Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves …

– John Milton, Samson Agonistes

In a speech this week, ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, strangely compared the media revolution (currently ongoing) to the fall of the Roman Empire. His speech includes large slabs of Auden and references to Gibbon, hence, I felt emboldened to start this response with a little slab of poetry myself.

Scott likes the analogy because of its schoolboy and hollywood images of the great and powerful laid low.

Fair enough, nice and dramatic. Perhaps it was a lowbrow audience.

While the analogy might speak of the impact of the barbarians on ancient Rome, it hardly fills us with confidence about the consequences of the media revolution.

After all, the ‘fall’ was followed by what we call, or used to call, the Dark Ages and then the Middle Ages before Western civilisation was transformed by the Renaissance, so called because it was based on a return to the ideas and values of Rome and Athens. That’s why, for instance, we have a Senate in a bicameral system rather than some barbarian tribal council. If ideas matter, and they surely matter much more than events, than the Roman world is with us still.

We might also reflect on the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Is the Roman empire really dead while this powerful political and social, as well as religious, organisation continues to be a major force in Western Europe. Of course, it has been in decline as a political organisation for a few centuries now but for more than a thousand years after the ‘fall’ it carried many of the elements of Roman civilisation. The church used Latin, and kept the Roman language the key means of official communication in Europe until relatively recently. The jurisdiction and administration of the Church followed that established by Rome, with the addition of one or two outposts, notably Ireland.

The efficient organisation of the Roman Empire became the template for the organisation of the church in the fourth century, particularly after the Edict of Milan. As the church moved from the shadows of privacy into the public forum it acquired land for churches, burials and clergy. In 391, Theodosius I decreed that any land that had been confiscated from the church by Roman authorities be returned.

The most usual term for the geographic area of a bishop’s authority and ministry, the diocese, began as part of the structure of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. As Roman authority began to fail in the western portion of the empire, the church took over much of the civil administration. This can be clearly seen in the ministry of two popes: Pope Leo I in the fifth century, and Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. Both of these men were statesmen and public administrators in addition to their role as Christian pastors, teachers and leaders. In the Eastern churches, latifundia entailed to a bishop’s see were much less common, the state power did not collapse the way it did in the West, and thus the tendency of bishops acquiring secular power was much weaker than in the West. However, the role of Western bishops as civil authorities, often called prince bishops, continued throughout much of the Middle Ages.

So what can a closer examination of the Roman analogy tell us about the fate of the media revolution?

First, a total ransacking of the old media – the ‘fall’ – looks spectacular, and is no doubt deeply satisfying to disaffected outsiders (aka barbarians or the ‘audience’) but it might leave us worse off; locked in a media ‘dark ages’ until the spirit that produced much of what was best in ‘old’ media and journalism is revived in a later renaissance.

Second, the ‘fall’ takes a lot longer than the word implies, just like the Roman world, ‘old’ media is likely to persist in some form for much longer than any of us can imagine from this vantage point.

Third, the ‘fall’ is largely an illusion unless the old media ideas are replaced by a more compelling set of ideas. The hordes that ransacked Rome failed to displace the cultural and political ideas that underpinned Roman civilisation which remain with us still in a modern form, long after the barbarians war cries have all but been forgotten.

Scott himself gives us a pointer to the validity of this last lesson when he talks about the continuing, even expanding, importance of a key old media idea, editing:

Yet it’s only by maintaining a strong editorial role that we’ll reinforce, not undermine, the ABC brand. Even Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales acknowledges that the secret is in the edit – which might explain why an aggregating site which has acquired such a huge community of users – The Huffington Post – lists 62 editors and just 4 reporters. We’d shoot for a slightly different ratio ourselves!

In other areas too we may come to see the world of the ’empowered audience’ as deficient. Comment and opinion are everywhere on media sites these days, but there has been no similar expansion in facts, ideas and analysis, Scott’s much-heralded partnerships with the audience, like the barbarians attacking Rome, may be more suited to producing noise and colour than anything more enduring.

Fourth, it’s likely that the new media will be absorbed into the old media:

As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, the new Germanic rulers who conquered the provinces upheld many Roman laws and traditions. Many of the invading Germanic tribes were already Christianised, though most were followers of Arianism. They quickly converted to Catholicism, gaining more loyalty from the local Roman populations, as well as the recognition and support of the powerful Catholic Church. Although they initially continued to recognise indigenous tribal laws, they were more influenced by Roman Law and gradually incorporated it as well.

The ABC will still be the ABC with just a little more commentary from the audience. Not so much deliverance from the strictures of old media as an opportunity to join the slaves at the Mill.