Journalism gyrates dizzily between the dolorous grind of falling revenue and the Internet’s vast opportunities of a limitless knowledge and creation engine. On the revenue front, no news is good. The just-published Pew Center’s “State of the US News Media” opens with the bleak statement that “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Not only, that is, is the trade shrinking, but those who once depended on its gatekeepers have found their own ways to visibility.
Journalists’ task, as large as any they have collectively faced in 400 years of their trade’s existence, is to find a way to continue the journalism that societies most need and citizens are least willing to pay for: detailed, skeptical, truthful, fair, investigatory writing and broadcasting. It’s a big ask. The British are in the process of not answering it. They are staging a sideshow: not an unimportant one, but in a minor key all the same.
Over the past two years, a series of alleged crimes – illegal interception of phone messages, bribery, blackmail, perverting the course of justice, theft – have been committed by journalists working for the British tabloids. The Leveson Inquiry, prompted by revelations of phone hacking, and subsequent police investigations have laid bare a shaming landscape of cruelty and criminality. Many politicians of all parties bowed before the perpetrators, adding to the shame.
Redress is planned. Over the past few days, the three main party leaders have agreed to a much stricter regime of press regulation. The political parties, sensing that the popular mood has been and may remain critical of the tabloids, have also agreed (it seems; the deal may still fall apart) to put their collective weight behind a regulator with the power to levy fines up to £1 million and to command prominent display for corrections. The tabloids, led by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, the most popular daily in the land, cry tyranny. That cry is most eloquently uttered by Trevor Kavanagh, the paper’s veteran political columnist, who warned on Tuesday that “once politicians seize control of that voice [a free press], whatever their promises and assurances, there is nothing to stop them gagging it altogether.”
British tabloid journalism, which often shocks foreigners with its brutality, sees itself, in the minds of its editors and owners, as in the great line of British arguments for press freedom – John Milton’s Areopagitica; John Wilkes’ “seditious” defiance; the caustic cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson; John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”; George Orwell; and the tradition, in print and broadcast, of investigative journalism.