The claim that the accusatory, contemptuous culture of the modern media is undermining politics is itself now being dismissed. Can the downward spiral of media abuse and political evasion be reversed? Do we need a new journalism?by John Lloyd / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Since writing an essay on the media for Prospect less than two years ago (“Media manifesto,” October 2002), the ideas set out there have become the subject of a wider debate. As I wrote there, and repeated at greater length in a new book, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics (Constable), many of these ideas came from American writers such as James Fallows, Deborah Tannen and Neil Postman who have argued that the media are losing public trust by their own extremism. Though they differ in many of their views, a common trope is – in the words of Orville Schell, a former New Yorker writer – that “much of what gets written nowadays… is very flip, even savage, and often contemptuous. This creates a climate where everyone feels… insecure.”
A movement to revive good journalism has grown in the US from within the media themselves. The Committee of Concerned Journalists, launched, with others, by Bill Kovach – a former New York Times reporter and curator of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard University – has established groups in some 40 US cities. The committee and its members publish, hold meetings and arrange seminars within newsrooms, management suites and even boardrooms to argue for a journalism which lives up to its democratic duties: holding power to account, informing the citizenry, acting as a medium for competing opinions and seeking a complex understanding of a complex world.
There has been little of this kind of debate-cum-movement in Britain. There is, it is true, a long tradition of media criticism from left and right, from media departments in universities and from politicians. But much of it is self-interested or focused on political bias. The new critique is about a journalistic style of contempt, especially for politics and politicians, which infects journalists and broadcasters of left, right and centre. And the remedy it proposes lies not so much in passing laws, or changing media ownership but in reforming our journalistic culture.
A range of initiatives based on this new critique is now being discussed – all aimed at establishing centres which would evaluate and challenge the current practice of journalism. A number of journalists have written critically of the culture of contempt; most magisterially, a figure from the academy, Onora O’Neill, head of…