More on John Lloyd event
by Paul Miller
What the media are doing to our politics
Demos, London, 18th January 2005
John Lloyd, author What the Media are doing to our politics, editor FT Magazine and Demos Associate
Ian Hargreaves, author of Journalism: truth or dare? and Demos Trustee
Eddie Gibb, Head of Communications, Demos (chair)
John Lloyd�s book What the media are doing to our politics (Constable, 2004) has generated controversy among journalists and media professionals. In it he argues that the media are no longer functioning as an effective check on the political class and that a vicious cycle of distrust has developed between journalists and politicians based on the �shallow thrill of interrogation� while depriving the public of the information they need in order to act as responsible citizens.
Lloyd�s contribution has been attacked by some journalists unhappy with the accusation that they are living in a �parallel universe�. A recent special edition of Media Guardian added fuel to the discussion, asking non-journalists to give their opinion of the state of British journalism. They were often far from complimentary.
As part of our regular series of events with Demos Associates, we hosted a discussion first to interrogate Lloyd�s thesis, but also to begin a debate about what can be done about it. What steps do we need to take to transform the current �parallel universe� of journalism into what it should be, �civic activity at its best�? Would a �Media Institute�, inhabiting the space between academic media studies, the media and politics be the solution? And how would it work in practice?
What are the media doing to our politics?
John Lloyd opened the discussion with the context in which he perceives the media to be operating in at the moment:
� Media has always been a powerful force in free societies, but that this is especially the case in Britain.
� The marked increase in the power of the media since the 1960s has coincided with the decline of traditional institutional power bases such as organized religion, trade unionism, and even the family unit itself.
� More often than not, news organizations are part of large corporations � meaning that the imperatives of the corporation are liable to set the agenda for editorial tone and approach (for example, entertainment formats have permeated news broadcasting).
He argued that:
� The media is at its best when it helps its hold power to account but is, in fact, poor at holding itself to account. Such a problem is complicated by the implications of the state playing a role in any restriction or regulation of the media.
� The media operates as a market in a way that other �truth seekers� do not (for example, the Judiciary or the Academy). Even those elements within the media that are not formally part of this market � such as the BBC � are increasingly embattled and likely to act as if they are part of this market as viewing figures are scrutinized to provide legitimacy.
� In spite of the conditions created by a consumer market, journalism is also an essentially civic practice. Over the last twenty years or so, other civic institutions or practices (membership of political parties, voting) have declined, and this should be a cause for concern for the media as well as something for them simply to chronicle. This is because the media are actors or participants in this general decline in civic life, rather than just observers of it.
Ian Hargreaves then responded with some of his own reflections on the arguments laid out by John Lloyd. He differed with John Lloyd on two points:
� Firstly on who was to blame for the present health of the media. He suggested that politics itself had contributed to the decline in journalistic standards by altering its own approach to media relations, and that the �commercialisation of speech� had undermined the prospect of clear and frank communication of ideas.
� Secondly, that whilst much of television in particular may be vulgar and even subversive, this does not represent a concern in itself and was always a likely outcome of the television age.
He described these as minor differences, however, adding that he agreed with the principal argument of the book: that the British media is in poor shape. He added that:
� The argument that the media is currently no worse than it used to be is insufficient and would not stand up in other contexts. He gave the example of safety in the workplace as something that could not simply be defended by the argument that it was no worse than was the case fifty years ago.
He also commented on the impact of new media, suggesting that it had effected some positive and negative changes on journalism more generally:
� Positive: it had increased the reach of media (crossing geographical boundaries), and it had also increased our ability to interrogate the media itself.
� Negative: it had served to hollow out the commercial base of journalism, leading to a loss of earning-power and status in the profession. This may be partially to blame for the way in which the media does not tend to be representative of society in its composition (age, race, family background).
A marriage in need of counselling?
� A number of participants raised issue with the troubled marriage between media and politics. There seemed to be a general agreement that the media now �wears the trousers� in the relationship. The media determine public political debate in an era when no paper would now consider giving a verbatim account of what happens in the Commons. �Politics� really takes place in the staged arena of studios and press conferences.
