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Dangerous liaisons and the news

A new Reformation is underway in Europe and North America, promising liberation from the stranglehold of corrupt traditional churches and offering every man and woman the prospect of being their own priest and preaching their own good news. As always, however, there’s a catch.

In the 20th century, the press in liberal democractic societies functioned as a kind of lay priesthood. The separation of church and State was mirrored in the separation of the major news organisations from the worlds of politics and business. At least, that was the stated ideal. Departures did occur but they were considered as breaches of the faith, exceptional and scandalous.

The leading news organisations had the prestige of an established church. Even powerful US cabinet members were flattered by an invitation to dine with the editorial board of the New York Times. A career at the BBC or RAI was as prestigious as any in the other professions. Budgets were large enough that the top reporters and opinion-formers were guaranteed a travel and hospitality allowance to guarantee them access to leaders around the world.

Those churches are now in steep decline. The faithful are leaving in droves. In the US, the average age of a print newspaper reader was 60 in 2015. Revenues are tumbling. Thousands of jobs are being shed. Many provincial and local news outlets are closing down altogether.

New upstart heretics – digital platforms for radical politics and sensationalist gossip – are edging towards the mainstream and, at the same time, pressuring the big news organisations to adopt more strident rhetoric. The old churches themselves are beginning to behave in ways that the older priests believe to depart from the faith of fairness and impartiality.

It’s not a case simply of the old hierarchy being challenged by rebel priests. A full blown reformation is underway where every man and woman believes they can be their own priest. They are more free than ever to vent their own opinions on blogs and social media. They are free of the old organisations when it comes to publicise their personal news, goods for sale and items wanted.

These developments have three implications for the news industry and access to the facts.

First, there is the disaggregation of the traditional functions of news organisations. The BBC used to pride itself on its ability to inform, educate and entertain. But those functions are coming apart.

Increasingly we can expect major news sources to be whittled down to a handful, with other platforms reproducing their reports. Education and entertainment will have their own separate platforms, with related ones for pure opinion.

The massive job cuts will mean that increasingly more journalists will work freelance. Journalism will be made up of two castes – those working in precarious economic conditions and celebrity journalists (like, say, the late Christopher Hitchens), whose polemics will draw audiences to revenue-making events that sell an experience.

None of this rules out innovative experiments where the traditional ideals of serious journalism are carried in new formats—such as the Guardian’s digital-only editions in the US and Australia, or The Shift News in Malta. However, in themselves experiments are tricky and open-ended.

Second, while the industry disaggregates, the old separation of powers will become more difficult to keep. Falling revenues will reduce the separation from business interests. Simply giving access to the facts is no longer a business model. Information is becoming contaminated by infotainment and triviamation.

Economic vulnerability will also reduce separation from political pressures. The “Trump Bump” has boosted the readership and audiences of several US news organisations, as they bifurcate into those with pro- and anti-Trump agendas. But it has also damaged the credibility of the same organisations.

As international organised crime becomes more entangled with mafia states and organised fake news, another pressure will be felt by journalists who are themselves less protected by major news organisations than before. The rising number of journalists killed while investigating corruption, or threatened by SLAPP lawsuits is not an aberration. It’s a portent of the future.

Finally, there is the incestuous lack of separation of powers within the giant big-data and social media organisations. Liberal societies are defined by separating the powers of those that write the laws from those that execute them and those that judge whether laws have been breached. Yet liberal societies currently tolerate organisations that, simultaneously, write the algorithms that prioritise searches for information while, at the same time, also managing and deciding access to information.

This is an unsustainable concentration of power. In 2001, Google gave access to 4,500 news sources around the world. In 2015, that number was up to 50,000 in 70 different areas. But what Google and Facebook giveth, they can take away. It all depends on what their algorithms prioritise for you, and they might not prioritise reliable news outlets.

Hence, the third implication of the current situation. In principle, the facts can be found but access is more difficult. The profession with its prestige based on discovering them is being undermined. Facts are being drowned out by loud opinion. The gateways to information are increasingly shaped by organisations with a different agenda from journalism proper.

The old liberal creed stated that opinion is free but facts are sacred. The new faith preaches that opinion is sacred as long as fact-free. Access to facts is no longer sustained by a business model and conveying facts is under threat by murder and SLAPP actions.

It’s important to have a 360º view of what is happening to journalism. It helps us see that the national mediascape is a special case of an international trend. It helps us appreciate that what we need are not isolated reforms but an entire platform of measures to regulate a new normal of dangerous liaisons.

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