The "mainstream media" isn't trusted—time to put the readers in charge

A new swathe of left-wing upstart titles have capitalised on distrust of "the MSM". But it's readers, not journalists, who can really make the difference

August 09, 2017
There's some truth to the claims that the media is a chumocracy.
There's some truth to the claims that the media is a chumocracy.

Earlier this year, I was a judge for the revived Private Eye Paul Foot Awards for campaigning journalism. It was an encouraging experience in an age when we are told that newspapers are in terminal decline: we received over 70 entries from national and local newspapers, the vast majority of which were genuinely excellent works of public interest journalism. The winner was a campaign on homelessness in east London by the extraordinary investigative reporter named Emma Youle.

It’s always struck me as a little odd that Private Eye, a publication which opens each fortnight with the “Street of Shame” pages documenting the crimes and misdemeanours of the nation’s press, should also run a prize celebrating the achievements of journalism. But that tension points to the complicated nature of the current mood of mistrust in the press.

Since the phone hacking scandal of 2011, the idea that the “mainstream media” is not to be trusted—or is, even, set against the interests of the public—has gained ground. The Scottish referendum campaign saw some activists obsessing over the apparently biased coverage offered by the BBC’s Nick Robinson. South of the border, as Jeremy Corbyn rose to the leadership of the Labour party, a growing narrative emerged: the press—all of the press, not just the right-wing press—was engaged in concerted attempts to undermine his left-wing agenda.

A new wave

This latter narrative was driven by new left-wing outlets such as the Canary, Skwawkbox and Evolve Politics. One thing should be stated clearly about these outlets: they have a commercial interest in undermining faith in established media. They see themselves as market disrupters, in direct competition with other outlets. A glance at the Canary’s front page on any given day will show it dominated by criticisms of other outlets: special venom is reserved for the BBC and the Guardian, from whom the Canary and other outlets hope to win leftist readers.

But while traditional journalists may baulk at the hyperbolic headlines and frequent recklessness of the new outlets, they have undoubtedly struck a chord among readers. Analysis by Buzzfeed showed that articles from the leftish upstart sites are shared across social media in enviable numbers.

Why? And why, in particular, is this UK upstart media dominated by the left? It’s true that the “mainstream” progressive media has not caught up with the anti-establishment mood as well as the conservative media—which harnessed and encouraged the discontent that led to Brexit. But that isn’t the full picture.

The established media is, if not quite a closed shop, then certainly sometimes akin to a club with certain unwritten rules: there is a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to individual reporters, as opposed to their titles or proprietors, that must sometimes seem baffling to “outsiders”. I have never seen a working journalist, for example, refuse to link to a particular outlet, or apologise for doing so.

The media chumocracy

This is partly down to professional sympathy, but also due to the fact that something those outside the media suspect is at least partly true: reporters and editors do know each other, socialise with each other, go to the same pubs and parties. The advent of Twitter, where journalists from across the spectrum chat breezily all day, probably exacerbates the sense that politics and political journalism is one giant chumocracy, rather than the relentlessly partisan life-or-death matter it is portrayed as by Skwawkbox et al.
"Reporters and editors do know each other, socialise with each other, go to the same pubs and parties"
The increased professionalisation of the industry also has the inadvertent effect that an increasing number of young journalists will have formed bonds at undergraduate and postgraduate courses at City University, London, Cardiff and elsewhere (if they don’t already know each other from Oxford). You can see how conspiracism can break out amongst outside observers.

The recent misleading Skwawkbox story hinting at a government/media stitch up over the number of casualties at Grenfell Tower is a perfect example: journalists, including me, reacted angrily to the suggestion that the press had colluded after a D-Notice was issued by the government preventing reporting. It was clear no one involved in Skwawkbox’s story understood what a D-Notice—an advisory, non-compulsory, non-binding request for sensitive coverage of certain information, usually concerning troop movements and the like—worked.

But few of us stopped to admit how odd the very existence of the DA Notice committee, made up of representatives of the armed forces and the press and broadcast media, might look.

Readers must become editors

Is it the job of the mainstream media to regain trust? Perhaps. A lot of the criticism of newspapers and magazines stems from the fact that they do not necessarily reflect opinion, rather than mislead on facts. And we often substitute contrarianism for genuine alternative views (I recall panic on one newspaper comment desk I worked on when we realised it was 3pm and we still didn’t have “a Tory” lined up for the next day’s pages).

But readers have a responsibility too: in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, the Guardian took to suggesting articles from conservative outlets that readers should engage with in order to “burst their bubble.” For as long as people have been debating the future of journalism online, I’ve been advocating the idea that readers must become their own editors: a crucial part of that is getting beyond the idea that an article you agree with is “good journalism” and an article you disagree with is “bad journalism.” In the end, it’s the story that matters.