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Jul 7, 2011

Blaming the internet: the gatekeepers' take on phone hacking

The Guardian's phone hacking scandal has been in the finest traditions of the mainstream media - and so is its attitude to new media.

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The Guardian has been first among the UK broadsheets in its coverage of the News Corp phone hacking scandal — well, scandal is hardly apt any longer, depravity is closer to the mark — and broke the story in 2009. Its dogged pursuit of the issue — which included being attacked in the UK Press Complaint Commission’s delusional report on the affair — has been investigative reporting in the finest traditions of the mainstream media.

But it ran a peculiar op-ed piece earlier this week. One of its most senior journalists and commentators, former Times editor Simon Jenkins, decided that the whole business was the fault of the internet. Discussing the growing intrusiveness of the media in celebrities’ public lives, Jenkins opined

The flourishing of social networking rendered this intrusion near limitless, but also took it beyond the scope of well-heeled newspapers. It made personal privacy, government secrecy and general discretion so fragile that prurience once bought for the price of a paper could be satisfied free, at the click of a mouse. The public’s appetite for personal trivia proved inexhaustible. The Daily Mail’s celebrity website is a global phenomenon, if not a commercial one, but must itself be vulnerable to celebrity blogs, Facebook and Twitter, over which it is virtually impossible to exert legal control, let alone monitor taste or ethics.

Pressure on editors and newspaper owners not just to “dumb down” but to abandon all scruple and restraint has been intense. The handling by the press of the Joanna Yeates murder case, now subject to contempt of court proceedings, shows the degree to which the web has eroded newspaper discipline.

Apparently, for Jenkins, it’s not so much that the News Corp defence of a rogue employee was wrong, as that it should have been blaming the internet right from the start. Jenkins’ conclusion — you’ll never guess — is that the answer lies in letting real journalists get on with the job. “…there is public value in the marshalling and editing of information by disciplined media institutions such as newspapers and broadcasters. Such journalism must be able to claim that it meets standards of public accuracy and taste not matched on the free-to-air web.”

Then again this isn’t the first time a senior figure at The Guardian has lashed out at the internet lately. Back in May, no less than eminence grise Roy Greenslade tentatively called for British super injunctions to be extended to Twitter. In the aftermath of the Ryan Giggs episode, The Guardian also ran a truly bizarre op-ed by British PR consultant (and Hat of the Year winner) Richard Hillgrove demanding that Facebook and Twitter be “reeled in” and made to impose a delay mechanism to prevent any content that hasn’t been legally vetted from being posted.

The Guardian, it appears, has the same problem with social media as our own newspaper groups, the local arm of News Corp, News Ltd, and Fairfax, have. Crikey readers will be familiar with The Australian’s vendetta against social media, which has so far included its editor threatening to sue an academic over tweets, its media editor threatening to report an academic to police for a joke tweet, its journalists railing against “parasites” and other online critics, and regular snipes at social media, and particularly Twitter, throughout its reportage and opinion pages, including a January editorial that used the tragedy of the Queensland floods as a pretext to attack social media. But Fairfax is the worse culprit, making a point of running any story, no matter how trivial or irrelevant to Australian readers, that can be interpreted as reflecting badly on social media.

And guess where Simon Jenkin’s “blame the internet” piece emerged today? At Fairfax’s opinion page. And The Age actually ran it in their dead-tree edition. Nothing could sum up mainstream media cluelessness better than an outlet running a piece attacking the internet that is already available online and has been for two days at one of the world’s busiest media sites.

Jenkin’s piece is one of the more impressively arse-about pieces of journalistic logic I’ve ever seen — a major outlet of the mainstream media, owned by the company that virtually defines modern non-digital media, has been revealed to have engaged in practices that beggar belief in their depravity, and it is the fault of new media, not just for undermining the business model of the mainstream media but for lowering the public standards and whetting its appetite for gossip.

Makes you wonder how the paparazzi made money before the internet, or for that matter how British red tops made a penny in the long years waiting for the internet to come along and create a market for their specialised mix of misogyny, celebrity gossip and royal voyeurism. As Jenkins should know better than most of his colleagues, the seeds of the News of the World disgrace were sown years — decades — before the internet arrived to wreck media business models.

I call the vendettas The Guardian, Fairfax and News Ltd engage in “gatekeeper p-rn” — propaganda designed to arouse readers against a medium that is a fundamental threat to mainstream media. Only, the threat of social media isn’t so much to the business models of the mainstream media, but to their control over information. Throughout the twentieth century, the mainstream media exercised close control over information, deciding what to tell their consumers and when.

This privileged position has been fundamentally undermined by the internet, which routes around gatekeepers and connects individuals directly with each other on a global scale. And that particularly offends the now middle-aged white males who used to make up so much of pre-digital journalism.

What was once a monologue from gatekeeper to consumer is being replaced with an unmediated conversation between consumers, which the mainstream media now only occupies a part of. No better example of this can be found than the response to Ryan Giggs suing Twitter, when the British media had to sit silent while its former audience used social media to do what the media couldn’t, and have its own conversation about it.

The fact that virtually of the discussion of the phone hacking affair is taking place online, and News Corp publications and journalists are staying virtually silent about it, is another demonstration of how the mainstream media now only forms a limited part of the conversation.

As The Guardian’s coverage has demonstrated, the mainstream media remains a crucial part of the conversation. It just has to accept that it no longer controls it like it used to.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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