Friday, 25 March 2016

The fourth estate

There are many things I would like to write about today, from the latest Islamist atrocities in Brussels to the latest twists in the EU Referendum debate. But one dimension of these and, by definition, any news story is the reporting of news in general and the importance of journalistic freedom in particular.
I’m prompted to say this by the trial which began today, in secret, in Turkey of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül. The case, which involves charges of espionage since the journalists reported on alleged Turkish state support for weapons shipments to Syria, has attracted widespread condemnation. It comes at a time of wider concerns about press freedom in Turkey, in part following the State takeover of Zaman, the country’s biggest newspaper, earlier this month.
Journalistic freedom is always a target for attack by authoritarian regimes, and there are numerous cases throughout history – Egypt’s action against three al-Jazeera journalists being a recent notorious example. That this is so reflects, precisely, why journalism is so important to a free society and why it is so important to defend it. The universally acclaimed recent film Spotlight, about the journalistic investigation of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, dramatizes this, as did now classic films like All the President’s Men or The Killing Fields.
The need for robust reporting and investigative journalism seems to me to be all the more important given the massive increase in information available because of the internet and social media – what Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks calls ‘the networked fourth estate’. In one way this seems to offer a powerful counter in its own right to political authoritarianism. In another way, it obscures because it enables anyone and everyone to put their message out – in blogs like this one, indeed – with no necessary regard for truth, verification or accuracy. Twitter storms both shape the news agenda and become news in their own right.
In this world, according to the Pew Research Center:
"Instead of gatekeepers, journalists now become referees. Acknowledging that our potential audience is flooded with unlimited information and no way of discerning what is of value, what is true, what is propaganda, we must construct our work to offer them the referee’s advice: this information has been checked and verified; this information has been found to be untrue; this is self-interested propaganda; this is being reported but we have yet to be able to verify the information."

Academics are also important in this process. I think it was C. Wright Mills who described sociology as ‘slow journalism’ but whoever it was I agree – as regards sociology and social science in general, including organization studies. Indeed this is why (returning to the general point) authoritarian regimes also persecute academics as they do journalists, but my point is more particularly that in the internet-enabled cacophony academics can also be ‘referees’. Indeed they are often used by the media in just that way, and it seems to me a more important social utility than the rather mechanical notion of ‘research impact’ currently in vogue. What I find striking and impressive is the way that every time a new news story breaks, there is an academic on hand with expertise in what just hours before might have been dismissed as esoteric self-indulgence or 'academic' in the pejorative sense.
Of course there are plenty of academics and journalists who use their positions in ways that neither live up to the heroic traditions of investigative crusade nor to the mundane traditions of careful facticity. And the notions of disinterested truth that underpin both are clearly somewhat threadbare; one hardly needs to read the laboured prose of postmodern philosophers to realise this. Even so many journalists and academics do, I think, seek to uphold their best traditions whilst being sensitive to their limitations.
On the other hand, just at the moment that good journalism is most needed it is being undermined by the economics of new technology and the voracious demands of 24-hour rolling news. It is very cheap to use what is at best citizen journalism and at worst twitter-fuelled populism to fill cavernous news space, and much journalism is now no more than a recycling of the PR material of firms and governments. By contrast, it is expensive to maintain a journalistic staff unless there is lot of cultural capital and state subsidy (e.g. the BBC) or a lot of cultural capital and a brand that can be ‘monetized’ (e.g. the Financial Times). Academics, too, face pressures, especially where universities are heavily dependent on private funding or just when they become so overwhelmed by other demands that their public information role gets marginalized.
Even so, our main concern should surely be the very direct, coercive ways in which authoritarian states seek to silence comment, and here I return to Turkey – a country, let’s not forget, that is a member of NATO and an aspirant member of the EU. Here, it is not just journalists who are being arrested and, in fact, killed. Just ten days ago, three mathematics academics were arrested for calling for an end to security operations against the Kurds (and a fourth, British computer scientist Chris Stephenson was arrested and then deported for protesting in their support) and stand accused of terrorism.

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