Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Goodbye mainstream media. It’s been fun.

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, Journalism, News and that, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on December 14, 2010

This is going to be a very personal post, so apologies in advance; it’s something I try to avoid on this blog as much as I can.

The past two weeks has seen the first, sustained, clash between two ages: a new era of complete online freedom and transparency (and all that this entails, good and bad); versus the old world of secrecy, authority and control. And it’s been paralleled in a clash between a new way of doing journalism and the way the traditional, mainstream media does it.

As someone very much straddling both sides of the fence, so to speak, it has given me a huge amount to think about. I have now come to the conclusion that the future of journalism will not come in any shape or form from the current established media – at least in its present form.

I want to state that here and now because it is something I have not said publicly before: the future of journalism does not lie with the mainstream media. I am not suggesting it will get replaced by blogs or news startups – it will continue to exist. But anyone looking to it to breed a strong, sustainable and effective craft in the decades ahead – that genuinely performs a fourth-estate role – is looking in the wrong place.

NOTE: I know that will send many straight down to the comments box – and please do give me your thoughts! Please read the bullet points right at the bottom first – which clarify what I am, and am not saying.

It’s taken me a long time to come to this conclusion, and it’s the result of a long string of personal events.

Of mice and mephedrone

I’ve described before on this blog how I quit my job in the mainstream media back in September 2009. At the time I was working for a well-established, popular and profitable commercial radio station in Yorkshire, England. I had the privilege of being part of a news team who consistently beat our local rivals in relevancy and quality of our news, despite far smaller resources.

Earlier this year, I found myself back in the newsroom, sitting in the same chair – for a short period of time. I’d returned to do a couple of weeks of freelancing, to see old friends and keep my skills sharp.

My return coincided with one of the big media blowouts of the year (although one which has now almost entirely been forgotten). Two teenage boys had been found dead and Humberside Police suggested it may have been the result of a new, and legal drug, mephedrone. Mephedrone has lots of sexy nicknames, like M-Cat and meow-meow and was instant news-media sugar.

For us, both boys – who I won’t name, but you can find out easily yourself – were from our local patch, just south of the Humber estuary. A big local story then, and we immediately kicked into action. Over the next two weeks we diligently reported all the details of the story: reaction from local health experts, the latest from Humberside Police, growing pressure for the drug to be banned; statements from the Health Secretary Alan Johnson (who, helpfully was also a local MP); and then how Britain’s senior drugs expert Professor David Nutt resigned in protest at that decision.

Finally, on my last day, we reported the funerals of the two boys. I was at the first funeral, and in a superb use of initiative and social media journalism, reporter Jen Grieves was able to contact friends of the two boys via Facebook. We both went out and interviewed them. We asked them about mephedrone and what they thought of it. Within days, the drug had been banned – the one of the quickest changes in legislation in the UK in years.

At the end of the two weeks, I returned to London and we all felt we had done an excellent job – we had done good journalism.

Except, for one thing. The two teenagers did not die from mephedrone. In fact, they had never even taken it. This didn’t emerge until nearly two months later, and when it did, it barely registered in the mainstream media.

And I came to a cold and uncomfortable conclusion: this year I have participated fully in the mainstream media for just two weeks. My only achievement in that fortnight has been to perpetuate a national myth, to compound an echo-chamber, to package more lies and unwittingly sell them as truths.

Here’s the crux: I am not, on the whole, a bad journalist. The journalism we did was exactly the same as every other news outlet in those two weeks. We reported the events in the same way as the most senior BBC, ITV and Guardian journalists. In fact, a lot of our information came from our official news-wire, provided by Sky News.

Looking back, we should have challenged the police press release. We should have actually asked what mephedrone was, instead of going with what our news wires were saying. When the most accepted expert on drugs in the UK resigned, we should perhaps have wondered if he had a point. And we should have waited for the toxicology reports before linking the deaths to it.

Of course, none of these things are possible inside the mainstream news cycle, which is why it has become so distorting and dangerous.┬áThe actions of thousands of journalists telling half truths here and there, and passing on unchallenged information as fact from ‘reliable sources’ creates a foghorn for lies on a giant scale.

Iraq and The News You Don’t See

Tonight, ITV in the UK is screening a documentary by the campaigning journalist John Pilger, called The War You Don’t See.

Last night I was at a networked preview screening of the film, followed by a live Q&A with Pilger himself. The film makes this same point, except with far more dangerous lies than legal highs. In fact, he takes on what has become the greatest single lie of the 21st century so far – the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 – and points the blame squarely at the mainstream media.

His film tries to show how our most respected news outlets: CBS News, The New York Times, Observer, BBC News and ITV News in particular failed to effectively challenge the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. In fact, never mind failed: the mainstream media did not even try to challenge its legitimacy. The film has quite extraordinary confessions from Observer and BBC Journalists (including Rageh Omar) who look back with shame (their words) at their reportage from the time.