� One participant compared the relationship between the media and politics to that between political parties (in particular the Labour party) and trade unions in the 1970�s. Mutual dependence led to an impasse and an extreme reluctance to make the first move in fear of the potential consequences. Although the power of the media seems to have reached �fever pitch�, it is worth noting that the power of the trade unions reached an apex just before its resounding collapse. Is the solution to dealing with the overwhelming power of the media similar to that used to limit the muscle of the trade unions? � Building new alliances, political courage and partly simple preparation for a big fight?
� What is the problem with journalism? This essential attempt to clarify the problem is too often overlooked. Is there a need to do something to journalists themselves, or to the structures they work within? Are we talking about the need to reform journalists as moral individuals, or reform the structures in which journalists operate?
� There was an evident tension between judgements of journalistic quality, the need to create better expectations of standards and the need to improve training for journalists.
� What does the rising number of free papers say about the value of journalism? Can you really get something for nothing? Comparisons between US and UK media proved antagonistic. Although Americans
may have a much more developed system of self-reflection within the media, with numerous journals and a complex system of redress, some argued that readership of their better newspapers is smaller than the UK�s better newspapers, and the standard of our best broadcast news was much higher than theirs.
� Journalism cannot be disconnected from the �search for the truth�, yet the divide between newspapers and viewspapers, and even the rise of the weblog, means it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from comment. Participants particularly discussed the challenge provoked during the Hutton Inquiry of identifying the solid facts of the case from within the mire of journalistic commentary. The Internet now means �facts� can be recycled at the touch of a button without checking their original source, and long gone are the days when anonymous comments were off-limits.
� Training for journalists was a divisive issue. Regarded as one of the rare �open� professions, some participants were very positive about the lack of formal qualifications required to be a journalist. The idea of closing off this career avenue, and making it more protected would be extremely dangerous for the future of free speech according to some participants.
� Others argued that journalism was increasingly professional, and despite any amount of good training in practice and ethics, when fresh-faced young journalists arrive in big newspaper corporations they are forced to toe the line or risk losing their job. In a choice between ethics and eating, it is unsurprising that abominably paid young journalists assume the moral framework of the powerful hierarchies of their employer.
� John Lloyd pointed out that in order to trust any other professional with the provision of a service, we would want to see his or her credentials. Why are journalists any different from accountants? Why is there not a Chartered Institute of journalists? Would letters after their name create a climate of trust for certain journalists? The lack of formal qualifications required could be seen as an �invitation to irresponsibility�.
� Ian Hargreaves argued that journalists must ensure their morality is not made in the newsroom. Could the crucial question of how to ensure that journalists can work without the fear that they will be forced to do things that they don�t want to do be answered by the creation of a Media Institute? How do we teach journalists to know when to tell news editors to get stuffed?
� The panel members were questioned over the need to create a more robust system of redress. Would Peter Bradley�s Right of Reply Bill help to create a shopping list of ways in which journalists could claw back
respect? Participants were suspicious. Ian Hargreaves criticised this as a symptom of the logic of a highly marketised society � the need for a lawyer at the elbow of every dealmaker is becoming a curse rather than a blessing.
Where next? The Media Institute
John Lloyd presented his proposal for a Media Institute to fill a gap in civic and political life. Although other policy institutes are growing in prominence, none deal specifically with the media. Academic departments theorise about journalism, but their role is not to engage with the day-to-day debate of the state of our new media or to develop longer term plans for its future.
The media institute would be a think tank. It would identify an agenda of work, publish newspapers and pamphlets, essays and books; it would hold seminars, sponsor lectures and debates and collaborate with similar institutes abroad. It would regularly comment on how stories are treated by the media and act as an ombudsman for their accuracy and integrity.
The Institute would attempt to answer �big questions� such as: What does journalism do? How does it change things? What happens when journalists are involved in a situation that would not happen if they stayed away? It would unpack the agenda that discussions such as this one have revealed desperately need to be exposed.
John Lloyd and Demos have agreed to work together to develop the rationale for a Media Institute, including its remit, organisational design and funding. Demos sees its role initially as an incubator for the idea, and plans to host further discussions and organise working groups to develop the concept. It could also act as a temporary or even permanent home to the Media Institute.
Demos would welcome any ideas, suggestions or feedback on the analysis set out by John Lloyd, but particularly responses to the proposal for a Media Institute. We would be particularly interested in hearing suggestions of pilots or small-scale research projects that would help test out the concept and help develop a workable approach.
What the Media are doing to Our Politics
Guardian report of event