Can old media still rule the roost? That Ship has sailed...

After a defence of a free press this morning, I feel the need to shatter some of the commonly bandied about shibboleths of regulation

by on 9 November 2012 16:51

Earlier today, after I wrote this, ITV's Chris Ship tweeted at me:

@raheemjkassam Statutory regulation never stopped us being free and fair and exposing the Jimmy Savile scandal.

An interesting assertion, I think. To claim any kind of credit for an almost criminally delayed journalistic investigation into Jimmy Savile is quite the stretch. But it got me thinking.

There has been much in the way of complicity or wilful ignorance from some of the media over Savile, and now it appears, over others also. 

This is a trend not limited to scandals of these epic proportions, but surely applies to smaller and medium sized stories also - many of which will never see the light of day.

To elaborate on the case for a truly free media, let's examine a scenario in which the broadcast and print media are truly free of state involvement.

On corruption, they'll argue, it would be easy for the ruling elite to buddy up to certain media outlets, granting exclusives, leaking information and creating a form of oligopoly. Not all that different to today.

On accuracy, they'll argue that without an independent arbiter such as Ofcom, or the newspaper equivalent vaunted in today's Guardian, there will be no official and independent arbiter. Well, except the viewing public and media colleagues that is.

Sites like Channel 4's Fact Check exist for a reason. And they do a better, more efficient and more up to the minute job than any reasonably sized state regulator could do. Who watches the watchers? Well, the watchers of course. If there's an incentive for them to do so.

The banking scandal of recent years highlights the very same problem. The big banks formed an oligopoly. They fixed the rates, stifled competition and exploited the public. This in the most regulated industry in the country. Where's that mea culpa from the FSA anyway?

The incentive of course for the media, is patronage. The investment required is accuracy, morality and interest - words which should be synonymous with journalism.

You might argue that some major national newspapers are close to the bone on some of these issues. Well, if they lie, sue them. Seriously. Sue them.

If you're the Guardian and you take constant issue with the Daily Mail's headlines (or vice versa), then you fact check, expose and encourage boycott through your own pages. Which is basically what most papers do to each other today anyway. And for the most part, it works. Plus, if the Guardian didn't have anything to moan about it'd be nothing but pictures of icecaps melting and Polly Toynbee predicting the horoscopes.

But the real beauty comes into play over the next 5 to 10 years. Forerunners like Andrew Breitbart and Guido Fawkes predicted the downfall of the mainstream media, predicated on how cumbersome it was, how cronyism pervades, and importantly, how regulation restricts progress so vehemently. 

What takes The Commentator 2 minutes to report can take the BBC up to 2 hours. What Twitter reports in 2 seconds takes newspapers days.

The argument will be that journalists have an obligation to ensure a story is airtight, which is true. But they also have a requirement to get the story first. In reality, smaller outlets and sole proprietors employ much stricter accuracy standards. Why? Because we can't afford to be wrong. Not just because it harms a fledgling brand, but because we also can't afford legions of lawyers to get us off the hook. 

In terms of a trade-off between speed and accuracy, little should be made. If you know only some of the story, you only report some of the story. If you can't double source, just call the same source twice. (Kidding!) 

In 99 percent of big cases, confirming the story is not the hold up. It wasn't the hold up with Savile. It wasn't the hold up with the expenses scandal. So what is it?

It's vested interest. The likes of which have been, are being, and will continue to be shattered by the plurality of new media. Where the BBC could previously get away with something like this, it can now be turned into a global news story overnight. We are the checks and balances. We are the activist public.

And this is why old media types are so keen to constrict what they so derisively call 'the blogosphere'. But as I wrote over three years ago for the now defunct Tory Bear site, 'Blogs are the new Black' and the old media is going to have to get used to a rapid fire army calling their bluff at every turn.

The United States is leagues ahead. If this was America, it wouldn't have fallen to ITV to break the Savile story. It would have been on Breitbart or the Free Beacon or similar sites well before the mainstream media ever got a whiff. And this will continue to be the way of things.

Does a regulated media constrain? By definition, yes. Does it contribute to stuffy stereotypes and received wisdom? Absolutely.

The death knell I spoke of earlier is hastening. The only way the old media can survive is to play on our terms, and they know it. They've got to be faster, they've got to be smarter, they've got to be willing to be have the conversation, rather than to be perceived as the authority. 

Guido Fawkes often ends his blogs with the strapline, "You're either in front of Guido, or behind". The media types who are arguing to constrain the press in the same way as broadcasters are way, way, way behind. And until they wake up, they'll stay that way.

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