Blogging vs. Journalism

Neil Dobson 4.32pm

 As Rupert Murdoch’s municipal news fortress remains under siege at the hands of the army of the easily righteous, there is no shortage of volunteers ready to offer up their critiques of his organisation and of the wider state of journalism in this country. Issues surrounding the transparency, decency and depth of writing in our press will no doubt be debated long after the current battle lines have been redrawn, even if Murdoch is to be left lying in the rubble of his former stronghold like some Priamic dolt, sacrificed on the altar of his own family’s follies.

The wrongs and wrongs of News International’s conduct are both well known and barely open to debate, but one of the more interesting elements coming out of the myriad of panel shows’ waxing lyrical has been the relative importance of mainstream news media in our near and immediate future. One widely permeating view appears to be that news media and traditional journalism are about to be usurped by new media and its concomitant chum, blogging. Even if such a view is overstated by traditionalists in an attempt to avoid the inevitable inquiry as to how huge news conglomerates wield undue political power, the notion still throws up some interesting questions.

The mild ludicrousness of criticising the meaningful role of such blogging in a blog is hardly lost on me, but much like a blinkered horse trying to romp home in the National, I shall carry on in spite of my apparent handicap.

One of the assumed benefits of blogging is the perception that it offers access of commentary to all; a seeming panacea to the concerns raised by the Murdoch news monopoly. There is also an implied assumption that the independence of such bloggers can avoid the inherent bias of journalists who earn their salt for newspapers with specific political leanings and are beholden to tyrannical owners and shareholder pressure.

Firstly, whilst it is true that anyone with a pc and some bandwith can publish a blog, the number of people who read it is a different matter. One likes to think that in such a free form system cream naturally rises, but one look at Justin Bieber’s hit count should dispel that notion. The fact is that with any new media format there is a limited period of time where total output is relatively small and almost anyone can have their views picked up and popularised with relative ease. However, as with all new industries, as they mature, the barriers to success – if not entry – increase rapidly and the already established paragons tend to prosper.

Secondly, whilst in one sense bloggers may have total ‘independence’, a passing glance at the unparalleled vitriol found in blogs and message boards alike should give us pause. What value do we really get from an independence which tends towards unchecked hyperbole and rampant subjectivism? We may have concerns about the organisations for which they work, but there’s little doubt that the majority of journalists are driven by a general desire to write and report, rather than the single issue polemic which inspires so many bloggers to log on in the cold dark hours of the night and add to the virtual canon.

In short, News International might fall, the nature of news conglomerates and their sway in politics may need review, but the notion that the future of our free press lies in the hands of the world’s bloggers rather than a robust, transparent and, I’ll say it, relatively well paid, news media is simply wrong-headed. If the idea was a horse, I’d be erecting a tent and reaching for my shotgun.

And if you think this article is a load of old hoof, you shouldn’t be surprised – go buy a proper newspaper.

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PMQs Review: Cameron addresses the scandal

Jack Blackburn 3.10pm

By all accounts, David Cameron was visibly rattled at PMQs today, and photographs show that the last week has aged him somewhat. His personal connections to the “Chipping Norton Set”, and his hiring of Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications have dragged him deeper into this scandal than he would have liked. Ed Miliband, who, as Nik Darlington pointed out in his Total Politics column, has no such connections “Mainly through his own fault of being uninteresting”, and he is attempting to capitalise on this.

Today, David Cameron was again challenged about his personal connections at PMQs, and he responded well to these low-grade attacks. He strikingly distanced himself from Coulson, and again said that his close friend Rebekah Brooks’ resignation, if offered, should have been accepted. It has taken him a while, but he has finally put his colours to the mast.

The fact is that whilst the Prime Minister may have been politically unwise in hiring Coulson, the man remained able and intelligent and was capable of doing well in that job. Coulson was asked about his connection to these nefarious activities by Cameron, and he denied all knowledge. It was a matter of trust. That trust having been misplaced does not remove a Bambi-esque element from the PM’s version of events. But it is to be reiterated that he certainly did no wrong personally and has been lied to more directly than any member of the public.

Cameron highlighted this in his response: “Let me say once more, if I was lied to, if the police was lied to, if the Select Committee was lied to, it would be a matter of deep regret and a matter for criminal prosecution.”

Ultimately, Coulson is a sideshow in all of this. He is merely the symptom, not the underlying cause. He should be investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted with the full force of the law, but as far as Parliament and the Government goes, they have to investigate the scandal as a whole, and not the subplots.

Ed Miliband is pursuing these subplots and it shows a lack of real leadership. Ed has had a good week, but if he thinks he has become the voice of the people, he has another thing coming.

In a late twist, Murdoch has withdrawn the bid for BskyB, thus ridding this afternoon’s parliamentary debate of all potency. Given that the motion is now outdated, Parliament will now have to simply concur with News International’s actions.

So, as the day wears on, we have a Prime Minister who has finally taken the plunge and is seemingly rising from a low point and a Leader of the Opposition whose only moment of success is drawing to a close, and may once again be without any wind in his sails. The summer has come at a good moment for Dave, but one feels that Ed is longing for autumn.

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA

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At the end of it all, the final News of the World has caused quite the perfect storm

Nik Darlington 6.03amImage: Nik Darlington 2011

It was heavier than I expected, and thicker, just like my usual choices tucked under the other arm (I won’t reveal which: some mystery is healthy in any relationship).

After 168 years in the business, the terminal edition of the News of the World is weighed down by more than the gravity of the present situation. It is steeped in history, humour, hurt, hubris and boundless self-congratulation.