But again, they were not doing anything other than follow the cues of their news organisations and the popular narrative of the time. Inside the news machine, they could hardly have done anything else.

The films concludes government propaganda machines have become so fantastically sophisticated – and they are successfully hoodwinking journalists on a regular basis.

Pilger is also very critical of embedding journalists. As a reporter who was embedded in Iraq (albeit very briefly, in 2009) I can see why.

When you are in the pockets of the military (they house you, transport you, guide you and feed you) objectivity is near impossible. Even if you can emotionally detach yourself from your hosts, on most embeds you see what the military want you to see, how they want you to see it. My very affable Media Ops guide, was prone to pointing out all the positive things the army were doing in his soft friendly tones; it was hard to disbelieve him.

And we went along with it, some more than others. Quite remarkably, one print journalist offered her copy to the Media Ops officer to ‘check it before I email it home’. It must have been like Christmas come early for the MOD.

The new ‘fifth estate?’

And so to Wikileaks, the stateless organisation that has given pretty much everyone something to think about.

Earlier this week I was invited to debate Wikileaks’ impact on the future of traditional journalism on Al-Jazeera English with, among others, journalism heavyweight Robert Fisk, perhaps one of the last remaining old-school war reporters. In our debate he argued that Wikileaks shows mainstream journalists up in a very bad way – he said they’ve become lap dogs, while Assange hands out the scraps.

While I think that sentiment is unfair to the scores of journalists at The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and others who have been doing good legwork sifting through thousands of documents, I do think it shows how passive the mainstream media has become.

Wikileaks publishing the unsorted data is not journalism – however it is an act of journalism, and the most significant since the MPs expenses scandal and Watergate before that.

And it has not been done by journalists. If anything, the success of Wikileaks represents a milestone failure for the mainstream media in the uncovering of truth and the holding of authority to account.

More worrying, however, has been the response to the cables. I personally feel the actions of the US government to get Julian Assange arrested and to shut down the website is on a par with the behaviour of the Chinese, Burmese and Iranian governments in the face of its own dissidents and websites it does not like. It is an outrageous abuse of power that should set alarm bells ringing in democracies around the world.

Does the mainstream media defend a flag bearer for free speech? Does it stand firm against US government pressure?

The more I am convinced of the need to challenge the authoritarian behaviour of our governments in the years ahead, the less I feel convinced the mainstream media has the capability or willingness to do it.

A new way ahead?

So if not the mainstream media, what?

Speaking after the preview of his documentary, John Pilger put his faith in new independent journalists, free from the legacy costs and attitudes of the big news machine and authority itself. He echoed ideas you will have read on this blog before: the internet has made it faster, cheaper and easier to create and publish content – and that gives these independent reporters a new platform and a new advantage.

It’s a future predicted by Richard Sambrook writing about the future of War Reporters for the Reuters Institute. The days of the khaki-wearing Corkers, working their way from hotel lobby to hotel lobby are numbered, he says; but in their place a new, independent – and younger – generation of multimedia journalists can emerge.

I agree. Brave and creative journalists, willing to take risks and innovate online might just be some future protection from corruption, incompetence and abuse of power, which the Cable leaks have shown are all thriving in our ‘democratic’ governments.

I can’t pretend to know the specifics of this future, or even whether it could do a better job than the current mainstream approach. But I do know we need to support and encourage these independent journalists whatever path they take. Our schools and colleges push journalism students through courses towards full time employment, fodder for the hungry news machine. Instead they need to be encouraging them to make a difference in the years to come.

So…

At first I was unsure about whether Wikileaks was a good thing. Then I watched the footage from the Apache gunship circling over the streets of an Iraqi town, and mowing down more than a dozen people, including two Reuters cameramen, a father and his two children.

The film, made public by Wikileaks – and not by journalists – revealed the value the US military puts on a human life and, in stark black and white, how our governments have lied repeatedly to our faces. And worst of all, how our mainstream media have served but to amplify those lies.

So I’m sorry mainstream media. It’s been fun; but me, I’m done.

Thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far. More relevant, useful and valuable articles resume later this week!

P.S.

To save the breathe of commenters – here’s what I am not saying:

  • that I will stop consuming mainstream media news. (To clarify: I won’t, at least not right away. If I do, it’s with healthy scepticism)
  • that I think mainstream media journalists as individuals are incapable of doing good journalism. (To clarify: I know scores of talented, experienced and dedicated journalists working in all sectors of print and broadcast. They are good journalists, just working in a broken system)
  • that the mainstream media does no good acts of journalism. (To clarify: it does all the time, but the overall narrative it creates is dangerous)
  • that I will never set foot in a mainstream media office again. (To clarify, I work on a freelance/contractual basis for a range of outlets in the mainstream media, but I have no ambitions to work full-time for anyone)
  • that there is some kind of mainstream media conspiracy. (To clarify: there isn’t)
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,225 other followers