Tuesday 2 August 2011

Truth in the news

The clerisy are the 'intellectual' department of the bourgeoisie. We're the people who went to university and now work in non-manual jobs as corporate or government functionaries, subscribe to the New Yorker (or local equivalent) and read proper books (or at least book reviews). We tend to have intellectual pretensions and liberal political inclinations. We tend also to have strong enlightenment values, in particular a respect for  truth and a demand for rationality. Despite, or perhaps because of, our intellectual pride we are continually astonished to discover that the rest of the world doesn't think like us. Consider the tabloid press.

The clerisy believes that news media is there to inform the citizenry of truths concerning the public interest and therefore plays an essential role in rational politics. Hence a great deal of elegant essays worrying about the future of democracy when the newspapers die. Hence the clerisy's routinised disgust at misrepresentations of facts by the news media, whether about science or immigration.

Indeed, the middle-class press - the classy newspapers, magazines, and regulated TV channels like the BBC - does arguably perform the public service the clerisy envisages. This happy coincidence has misled the clerisy into believing that public service to truth is the true nature, or telos, of news media and to see deviations from that function as exogenously induced (e.g. by political interests). 

But we are wrong. The news media is not fundamentally about the public interest, or even facts, as their more successful proprietors have always known. It is entertainment. Journalists wouldn't bother with facts at all if it weren't for libel laws. As it is they distort their significance and meaning so far that the distinction between truth and falsehood is pretty academic. The only reason the middle-class press pays so much attention to factual accuracy is because the clerisy expects that in our entertainment and the media panders to our prejudices. It is market forces not teleology that shapes journalism.

Not factually true, but it's
the sort of thing they would do.
The clerisy believe that when newspapers tell lies this hurts the reader by misinforming them. This is because we read newspapers for factual information and feel hurt when we discover lies. But the people who read the gutter press are not stupid (as the clerisy tends to categorise anyone who doesn't think like them). Very few report believing that what they read is true, so it is strange to think that they are being misinformed about immigration and cancer research by irresponsible profiteering scoundrels like Murdoch.

Let me suggest instead that for many people, truth is both less important and less clearly defined than for the clerisy. Truth for example is linked less to factual accuracy than to character, what Stephen Colbert calls 'Truthiness'. It's not that Daily Mail readers literally believe that Romanians are coming to Britain to kill and eat our swans. But they do believe that it's the kind of thing they would do. Truthiness constitutes an extended understanding of truth that is more about the representing the true character of the world than presenting a collection of neatly circumscribed facts. This is why disproving the factual basis of such stories doesn't change people's faith in them - Romanians are still the kind of people who would eat our swans. So the harm the gutter press can do has less to do with misinforming citizens and more to do with mischaracterising the world and cultivating despicable attitudes.

Secondly people do not read/watch the news media in order to fulfill their civic duty to be informed about the public interest. What a ridiculous intellectual conceit. We pay our valuable attention to it because it satisfies an itch for infotainment. The sanctimonious clerisy enjoy perusing tabulated statistics about famine deaths in Africa, and then having informed discussions about development aid reforms (and local house prices of course) at our charming dinner parties.

Others prefer dramatic narrative that arouses more direct emotions, whether amusement (fluffy-dog-riding-skateboard stories), outrage and indignation (immigrants, European human rights), fear (pedofiles and cancer), prurience (government ministers bonking), schadenfreude (celebrity melt-downs), and so on. And it seems that the consumers of these stories aren't too fussy about where they come from, and even whether they are manufactured by the news machine itself. Hence Greg Miskiw, assistant editor at the News of the World, "That is what we do - we go out and destroy other people's lives."

There is a vicarious pleasure to be obtained from seeing other people close up while they struggle to cope with intense and unusual moral and emotional stresses that has little to do with the scientistic model of scrupulous and objective rationality that the clerisy associates, in theory at least, with citizenship. It's drama, not science. 

The clerisy's prejudices and misunderstandings have long determined the news media's place in society, and the rights, privileges and responsibilities that come with that. Since we have tended to consider the news as naturally public service oriented - concerned with telling the truth about power - as it so frequently declares, we have tended to think it should be left free to do its thing and manage its own responsibilities. Regulation would introduce the distortions of political interests: censorship and propaganda.

For the same reason we have been wary of making public value judgements about the news media (though in private we sneer at the tabloids and all who read them). The clerisy's public criticisms of the media are generally limited to the objective domain of truth: are their claims factually accurate? But truth, though essential, is by itself an extremely weak tool for regulation. It doesn't get at the perniciousness of truthiness - cultivating vicious attitudes to immigrants or homosexuals, for example, that undermine their status as equal citizens. It is also pretty easy to destroy people's lives for the entertainment of the viewing public without ever lying.

We must set aside our misconceptions and take a serious look at how the news media actually works and the multiple influences, including harms, that it can have on the public interest. We need to discriminate how the news media actually relates to the public interest from what the media says it does and assess it on multiple dimensions. If we see the news media in broader terms, as a form of entertainment not limited to encyclopaedia-like functions, we can see that its influence extends beyond accurate information. We can then begin to consider its effects on the character of its users and our society as a proper part of the public interest.

Of course their is no public interest in tearing celebrities' lives apart for our amusement. Nor even for politicians, except when their misjudgements have a direct bearing on their political office (Gordon Brown's child having cystic fibrosis doesn't count). But such Roman circuses are not only orthogonal to the public interest and a bit unfortunate for the poor sods getting fed to the lions, but may be directly against the public interest to the extent that they actively harm their consumers and society as a whole. For example, individual media consumers may come to enjoy a crude sensationalist drama that demeans other human beings. They then take those attitudes into civic discourse and politics and undermine the standards of mutual respect and civilised argument on which grown-up politics depends.

We should stop seeing the news media as naturally good or a single natural kind and start seeing it as a space in which many different forms can arise through the interaction of  media regulations, market forces, consumer preferences, and the character and interests of media moguls. Like education or health care, and unlike the market for apples, it is a space of particular significance and prone to particular pathologies. Leaving it free to manage itself is not neutral but foolish. Getting a news media that adequately serves the needs of democracy requires considering what its special character suggests in terms of the regulatory requirements that could help produce that. It's about civilising, not politicising the media. So, no more foreign owners. No more attacks on the privacy of individuals (mere truth and popularity does not entail public interest significance). No more bullying and secret dealing with politicians. No more 'self-regulation'. No more newsrooms that pressure journalists to get the story at all costs.