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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

the press + democracy « Previous | |Next »
December 12, 2010

In Let Us Pay at the London Review of Books John Lanchester addresses the problem faced by the newspaper industry as a result of the ongoing migration of readers and advertisers towards digital media.

He says that:

Its underlying problems are to do with the net: loss of circulation and ad revenue are both driven by the rise of new media. Its opportunities come from the net too: that huge new army of readers. The industry is no longer going off a cliff, but it is still on a downward slope, and unless something happens to stop it, costs per copy will continue to rise relative to sales, and eventually newspapers will either die or (more likely) be so hollowed out by cost-cutting that they exist as freesheets with a thin, non-functioning veneer of pretend journalism.

He acknowledges that the press has many flaws---eg., news is entertainment and entertainment is news; a pack mentality and the idea that only things which are being already covered in the media are worth covering; a general retreat from the principles of serious journalism, investigative journalism, and a horror of complicated ideas; amnesia; a default setting to knee-jerk populism.

However, we still need the press because the press is just about the only force which resists governments arrogating more power to themselves, and without the press our democracy would head the way that papers themselves risk heading, and become hollowed out, with the external apparatus of democratic machinery but without the informed electorate which the press helps create.

Lanchester adds that though the fact that newspapers are necessary does not mean that they will survive. He adds that, if a solution to this slow decline is going to be found, then it will be in the form of a market mechanism. No one has found it yet. The one on trial is the paywall mechanism, but few are willing to follow Murdoch down this route because the collapse in circulation and limited income stream.

He argues that their cost base will force them to junk their print editions and shift to digital only with a simple and easy method of payment so that readers can create an individualised newspaper.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:33 AM | | Comments (5)


The press ought to challenge to the monopoly of information.Isn't it their job to enlightened us citizens about what is being done in their name and have shown the corruption, incompetence – and sometimes wisdom – of our politicians, corporations and diplomats.

Lanchester forgets to say that WikiLeaks is part of the press--the press of the 21st century. Lanchester is still talking about the press of the 20th century even when its age, limits, and vulnerability are so very obvious to the networked generation.

The state's response to the new press in a digitally connected world is to prevent the exposure of its secrets to enforce a tighter grip over its networks---to shut down the holes, close the gaps--so as to carry on as before. Will it be able to? Secrecy and security are paramount--not democracy.

In The Age Cameron Forbes says of the future of print journalism in the age of the internet that:

Whatever the cloaks and the technology, whatever the daggers aimed at Julian Assange, this has basically been the product of good, old-fashioned journalism, with newspapers such as this one doing the culling and providing the context.

That is a pat on the back for Fairfax.

Scott Burchill at the Drum makes a good point about WikiLeaks and the Canberra Press Gallery:

With an undefined commitment to "responsible reporting" – which means little more than preserving the status quo and playing by "club rules" - journalists claim a monopoly right to be the information gatekeepers between government and the public, resenting anyone like Julian Assange who vaults the fence because the gate is too often locked shut. Assange is hated because he is doing the work that journalists should be doing, only he is doing it better and with greater effect.

WikiLeaks has devalued the sources used by mainstream reporters and many, who fear marginalisation, are not happy. Most journalists want to be players as well as reporters.

The link between WikiLeaks and the media is the failure of the media to fulfil its role in terms of government accountability in a democracy, and the failure of government to commit to freedom of expression (ie. democracy).