'The internet has ended the protection of new species'

The future of what we have come to see as strong, independent and serious journalism – the kind which, it’s widely accepted, is necessary for informing citizens, holding powers to account and even for the maintenance of democracy itself – is indeed under a threat. But it is not a threat which is easily removed: for it is an effect of freedom and choice.

At the centre of this threat is the end of protected species in news media. Newspapers were (and are) expensive to start and maintain; broadcasting is more expensive, and dependent on a limited electromagnetic spectrum. These limitations meant that two crucial (if historically undervalued) sets of people had limited choice: advertisers and consumers. Advertisers needed to buy eyeballs: consumers wanted to access many things, including news and information – and could only do so by subscribing to bundles called TV channels and newspapers.

The internet has ended the protection of the news species: and its viewers and readerships, at least in the prosperous countries, drift or lurch downwards: not uniformly, but the trend is unmistakable, especially in TV news and current affairs, where there is a determined flight from a journalism which seeks to rank stories and current affairs programmes by world or national importance.

In the UK, the ITN does little news and wants to do less; Channel 4 retains a long news programme and some good current affairs (especially Despatches) – but under pressure, it may go the way of ITV; and the BBC, mindful of its charter and the licence fee, does good work still – while the channel controllers grit their teeth when they see their evening schedules ruined.

The internet, above all else, has made the customer king; it gives the advertiser another place to go, and the consumer a means of choosing what s/he wishes to see. From this, all woes seem to flow. Long-form journalism in newspapers and television – including analysis and investigations – becomes rarer. Foreign news, which had been delivered by costly foreign correspondents, is cut back – and is the domain of the visiting fireman. Current affairs increasingly occupies a niche, to which arts and religious programmes have long been consigned.

Consumers are not just king, they are also creative monarchs. In blogs, in citizen journalism, in the hundreds of millions of relationships made on YouTube or MySpace, the power of the individuals who were once aggregated in masses for the mass media, now awes by its sheer diversity – and its determination to impose its preferences.

The story of Madeleine McCann – ‘Maddie’to the world – is an excoriating one for her family: but it has become a news-and-internet phenomenon, because of the fascination it holds for millions. What should be private is now shared across continents – forcing BBC news to have its main anchor broadcast from Praia da Luz, and Sky TV to put 40 of its news staff in the same confined area. There is little news, day by day; nearly all of what is written or broadcast is speculation. But the customers demand it: the net hums with it. ‘Maddie’is consumer-led news, everywhere.

This is some of the narrative which we tell each other, and it seems to be true – as far as it goes. The large question is: how far will it go?

Firstly, we have to recognise the simple truth: once choice has been given in a free society, it cannot be taken away without a large and accepted reason. This means resituating journalism in a new landscape: one of consumer power, infinite choice and producer proliferation. In the first instance this means that, for some forms of journalism, niche status has to be accepted – with the compensating consideration that in the new media dispensation, there are many niches.

Never before is so much available to so many for so little. On the one hand, the now-ingrained habit of finding news and facts for no payment is a crisis for the news and facts providers; on the other, it vastly increases knowledge, hugely assists making sense of the world and greatly compensates for what losses there have been from the shrinking of some kinds of journalism.

In addition, new forms of funding have to be found. The state remains a major one, and is likely to remain so – though possibly dwindling over time; stepping into the spaces left by commercial withdrawal are not-for-profit institutions, universities and subscribers to particular services. Much innovative journalism is now done with grants from institutions; as commerce ceases to find it profitable to buy eyeballs that watch the news, the public interest – variously expressed – fills at least some of the gap.

Furthermore, the standard definitions of what constitutes news worth watching have to be examined. The net has spurred a tendency, already under way, which is to make the private public. The most enduring curiosity of human beings is for the actions of other human beings: and this is now served by shows which are reviled by serious journalists, but which contain real opportunities for insight. The over-hyped scandal in C4’s Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year, where a minor piece of racism expressed by one celebrity, Jade, about another, Shilpa Shetty, was an event from which much could be learned about the state of Britain today – not least the reactions to the event.

A recent documentary – also on C4 – examined the foulness of language in a Wolverhampton school, then set out to see if it could be curbed. Such approaches, in which the producers both expose an issue and attempt to act on it, are arguably more empowering both of those televised, and of those to whom the situation is shown.

‘Serious’journalism will not die: indeed, we might rejoice that many, maybe most, people are better informed and instructed, or at least have the means to be so. They’re just less so by professional journalists. So we have to restructure: as many, whose travails we described in the past, have done.

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