The public must challenge news coverage

A look back at the dramatic news events of the past summer shows that the media's coverage is often badly flawed.

    Mainstream media often dismisses talk of conspiracy as silly - yet in the case of News of the World, a vast criminal conspiracy was shown to have existed [EPA]

    In the last month, we have seen one engrossing news event follow another in quick succession. On July 5th, The Guardian revealed that the News of the World had been illegally hacking into the voicemail records of the victims of crime. In the week that followed, the revelations accumulated and the scandal cut short the careers of senior police officers and media executives. The frenzy of news and analysis had only just ground to a halt when attention shifted to the terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utoya in Norway on July 22nd. Then, after a brief detour to America and the melodramatic negotiations over the debt ceiling, we had riots and looting on the streets of Britain's cities and what looked like panic on the stock markets of the world.

    High summer is meant to be a quiet month for news. In Britain, it used to be called the silly season - a time when news editors could run stories about the Loch Ness monster secure in the knowledge that nothing terribly urgent happens in August. Just as publishers held back their blockbusters until September, politicians waited until after Labour Day to launch eye-catching initiatives. Asked in September 2002 why he was talking about the menace posed by Iraq all of a sudden, Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, won lasting notoriety when he explained that "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August". 

    An unusual summer

    Politicians like to appear powerless before the onrush of events. The political establishment in the America is united in pretending that it has no choice but to cut spending on social programmes, for example. The markets leave them no choice but to do what they want to do. But there is also a sense, in Europe at any rate, that our rulers are not entirely in control of events. The British prime minister, the mayor of London, the Home secretary and the chancellor of the Exchequer all cut short their holidays last week when rioting broke out in North London and spread to other English cities. The problems in the Eurozone have forced several European leaders to cancel their breaks. That doesn't happen in a normal August.

    As the 24-hour news channels and the social media filled with one super-drama after another, they crowded out other stories. A famine in Somalia barely registered. Conflict continued in Libya and Syria and there were major demonstrations in both Israel and Egypt but they no longer excited the same volume of chatter and speculation in the western media that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspired a few months earlier. Mubarak's telegenic court appearances came and went, attracting a flicker of interest from broadcasters outside the region. The Arab Spring had turned into the Arab Summer, a drawn out struggle between the peoples and governments of the region. The significance of what was happening hadn't diminished, only its ability to monopolise the global news agenda.

    It is all too easy to be caught up in each drama as it comes. We watch the crowds in Tahrir Square and feel the thrill of people power. We watch the crowds in London and shudder at the prospect of a city lost to mob rule. The images present themselves. The analysts and commentators offer their explanations and interpretations, controversies break out, lines are drawn. Events are made to conform to existing world-views or, more rarely perhaps, world-views shift a little. Everything seems terrifically urgent. Then the caravan moves on. 

    It is worth asking what, taken together, the events of this unseasonably eventful summer have to tell us. Or rather, what the coverage of these events tells us. Since the launch of CNN the global news agenda has been filled by a succession of events that have little in common but their capacity to enthral audiences. The two Gulf Wars, the OJ Simpson trial, the terrorist attacks of September 2001, Tiger Woods' marital difficulties and Lindsay Lohan's brushes with the law all have their moment at the centre of attention. The world historical takes turns with the eye-catching, the sensational and the scandalous. This series of incommensurable events is itself an event, perhaps the defining constant of our time. In one sense this summer's news has been no different. In Britain the prequel to the News International was a frenzy of speculation about the private antics of professional footballers and celebrities.

    Fantastical assumptions

    But if we step back from this series we can see that the coverage on which we rely is often badly flawed. Time and again this year we have learned how fantastical the background assumptions of the major media are. Since September 2001 talking heads and opinion formers have been all but united in telling us that political change in the Middle East would inevitably empower religious extremists. Good rational sceptics found themselves reluctantly accepting the need to support dictators who were at least the natural enemies of al-Qaeda. Reality collided with this widely accepted nonsense on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia and it turned out that the alternative to Western-backed tyranny might be democratic after all.

    Over the last decade the major media have been almost unanimous in dismissing the significance of conspiracies. Anyone who thought that secret criminal cabals were influencing events in Western democracies was obviously a ridiculous charlatan or a pathetic fantasist. Then we learned that a vast criminal conspiracy had been conducted in the offices of News International. While this criminal conspiracy was going on senior executives at the company had sought to intimidate MPs and other public figures. Not unreasonably the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown denounced what he called a "criminal-media nexus" in the House of Commons.

    There was something ludicrous about this particular collapse of the conventional wisdom. One author was working for the same company as the members of this "criminal-media nexus" while he was writing a book that mocked conspiracy theories and their proponents. David Aaronovitch, the author of Voodoo Histories, was assuring his readers that "conspiracies aren't powerful" at the very moment when his fellow employees at News International, in league with convicted criminals, were bugging, bribing and blackmailing on an industrial scale.

    The media keeps us uninformed

    Time and again we are finding that our media system is failing in what its defenders claim is its primary goal and justification - to keep us tolerably well informed. And even its most glaring failures do not seem to encourage a more critical, and self-critical, culture in newsrooms. When news of a terrorist attack in Oslo first broke many outlets were quick to decide that Islamists were punishing Norway for its involvement in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Only later did it emerge that the perpetrator, Anders Breivik, was a neo-fascist Islamophobe. Then the media decided he wasn't a terrorist after all and so the myth of terrorism as a uniquely Islamic practise could be left unchallenged. There are signs that social media can challenge this infuriating wrong-headedness, but we should not exaggerate the power of networks to reach large audiences when compared with, say, broadcast news.

    Print, broadcast and digital media will continue to present us with engrossing spectacles. The global economy will continue to stagger from crisis to crisis. Competition for resources and the conflict between rich and poor will both intensify. The public relations industry will seek to insert commercial messages and celebrity scandals between each outbreak of history. Commentators will continue to make claims that make less and less sense. Politicians will continue to propose solutions that are ever more absurd and sinister.

    In Britain we have an exemplary mix of market-oriented and public service media. For several years they collectively failed to tell us that a major part of the information establishment had become a criminal conspiracy. This failure was of a piece with a wider inability to notice and describe quite obtrusive features of reality. Most of the press and the broadcast establishment had no real idea what was happening in the financial markets in the decade before 2007, for example. Their ignorance and incuriosity were so complete that even the former editor of the Financial Times, Richard Lambert, was later moved to admit that "precious few journalists gave any hints at all of what was to come". A few shrewd investments by the bankers had turned the news media into purveyors of fantasy.

    The world will continue to surprise and bewilder us while we rely on the same institutional machinery for our information. We will only break the spell of the flow when are able to put the systems of established power, including the media, under sustained and meaningful scrutiny. This will require that we each have some power to direct inquiry and to ensure that important discoveries find an appropriate audience. Democracy without democratic media has been tried and we find ourselves here, in the midst of a global economic crisis and a vast undeclared war. The current constitution of the media is deeply implicated in our predicament.

    It is only as patrons of research and inquiry that we can achieve the status of sovereign citizens. Neither market forces nor public servants can be relied on to describe the world in ways that displease the powerful. But we can create a system that will. We need only open up decisions about what is investigated and publicised to the conscious deliberation of a public of citizens. Such a project will never capture the circuits of the global attention industry. After all, it threatens the prerogatives of the owners and operators of the major media concerns. But it can be done. It must be done if we are to restore contact with the world, each other, and ourselves.

    Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. 

    Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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