Don't Hold the Front Page

Posted on April 26, 2017 at 04:48 PM

Seamus Dooley - NUJ
Seamus Dooley

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day and as Ireland drops in the Press Freedom rankings, NUJ Acting General Secretary Seamus Dooley says yes, there is a crisis in the media and yes, we should be worried 

Those who lament the passing of the traditional newspaper are in danger of sounding like a blacksmith bemoaning the arrival of the automobile.

The digital revolution has swept away old certainties and challenged our assumptions about ‘news’.The fact that everyone can become a reporter is empowering. No longer do you have to buy ink by the barrel in order to exercise power and influence.

Civic society groups, trade unions, economic think tanks and unthinking cranks can now tweet, blog, podcast and broadcast, largely unhindered by statute or regulator - save for the Defamation Act!

Strategic use of social media can be highly effective. The Yes Equality campaign - in which I was involved - used Twitter to generate a level of engagement unparalleled in any previous campaign.

On the negative side, social media has created an ecosystem in which news, and gossip – or lies, masquerading as news - is shared almost instantly and is directed by algorithms that create belief-affirming bubbles.

This has seen malign forces to manufacture falsehoods in an attempt to affect the course of events. It has also enabled perfectly reasonable satire to be mistaken for fact.

There is a need for news which is subject to verification and validation, which is distilled, parsed and analysed and presented in context and in an understandable format. 

Not all sources of information are the same. We’ve long recognised that it’s unsafe to dip in to untreated water or to assume that the nearest supply is automatically safe to drink.

There is an urgent need for media literacy and I believe this should form part of the school curriculum. Those who consume news must be educated in the difference between ‘filtered’ and ‘unfiltered’ news.

Algorithms create a self-affirming bubble which limits or refuses access to inconvenient facts or the truth. People do gravitate to stories that support what they already believe and social media creates unchallenged environments of affirmation.

But ‘fake news’ has become lazy shorthand to describe facts and opinions one does not find agreeable.

Politicians from Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn have described legitimate news stories as such, while activists and trade unions have also jumped on the this bandwagon.

Nonetheless, it is clear that not everything presented is news is actually news and much of it bears no relationship with any version of the truth.

The moral panic in part induced by the election of Donald Trump, is of a different scale and raises significant questions.

In many respects, the response of media organisations has exacerbated the problem.

Their answer to dwindling audiences and declining market share has been to reduce costs. They have abandoned core principles in favour of new digital platforms and at the expense of investment in journalism.

The reality is that quality journalism, regardless of the platform, is expensive. Diverting resources away from this into websites dominated by ‘news’ about the Kardashians is no solution to the existential crisis in the media.

In Ireland, we need a real debate about public service broadcasting and how much we are prepared to pay. Defending public service broadcasting takes political courage.

Much of the public distrust we see stems from the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a powerful and wealthy media elite. The right to freedom of expression carries with it the right to receive information. That right is compromised when ownership is vested in the hands of a few.

The NUJ has a long history of opposition media concentration.

In 1973 the union voiced concern at the potential damage to media plurality of the growing influence of Tony O’Reilly through his acquisition of Independent Newspapers.

Conflict over coverage of Mr O’Reilly’s external business led to an industrial dispute following the sale of the newspaper in 1973. Indeed the then Minister for Industry and Commerce Justin Keating stated that no government would be prepared to take on a wealthy, influential newspaper publisher.

Our opposition to the current INM bid to acquire Celtic Media is based on a belief in the importance of media diversity.

In the UK the NUJ has secured the support of the TUC, the EFJ and the ETUC in our campaign of opposition to the complete merger of B Sky B and 21st Century Fox.

If the debate on media ownership in Ireland has appeared to focus on Independent News & Media and Denis O’Brien it is because successive governments and the Competition Authority (now the Consumer Protection and Competition Commission) allowed a concentration of ownership and influence to develop.

The issue of ownership and control is frequently assumed to be about direct editorial interference by owners and shareholders in editorial content.

This ignores the reality that ownership itself shapes media content, a fact that is recognised in the media merger guidelines.Ownership is linked to financial control and determines the priority given to editorial budgets, it determines the business model, and it directly determines wages and terms and conditions of employment within the industry.

It also determines the corporate approach to pensions, as illustrated in recent developments at Independent News and Media plc.Owners influence the shape of news in a variety of ways, including through editorial appointments and structures.

If the industry is dominated by a small number of owners whose values are those of the market and who increasingly view journalists as ‘content providers’ and journalism as mere ‘data’ to be shared in the most commercially advantageous manner possible, there is little space for public interest journalism.

That means less coverage of public bodies, courts, parliamentary committees and local authorities. It means less diversity not just in opinion but in what stories are covered and how they are covered.

The consequences of these failures is a  loss in the credibility of the media and the creation of a gap readily filled by those with other agendas, willing to exploit the ability to create 'alternative truths'.

So yes, there is a crisis in the media and yes, we should be worried. 

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