Frank Jordans goes underground
"Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper."
George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, 1968Police firing rubber
bullets at protesters
in Seattle, 1999 At a recent podium discussion, three distinguished correspondents from Britain's biggest liberal newspaper were asked what future there was for serious journalism. The first complained that modern journalists were under so much pressure from marketing departments to keep things snappy, they often forgot to write a proper story. The second concurred, saying that it was the chase for market shares which drives papers onto a downward spiral. And the third replied it was up to readers to demand better quality by choosing more carefully what they bought.
The consensus was that quality journalism could be saved, if only readers and writers pulled themselves together and remembered the good old days when the front page contained no pictures, and all readers' letters began with a respectful "Dear Sir". Consumer power would set the media back on the right course.
But this nostalgia for a 'golden age' of journalism is misplaced, and liberal writers should know this better than most: back in the year the quotation on page 42 was printed, very few people had the time or money to buy newspapers or magazines. Mostly, it was a medium for the well-off to talk among themselves. Only once the general public had the time and means to spend on printed paper, did the formerly 'highbrow' find that they had to appeal to the 'popular' in order to remain the pre-eminent source of information.
While this process is sometimes known as 'dumbing down', all but the most elitist mind would agree that a broad appeal is necessary if newspapers are to act effectively as the fourth estate and keep a check on the mighty. After all, the day when voting was restricted to a minority of wealthy males capable of understanding 'statecraft' is over, so why should the media be the preserve of a minority?
No, the problem isn't that newspapers are trying to win readers by appealing to popular taste; the problem is that they aren't getting it right and serving everybody the wrong dish as a result. By chasing after the lowest common denominator, papers are making nobody happy and reinforcing the general view that "they know what's going on, they just won't say." Little wonder that journalists vie only with politicians for the dubious honour of least trustworthy profession.
It should come as some relief then that amateurs are increasingly producing their own publications. Thanks to clever use of new technologies, media activists are creating and disseminating high-quality newspapers, video clips and even entire radio shows that reflect their own interests rather than what the pros believe is best for them. You won't have read about it in the mainstream press, but 18 October was 'Media Democracy Day', an annual event intended to highlight the potential of grassroots and community journalism across the world. Hundreds if not thousands of small publications joined forces to encourage readers to become writers, and consumers to become producers.
While Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, "everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers," most readers are unaware that they have any opportunity to make their voices heard directly rather than mediated through the pen of professionals. Once given the opportunity to do so however, they often put the corporate media to shame with honest, unglossy reporting.
During the Seattle protests in 1999 for example, a group called 'Indymedia' were the first to report that police were firing rubber-coated bullets at civilians. CNN and other news channels denied such reports until pictures of these bullets were posted on the Indymedia website. Only then did CNN admit they were wrong.
Of course, most of the time it is not censorship which is the problem, but the fact that mainstream media have simply become superficial, monotonous, and brazenly profit-driven.
Indymedia, which has since grown into a network of nearly 100 groups across the globe, disprove daily Samuel Johnson's dictum that "no man but a blockhead writes for free." With minimal means and a lot of commitment they regularly sweep the commercial media off the stage when it comes to innovate reporting. Their mission is to empower those actually involved in the news to tell their own story.
Unfortunately, media democracy has lately been neglected by humanists. Once at the forefront of free speech campaigns, today it is organisations like the World Association for Christian Communication that are praised by campaigners for their work.
For secular humanism this should be a wake-up call, and a reminder of the days when humanist organisations fought for the right to publish uncensored information, like family planning methods, in the public interest.
The concept of free access to media should again become a core tenet of the humanist brief. It serves the cause of rationalism to allow everybody to take part in the conversation, not just the experts. And media democracy can only be good for professional journalists: accused variously of being untrustworthy hacks, corporate stooges, or elitist gatekeepers, greater access for all is likely to demonstrate that journalists are, like all other professions, just trying to do their job, not guarding the secrets of the powerful in return for money and favours at least not all of them.