Posted tagged ‘News of the World’

News of the World, and the state of democracy

July 15, 2011

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.

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The power of the printed word?

July 9, 2011

I remember accompanying my mother on day trips to Dublin in the 1960s when I was a young boy, and being puzzled by a large billboard poster that used to be displayed somewhere around Palmerstown, or maybe near Heuston railway station (or Kingsbridge station, as it then was). The poster shouted in very large print: ‘All human life is there’ – and then it had the words ‘News of the World’. I had no idea that the News of the World was a newspaper, and so the purpose of this advertisement was a complete mystery to me. I thought it was saying that the world’s news contained all human life – a rather general (if true) statement, and hardly one that needed a billboard poster to make its case.

Well of course, the News of the World of the poster was a newspaper (I need no longer say ‘is’), and as we now know it did indeed contain all human life, very much including the low life. And as anger and dismay at what at least some of its journalists did gives way to thoughts about the wider implications, people are asking whether the News International stable of papers has given too much political power and influence to Rupert Murdoch. This isn’t an entirely new question – in 1992 Murdoch’s Sun claimed that it was the one ‘wot won it’ for John Major’s Tories in Britain – but as the spectacle of newspaper power gets held up alongside its corruption, the question has taken on a new urgency. And there are fears that this worry about corruption could be even more relevant if the Murdoch newspapers can work together with the most influential broadcaster in these islands (BSkyB), under the same ownership.

However, whatever the regulators or politicians may do, it is unlikely that this kind of concentrated media power will be sustainable for much longer. The decline of newspapers worldwide continues to gather pace, as people shift and get their news from the internet and its various outlets, including Twitter. Traditional broadcasting models are also coming under pressure – and BSkyB is still quite a traditional model. As almost anyone can publish a news site, or can broadcast whatever they like, with extreme ease, the media scene is changing fast, and it is unlikely that a Rupert Murdoch will, irrespective of current events and their consequences, be able to wield this kind of influence in future. And that must be a good thing.

All human life

February 20, 2010

When I was a young boy and living in Mullingar, Ireland, my mother often took me with her when she went on a shopping or other trip to Dublin. I don’t now remember exactly where this was, but for a while a large advertisement on a billboard poster could be seen as you approached Dublin, probably around Leixlip or Palmerstown. It simply read: ‘All human life is there’.

As some readers may know, this poster will have been advertising the Sunday newspaper, the News of the World. It was (and is) a British paper focusing on the somewhat seedier and sillier aspects of life, and it has a populist tone. But actually, I had never seen a copy of this paper, and so for me this billboard advertisement was wholly mysterious. What did ‘news of the world’ mean, and what on earth was being suggested in relation to human life?

As it happens a few years ago the late Auberon Waugh, journalist and commentator, mused in an article what it must be like to get one’s news solely from the News of the World. You would have access to prurient stories about royalty and other celebrities, lots and lots of sport, and, er, that’s it. Political news only ever make it if truly seismic,  So if that’s the world you inhabit, you will not have your blood pressure raised by accounts of distant wars or global or national injustices. Instead you could turn your attention to the football results and to photos of topless women. In a recent issue of the News of the World, these were the top stories:

TERRY: Toni falls for JT whopper on fishing hols
VERNON: Tess mauls horny hubby over txts
CHERYL: Star bans husband Ashley from Brits
JACKSON: Hear the tape that could clear doc
CASH: Trade in your old mobiles for money

So if this is the ‘news’ as revealed to you, your world might be very strange, but perhaps rather comforting.

Most of us are where we are, and our direct experiences are formed in a limited geographical area. And so we rely on good news coverage to keep us in touch with the wider world, and where necessary and appropriate to engage with it. But once we restrict ourselves to the coverage and the values of the tabloid media, the great debates about politics, the arts and other subjects will pass us by, and will form no part of our world. But newspapers are rarely politically neutral, and so their readers may be fed a drip-drip of hints and insinuations that are ultimately designed to express a political view at the ballot box, which their readers are reluctant to argue with because, frankly, they have no idea what it’s about.

To thrive as a society, we need a news-savvy population. We need newspapers that really do have a concept of  ‘all human life’ and that are prepared to defend it. We need a population that doesn’t turn to newspapers to be titillated but to be informed and to learn. The Irish newspapers and broadcast media have on the whole been responsible about their role, but the News of the World and other British tabloids are readily available here, and their approach has been more questionable. And while people must be allowed to make their choices, I would hope that most will in the end want to be better informed rather than more excitingly titillated. I really do hope that.