We all know that the newspaper industry is in trouble. Journalists are not noticeably reticent when it comes to threats to their way of life. Serious newspapers are losing prodigious amounts of money. Tech billionaires are riding to the rescue of some, and hiring star turns from others.
Broadcasting is going through the same process of demotion that print went through in the 1950s. Silvio Berlusconi once said that “if something is not on television it doesn’t exist”. Nowadays it is more accurate to say that, if something isn’t on the first page of Google’s search results, it doesn’t exist.
But this isn’t one of these “crisis in journalism” pieces. To talk in terms of crisis would imply that there was once a time, fairly recently, when the commercial media worked tolerably well, and that some changes internal to the industry – some judicious use of technology here, a disruptive business model there – will be enough to put things right.
In the real world, the media system, taken as a whole, cannot be understood without reference to the rest of the economic and political settlement. The (imperfectly) plural and social democratic newspaper and television journalism found in the US-UK between 1950 and 1980 reflected the gains made by organised labour – and their associated media – between 1930 and 1950. Over the last generation, the restoration of the power of capital in general, and of finance capital in particular, has wrought profound changes in the media. It is worth noting that the era began with a frontal assault on … organised labour.
Business journalism, having been something of a backwater during the Keynesian era, saw rapid growth after 1980. The media researcher Tom Mills points out that in 1982 the BBC employed only three correspondents to cover economics, business, industry and labour. By 2007, this had risen to “around 160 journalists and support staff”. The Economist, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal all saw large increases in circulation over the same period, as state intervention and high taxes gave way to privatisation and the triumphant return of the financier-as-hero. Even now, while much of the rest of the news media struggles to make ends meet, the financial press remains vigorously healthy. People with money understand the importance of information. Even if they don’t read much, they pay others to read for them.
A media system that serves its audiences, rather than advertisers, shareholders and state administrators, can only ever be established when we take seriously the old adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. If journalists start leaving corporate public relations consultancies to work for democratically accountable publications we will know that the media are at last on the mend.
And just as journalism pays more attention to business, so too business is paying more attention to journalism. In the last few years senior editors and writers from the BBC, Forbes, Financial News, Financial Times, Sunday Times and many other newspapers have headed for corporate public relations firms. One of these journalists-turned-PRs, John Waples, noted that public relations pays significantly higher salaries than most media outlets – something he described as “fundamentally wrong”.
Journalists as finance PR shills?
Somewhat more rarely, financial institutions hire prominent journalists, where they join the politicians and civil servants who have already made the move. Stephanie Flanders, the Economics Editor at the BBC raised a few eyebrows last month, for example, when she announced that she was leaving for JP Morgan. Journalists have gone to work for finance companies before now. Bill Emmott, for example, the former editor of the Economist, mentions the fund manager Fleming Family and Partners and the insurance company Swiss Ré on his current CV. But to write, as Flanders did, that “in many ways” she would be “doing the same thing” at JP Morgan Asset Management, as she had been doing as BBC Economics Editor, was still a little unnerving.
We should take care to distinguish the tilt towards public relations from the parallel movement of journalists away from print and broadcast and towards the technology companies. A few days after news broke that Flanders was leaving the BBC, David Pogue announced his departure from the New York Times for Yahoo. He is only the latest example of a growing trend. Twitter, Facebook and Google have all been hiring journalists. And, as politicians put more and more pressure on the digital sector to take responsibility for the content that they catalogue and organise, this trend is bound to become more and more pronounced. Technology companies have the traffic. States want them to coordinate national systems of knowledge as newspapers and broadcasters once did.
The migration of business journalists into corporate public relations and finance, is more about the long-term shift in the balance of power between popular constituencies and the private sector than it is about the impact of new technology on the traditional media’s revenues. Journalists can now make more money working for businesses directly, than they can reporting on them, even if, in exchange, they have to give up any pretence of professional independence and become producers of what Alex Bigg of the Edelman consultancy calls “compelling client content”.
But the news business has always been more consistently interested in cultivating friendly contacts with other businesses than in aggressive investigative reporting. It is a business after all. And while the shift from broadcast to digital is significant in a number of respects, there is little reason to think that, in and of itself, it will make much difference to the overall picture of increasing income and wealth inequality and an associated rise in the communicative power of the rich and their favoured storytellers. Liberal causes will find wealthy backers. But those who want to de-privilege wealth and reinvigorate democracy would do better not to put their trust in dot com princes.
The organisation of the media is a constitutional matter, in the sense that the particular patterns of attention and inattention determine how the institutions of government function. As such the media help determine who gets what, and who gets away with what. New technology arrives in a media industry that is already embedded in a system of threats and incentives underpinned by law and customary practice.
A media system that serves its audiences, rather than advertisers, shareholders and state administrators, can only ever be established when we take seriously the old adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. If journalists start leaving corporate public relations consultancies to work for democratically accountable publications we will know that the media are at last on the mend. But that won’t happen until audiences remember that they are also citizens and act accordingly. For as all good PRs know, and never say out loud, no one can deceive people who only wish to be free.
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His e-book, Maximum Republic is published later this month.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind