platforms that can demonstrate public-service capacities) and media literacy (including cross-curricular developments in education).
The trouble with this is that the report can take on a tone of wide-eyed optimism that would make Pollyanna sound like Jeremiah. For instance, the IPA should have “powers to request data from all the major platforms… on the top most shared news and information stories, referrals, news-sharing trends and case studies of particular stories”, plus powers to fine platforms that don’t co-operate.
One is tempted simply to sigh and say: Good luck with that. Media platforms (of all sorts) have to date shown a high-handed contempt for any such localised initiative being exercised. And given the corporate moral turpitude with which data has been (mis)handled, one can only wonder what creative ways will be found to play media data as a false market.
Furthermore, this IPA has a sense of deja vu about it. An independent body with powers to fine but not powers to regulate might sound rather like the ill-fated Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which closed in 2014. True, the PCC was established and empowered by the industry rather than by Government, but its successor, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), emerged from the judicial process of the Leveson Inquiry and can’t be said to be going much better, or with wider industry support. A fear must be that the IPA would join the line of toothless acronyms that have failed to bring our media to heel.
That said, no one can reasonably advocate a continuation of the free-for-all, which has less to do with liberal free markets than over-dominant media rail-roaders. The UK media industries need a well-constituted and articulate proponent of media standards to concentrate on on-line media. And, if it’s robustly constituted and intelligently led and staffed, the IPA could be a good place to start. Just please don’t hand it to an ex-minister, out of a job at the next general election, as a sinecure.
Elsewhere, this report makes many mentions of media ethics (how could it not?). In this regard, I’m intrigued by a paragraph which introduces the subject of prevailing immunity for information intermediaries, in the interests of free expression:
The current arrangements for digital content moderation militate against an ethical ‘good
Samaritan’ approach by platforms. Since liability protection is granted when platforms are
unaware of the content on their platforms, they are less likely to seek to monitor and protect.
For this reason, policy approaches under discussion take the form of altering the incentives
But the scriptural Good Samaritan intervenes, when apparently “good” people (a Levite and a priest) have failed to do so, not because he is incentivised to do so, but because it’s the right thing to do and, importantly, he knows what the right thing to do is (despite being despised by the authorities).
This is not a bible-study class. But the point is important in so far as it demonstrates that media standards depend on individuals’ morality rather than corporate ethics (if such a thing as the latter can realistically be said to exist). Journalists (as it happens, individuals all too often despised by authorities) are called upon precisely not to pass by on the other side when their standards are left half-dead in a ditch.
That statement has huge implications for education in media literacy, which the report rightly identifies as key to tackling the information crisis. Because it means that literacy must be taught not only to students in education and adult media-consuming citizens (both of whom the report identifies) but also to content-creators, otherwise known as journalists.
The report identifies five “Giant Evils” of our information crisis: Confusion – citizens are less sure of what is true and who to believe; cynicism – citizens are losing trust, even in trustworthy sources; fragmentation – infinite knowledge is available, but less reliable ; irresponsibility – power without accountability and transparency; apathy – citizens disengaging from and losing faith in democracy.
The Seven Deadly Sins, of course, have been around rather longer. Without going into those in detail here, it’s worth noting that since the classical antiquity of Aristotle and Plato, human-made evils have found their match – their antidote, as it were – in the human virtues: Cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance (which, in an intriguing pun in our context, means moderation in all matters). To these have been added other virtues down the ages, such as humility, constancy and integrity.
These human virtues are a product of nurture, not nature. And unless they’re taught as part of the media-literacy curriculum that this report recommends, then those at the coalface of content, citizen content-providers and journalists, are not going to recognise the professional standards to which we aspire. The report commits to the importance of bottom-up improvements, in addition to top-down governance, and it’s hard to think of a better place to start than in journalists’ ethical education.
That is an ethically-driven future that could plausibly emerge from this important report. For, as always, the importance of a report is measured not so much in what it contains as in how we respond to it.
George Pitcher advises Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, on ethics and the future of journalism and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. He formerly held senior editorial positions at The Observer and the Daily Telegraph. @GeorgePitcher
Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Dow Jones or the LSE.