THE ROLE OF QUALITY JOURNALISM IN OUR DEMOCRACY
Kevin O’Sullivan, Editor, The Irish Times
The perfect storm ‑ a sharp economic downturn in many countries combined with a dramatic shift in consumption patterns and diminishing traditional brand loyalty ‑ means much of the rich and diverse blend of media in Europe is under grave threat. In that turbulent mix are some great newspapers and public service broadcasters. The phrase ‘once great’ will be applied to many who will fall by the wayside. A heavy cost is likely to be paid to the detriment of society and democracy.
The open internet has ‘democratised’ content and enriched the conversation with the reader. There has been tremendous change in terms of participation. But social media have also disrupted robust news gathering. Many in the new camp of ‘breaking news’ don’t apply the same value system as the big established players. This has helped fuel a mistaken view that ‘old fashioned’ news gathering and verification is of less merit. It has been described elsewhere as “abandoning journalism for the tyranny of the click”.
In addition, some long-established media are losing out in the ‘Time War Zone’ especially on the crowded battleground of commoditised news, where first is more important than accurate, or where patterns of consumption i.e. page impressions or ‘high metrics’ dictate content above all else. That said, I’m not advocating that we maintain the failsafe approach of many decades, summed up by the dictum: ‘we tell you the news’. That just won’t do any more. The Irish Times is acutely aware of the major forces at play. We are embracing a scale of change that is arguably the most significant in our 150-year history.
Leading the liberalisation and opening up of Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s was perhaps the greatest philosophical shift in the paper’s history – a repositioning that profoundly changed its character and readership. With others like RTE, we were among the most influential agents of change then. Today it is about the fundamentals of how you inform and engage with the audience of 2012; time-pressed and distracted by a multitude of devices and an avalanche of content, much of which is of dubious merit or news value, and yet media consumption is at an unprecedented level. The challenge today is also a qualitative one.
We believe there is a place for quality journalism, underpinned by a strong degree of trust, in that space. That noble aspiration is not always achieved in the news business, but it should motivate us in all cases. We in The Irish Times aim to distinguish ourselves from ‘the white noise’ of the web with insight, context, explanation, clarity and a unique take on Ireland and on the world through Irish eyes; it requires resonating with the modern lives of our readers and consumers of all ages. That applies equally to a newspaper as to a digital device.
It entails being a genuine, original and responsive multimedia company while using the platform of an outstanding newspaper in the broadest sense, reinforced by our strong news base. Tablet and iPad editions are already showing how progressive newspapers can stand out on that frontier. In any event, for those who are going to flourish, it necessitates embracing innovation and the latest in content management technology at every turn.
At this juncture, many media organisations are falling into the trap of reducing journalistic resources on a large scale. To be frank, The Irish Times is subject to similar pressure to follow the same course as we contend with a recession that is lingering so painfully for so many within Irish society. [How we wish for more of a 6-year recession rather the classic 10-year one!]
Some media organisations who are debt-ridden or over leveraged have no choice in that regard. Yet I contend journalistic firepower is vital. Firstly, it is needed for survival – in the shape of a distinct presence driven by strong combined print and digital content at a time of uncertainty and unrelenting upheaval in the marketplace. That is the core that provides the best chance of a sustained future in my book.
The Media as Agent of Political Reform
From a broader perspective, well-resourced newsrooms are necessary to support and to bring to account those who run our democracies, though some politicians may be sceptical of their ability to do so. Moreover, they are needed to expose the systemic failures of our political systems that have brought so many states, including Ireland, to the brink of financial ruin.
Robust, quality media companies including public service broadcasters, provide the best forum for journalism and discussion surrounding the pursuit of meaningful political reform.
Politics during the first decade of the 21st century – despite the remarkable commitment of many – has failed Ireland. The Constitutional Convention is a welcome first step towards addressing a crisis of failed accountability but it doesn’t sufficiently pursue “change to the way politics is done in this country”. Its ambitions are modest in face of the “demand for wide-ranging and credible reform.” There is every reason to believe that referring a controversial issue to the Convention will be a convenient way of putting off having to do something about it before the end of this parliamentary term.
That said, a move to regulate lobbying, to extend the Freedom of Information Act and to reform the courts system outside that process adds more substance to the Coalition’s reform agenda. And it was reassuring to see Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin note recently that he places equal weight on the need to reform politics and public life, as the need to restore stability to our finances.
The new French President Francois Hollande has announced an initiative to introduce more ‘morality’ to French politics and public life. What’s more, the headline changes will be formulated to a large extent by November! How would we react if Taoiseach Enda Kenny was to announce he wanted to introduce more morality into Irish politics within such a timeframe? I suspect it would be greeted by much derision and insistence it was an impossible deadline though the cause is just and need for change so pressing.
The most important point, from the perspective of our discussions today, is that all of our native media, print and broadcast, need to play a central role in helping reshape our democracy.
The Irish Times is committed to its part in this process, notably in engaging our “constituents” and in broadening the debate and placing it in the context of the type of society we want and need. It is more than compatible with the memorandum and articles of our Trust. We need pertinent reportage and analysis that will pave the way to the best possible reform package as we audit and re-evaluate our credentials as a modern republic in the run up to 2016.
Hyped, reactive journalism – increasingly, a mix of news and often misinformed comment – should not be allowed drive the reform agenda. We are not best served by those who jump on the perceived issue of the day using such an approach. An obsession with emotive yet minor issues such as allowances paid to politicians and salaries paid to their advisors is the obvious manifestation of that mode of seeking accountability. Against that back-drop, it is no wonder that some claim a significant element of government policy seems to be dictated by how it will be perceived in the media!
