News of the World, and the state of democracy
Guest blog by Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, Lecturer in Physics at Waterford Institue of Technology
The News of the World scandal and the demise of that paper brings a much larger issue to the fore: the enormous influence of media barons such as Rupert Murdoch, and their political viewpoints.
For example, it has been claimed that at the time of the first Lisbon treaty referendum journalists at The Sunday Times, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential, could not get pro-treaty articles published. The Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential in business circles in the US, regularly publishes prominent editorials by a tiny group of climate change skeptics. On the BSkyB takeover, Mr Murdoch has stated that, if successful, he would like its news delivery be more like Fox News.
Does any of this matter? Surely as long as every citizen has the facility to choose which newspaper/TV/radio station they are informed by, there isn’t a problem? I think there is a problem. I really distrust the modern idea that strong political bias in the media is OK as long it is balanced by other viewpoints in other media outlets (a principle memorably articulated by the journalist Kevin Myers). In other words, it’s OK if this newspaper/channel gives you this slant, because balance is provided by another paper/station that gives a different slant.
The problem is that as one listens to a favourite radio station, TV station or newspaper, one’s views are reinforced instead of tested and questioned…so positions become more and more entrenched and polarized. Have you ever noticed that protagonists in a TV debate seem to be coming from parallel universes that do not intersect? This is often because they choose to be informed by different sources and therefore cannot agree on the basics.
If science and technology operated like this, planes would fall out of the sky. At some stage opinion should be constrained by the facts, as far as they can be established. ‘You have a right to your own opinion, not your own facts’, as an Irish politician memorably said recently. Yet as a scientist, I regularly encounter media pronouncements on scientific issues that are totally at odds with well-established facts, most obviously in the area of climate science.
Doesn’t independent editorship have a role to play? It should do, but I see less and less evidence of it, at least in English-speaking countries. It’s an interesting exercise to compare directly articles on the same subject in organs such as the NYT and The Wall Street Journal, or The Guardian and The Times; it’s impossible not to notice that differences in outlook have long since strayed beyond what used to be called the opinion columns.
There is a legal aspect to this that puzzles me. Many years ago, we introduced laws to protect the individual from slander or libel. If I publicly accuse Ferdinand von Prondzynski of stealing my cat, I need supporting evidence to prove my statement or I am I trouble. However, I can make public statements with impunity on science (say) that are completely false, because no individual was defamed. Yet such statements can do tremendous harm to society, whether they be on the dangers of tobacco or on global warming (I draw a distinction between denialism and skepticism here).
It’s interesting that The Irish Times, a paper that is considered reasonably balanced by many colleagues over here in the US, is owned by a trust. For example, the IT syndicates a column from a prominent US republican every few years, alternated with one from a democrat. It’s a very good idea, because it allows readers to see the two viewpoints. Perhaps this is part of the solution – not to allow whole sections of the media to be controlled by one individual, with their individual political opinions. One only has to look at Berlusconi media empire to see that such monopolies really do have a direct effect on democracy. The Murdoch influence is simply less visible, which makes it worse in my opinion.