What the papers say about us

by Stephen Tall on January 10, 2005

Monday’s Guardian Media supplement devoted yards of newsprint to worrying away at the role of journalism in public life. Are journalists more powerful than they used to be? If so, are they using their powers to do good? And to whom are they, can they be, should they be, accountable?

Fair enough: “that’s good,” (as one of my old tutors often used to say to me) “as far as it goes.” But, amidst all their obsessive-compulsive self-flagellation, I feel they’re rather letting us, the public, off the hook.

This path has already been well trod by John Lloyd, editor of the Financial Times Magazine, in his book, ‘What the Media Are Doing To Our Politics’. Anthony Sampson, author of ‘The Anatomy of Britain’, follows in his footsteps, introducing The Guardian’s analysis by stating:

“This marked increase in power [in the last 40 years] has inevitably been accompanied by questions about the media’s own legitimacy. Journalists are not elected, and are, by and large, distrusted. More and more people are asking: for whom do they really speak?”

Which misses the point quite fundamentally. I’m not entirely sure what Mr Sampson means when he argues that the power of journalism has increased in the last 40 years (I’m only 27, after all).

Consider two historical incidents. In 1922, David Lloyd George seriously considered resigning as Prime Minister to become editor of The Times. That paper’s pivotal role in the 1936 abdication crisis has been well documented. The importance of newspapers and journalists has been on a downwards spiral ever since.

It’s easy to see why. The newspaper market is now vastly more fragmented than it was in pre-war Britain.

In addition, the ‘meedja’ now includes television, radio, magazines and the Internet. The Sun, Britain’s most popular paper, sold 3.22 million copies a day in December 2004, its lowest circulation in 30 years. Quite simply, it is not possible for any one paper to wield the power the ‘Thunderer’ could once justifiably boast. No longer do ‘Top people take The Times’ to quote the 1950s’ advertising slogan – though as one wag daubed underneath, ‘The rest of us pay for it’.

What has, undoubtedly, increased is interest in the media (from itself as well as others). This creates its own inevitable head of steam. So, is it the case that journalists are now more powerful, or (as I would suggest) that more people are studying what power the media exerts?

Market fragmentation and globalisation has in fact created an inverse power relationship between journalists and readers. Consumers now reign supreme, while worried editors study the latest circulation figures with furrowed brows, desperately thinking up yet more cunning ruses to entice the casual reader into selecting their newspaper.

So, instead of asking, as Mr Sampson does, “for whom do they really speak?”, let’s try this question instead: *to* whom are journalists really speaking? One doesn’t have to delve too deep into the theories of audience reception to appreciate that journalists, editors and publishers are all speaking to one group: potential consumers.

Now, on one level, you can view this cynically, and assume they care only for their profit margins. That they are, in the words of Guardian investigative journalist David Leigh, engaged in “a race to the bottom in a declining market.” Alternatively, it can be seen as a healthy departure from the exclusive clique-mentality that too often used to prevail.

In his book, ‘Friends in High Places’, Jeremy Paxman recounts an occasion when The Times’s economics editor, Peter Jay, dismissed a sub-editor who questioned whether anyone would understand his latest article: “You’re not supposed to. It’s written for three people. Two of them are at the Treasury, and the other one’s at the Bank of England.”

This epitomised the paper’s sublime self-importance, as evidenced by a 1950s’ memorandum which stated: “Great Britain cannot function without a strong, educated, efficient, informed governing class. The Times is the organ of that class.”

Now I don’t believe for one moment that Messrs Lloyd and Sampson would want to turn the clock back to this by-gone era. However, I also don’t believe one should be too rose-tinted in one’s vision of a Golden Age of untainted, fearless, impartial, rigorous, probing journalism.

Their conviction is that the media is failing to deliver to the public the nourishing intellectual edification they should enjoy. But is it not closer to the truth to argue that journalists are giving the public what they want, what they demand? Readers may deprecate newspapers for reporting sex scandals involving politicians, footballers and political sketch-writers – but sales of those newspapers go up regardless.

And yet the relationship is a little more complex, more vibrantly 3-D. For most of the scandal-sheets record only a temporary ‘spike’ in circulation; the downward trend of the red-tops is now very well-established. The British seems almost to have developed a ‘reading disorder’, devouring the tittle-tattle in a midnight feast before guiltily wretching it all up, and entering denial. We seem unable, though, to embrace a nutritious diet: as I have previously written the quality of British newspapers is diminishing, as opinion and news meld into one gloppy mess.

Where I depart from the Sampson/Lloyd thesis is in blaming journalists. It is often said we get the politicians we deserve, and, largely, I think that’s true. To that true-ism can be added another: we get the media we want.