Cross Media Ownership
Turbulence playing out within the Irish media landscape is against the backdrop of a highly competitive environment. A growing concentration of cross media ownership is further reducing diversity and plurality.
The Irish Times through its various digital platforms is in the process of transformation. It is serving a growing online audience and seeking to identify new business models while attempting to preserve its mix of quality, independent journalism. This is with a view to securing its long term future but also its distinct presence on the island of Ireland and as a significant counter-weight to concentrated ownership among a small powerful elite whose dominance goes beyond media.
Besides our home-grown media moguls, it includes the particular brand of dominance exercised by major British media companies, of which Sky is the most obvious, followed by News International. Then there are the Googles, the Apples, the Facebooks and giant Telecoms who are taking ownership of key infrastructure. Measuring the extent of dominance and control by all these big players in that highly complex multimedia mix is a daunting task.
How do you measure the metric “share of consumption”? What of digital domination on a global scale? And we haven’t even spoken of pricing policy that can obliterate the smaller player.
The Trouble with Leveson
The scale of abuses of journalistic practice in the UK has dominated deliberations of the Leveson Inquiry ‑ and the focus has understandably been on how to regulate press content, complaints and standards. But, as Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger noted recently, part of Lord Justice Leveson’s brief is to also think about plurality, how to stop media power being concentrated in a few hands. And it is every bit as important as the re-modelling of self regulation. He noted the plurality debate was “not just about Murdoch”, nor is it simply about size. It includes issues of choice. But that too could be problematic. He cited the example of Australia; the choice was “becoming between Murdoch and Murdoch on steroids”, referring to the new face of Fairfax media. You also have to factor in the economics of news, which is undergoing fundamental revolution. So nothing can be taken for granted.
He listed seven critical questions that have to be asked in gauging the potential threat to plurality – a sort of scorecard on issues of internal governance, complying with the law, political influence and being subject to normal scrutiny. The questions are:
a) Does the media organisation have strong internal governance?
b) Is it effectively externally regulated?
c) Is it subject to, and does it comply with, the law?
d) Is it subjected to normal scrutiny by press and parliament?
e) Does it overtly try to exert public political influence?
f) Does it privately lobby over regulation or competition issues?
g) Does it actively work to expose the private lives of politicians or other public figures?
Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has underlined the Government’s commitment to bringing forward a new law on media mergers. Applying those criteria to the Irish media marketplace would be a useful exercise as part of his deliberations.
Press regulation on both sides of the Irish Sea
The independence of the Irish Press Council and Ombudsman from both the newspaper industry and the state is vital. Getting the balance right on issues of privacy that are in tune with our cultural attitudes is also needed. Critically, I think we got the mix right, especially by way of incorporating statutory recognition. The threat of it was sufficient to impose better standards, as Ombudsman Professor John Horgan noted before Leveson recently.
Going down the route of statutory regulation in Britain would be fraught with difficulty It would risk being amended out of all recognition by a conservative-led coalition, where many in its ranks display considerable antipathy towards UK media. Others vehemently contend the gross errors and appalling practices of News International and others “will require a degree of statutory back-up”.
To be brutally honest, I don’t know where Lord Leveson will come down in bringing the British press to heel or at least tempering its excesses. That is not to say I’m unconcerned about what might emerge. Getting the balance wrong may erode free speech to an unacceptable extent. An unfair, restrictive regime might pave the way for changes in Ireland by dint of sheer weight of political and public opinion.
Leveson has indicated more than a passing interest in the Irish model. There is strong speculation that he may recommend key elements of our system, possibly backed by significant penalties. Some have advocated levy fines of up to £1 million in cases of systemic breakdowns in ethical behaviour or internal governance.
When it comes to the practice of journalism, there are significant differences between us and Britain. There, the shocking failures have been laid bare; poor internal governance if not cover-up within tabloid newspapers; evidence to suggest criminality of reporters and senior editors, a distinctly unhealthy relationship between journalists, police officers and politicians – all capped by a failure or unwillingness to investigate and regulate the practices, market dominance and relationships of key elements within that pit in the public interest.
In Ireland, I contend our newspapers have served our Republic to a much better extent. We are not perfect; The Irish Times included. Our regulatory structure has been shown to be robust and has achieved buy-in from citizens, politicians and the newspaper industry. But that is not in any way to suggest complacency. Failures of journalism reflect on all in the content business and undermine credibility, even when we attempt to act in the public interest.
The pressures I have outlined in the Irish context are likely to get worse before they get better. There are more opportunities to get things wrong, as we all know to our cost, especially when journalistic resources are being pared back or time demands and groupthink are allowed take precedence over “old-fashioned” painstaking sourcing. The threats to survival for all native newspapers and broadcasters are real and the related plurality issue remains unaddressed.
The digital revolution is on the one hand uplifting even exhilarating; a great liberalisation of the content business. As Craig Silverman of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism noted recently, “it is a new age for truth. Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource and bring technology to bear in service of a verification.”
But it is also a place where commentary frequently fails ‘the fairness test’. The conversation can be far from civilised. Some people seem to find it easier to believe a rumour.
That aside, and most importantly from my perspective, there is a place for quality newspapers in this exciting, open, disruptive digital era. I’m convinced that an ever-changing Irish Times will stand out in that space.