Articles are laden with badly fitting hyperbole, such as comparing England’s one-day cricket captain Alistair Cook with Martin Luther King, with as much tact and credibility as Ed Miliband did with himself. The pages are pockmarked with “Why I’ll miss my NotW…” snippets, like an unsightly rash. The headline on page 4 - “We’ve saved children from paedos & nailed 250 evil crooks” - shows the journalistic finesse of a bull in a proverbial purveyor of oriental crockery.

It might call itself the News of the World but there’s scarcely any international coverage to speak of . A tacit nod to what is happening beyond these shores is foundin six text message sized chunks on page 24. One of the most widely read English language newspapers in the world heralds the momentous landmark of South Sudan’s independence with: “Salva Kiir was sworn in as the president of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, in front of tens of thousands of supporters.” Even the arresting news that Nigel Mansell is turning his hand to magic tricks is given more column inches.

To be fair, the News of the World might be a coarse, shrill and Pecksniffian tabloid but those people who say it was more than just a newspaper are correct: it was an overwhelming force, a historic institution read by nearly 8 million people each week after WW2 and just under 3 million in a modern era of declining print readership across all major titles. Whilst the NotW's own circulation decline has been steep, no other Sunday paper comes close.

Next weekend, where will those 3 million readers go? The mooted Sun on Sunday? News International will take the gamble but competitor titles will hope to hoover up its readers. When I opened my copy this morning, the first things that fell out were two advertisements, one from the Mail on Sunday and another from The Sunday Mirror, both saying broadly the same thing. This was the MoS's:

Dear Reader

As you will have heard, this is the last issue of the News of the World.

We want to ensure you have a great newspaper to enjoy on a Sunday - and would like to offer you The Mail on Sunday for the next 6 weeks for just £1.

We hope you enjoy our newspaper.

The Sunday Mirror's pitch was for “a newspaper that is all about your life, your concerns and your interest”, “a real family newspaper” at “a special discounted price of 70p with these vouchers”. “We're on your side,” writes Tina Weaver, its editor. Two fingers from Colin Myler to James Murdoch? Or just gallows humour? Either way, it shows some chutzpah from both sides.

The paper’s editorial is proud and gutsy. Printed on page 3, the admissions are laid bare, as naked as that page’s regular occupants, relegated this weekend to page 9 (in homage to the sensibilities of Mrs Brooks, the lady who protested too much, I think not).

Quite simply, we lost our way. Phones were hacked, and for that this newspaper is truly sorry. There is no justification for this appalling wrongdoing.

The two public inquiries are welcomed and there is a beyond the grave plea for clemency for the Press Complaints Commission, which needs more powers and resources but not meddling Government legislation. Self-regulation permitted the “appalling wrongdoing” but still it is prized. This might be true but the News of the World, however distant the incumbents are from earlier activities, is not the best advocate at the moment for maintaining press freedoms.

Yet it is regrettable to be too cynical about this last edition. It might have achieved the unnatural combination of schmaltz and arrogance, but one can’t help but feel a bit daunted by reading it. This is not a newspaper sitting strewn in front of me. This is a history book, full of nostalgia and newsprint from yesteryear. It is an archive in tabloid form. It prompts that rare form of excited sadness, a bittersweet emotion.

Above all, this newspaper was felt, even if it wasn’t read. Last summer, for instance, the revelations about Pakistani cricketers accepting money from bookmakers were electric, coming in the middle of a Test series, shocking people who had never heard of the News of the World, let alone read it, and forcing authorities into action all over the world.

Its power and voice were feared. Fraser Nelson writes in his valedictory column, “As MPs will tell you, a story on page 46 of the News of the World has more impact than a front-page of a lesser paper.”

Out of curiosity, I turned to page 46. “G Brown” from Cambridge had written in complaining about teachers’ pensions demands. There were other notes about costs of living and prospects for the re-united Mr & Mrs Ashley Cole. However, the main section on page 46 is the weather forecast. For today, Monday, it reads:

Rather cloudy across Scotland with a few spots of rain. Elsewhere, sunny intervals and only isolated showers.

Throughout the week ahead there will be sporadic showers but the general outlook is improving with frequent sunny spells and a small drop in temperatures.

After the stormy times endured of late and with other storm-clouds gathering in another type of Sky, that’s about as good a forecast as the Murdochs can hope for.

For now, just smile and appreciate the moment of history that rests before you. Cherish it, because this is a tabloid that won’t be lining oily battered haddock tomorrow. Having spent 8,673 editions prying into the lives and emotions of others, they could not have captured the essence of themselves any better in the 8,674th. The final edition of the News of the World has turned out to be quite the perfect storm.

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Closure, but not the end of the affair

Giles Marshall 6.13pm

They have taken the nuclear option. The announcement that the News of the World will close after this Sunday’s edition extraordinary, and many will assume that it is only right that a paper now so sullied should fold. Perhaps it even sends a salutary message. The News of the World was Britain’s best selling title, and it has not proved immune from the ramifications of its wrong-doing. It is, it seems, a stunning victory for the forces of good.

And yet. The extraordinary turn of events manages to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. After all, no-one is claiming that it is the paper’s current leadership and reporters who have been responsible for the scandals currently engulfing it. The current investigations relate to an ethos and practice that dates back to at least 2002, and the person who was responsible for setting that paper’s standards, as the editor, was Rebekah Brooks, now the person presiding over News International itself.

Many people will ask why the ‘clean’ current editor of the News of the World should be sacrificed when the person who was actually editor at the time remains in post. Some of us may welcome the closure of a tabloid which has long been an embarrassment to British journalism. But the dramatic closure of the newspaper still doesn’t cleanse the entire organisation of all the problems surrounding it and the journalistic profession in general. They may have offered the News of the World’s closure, but this is not the end of the affair.

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Shame on all your houses

Giles Marshall 1.42pm

Hubris hits us all in time, so it seems. For decades Rupert Murdoch has bestrode the British political scene. Unencumbered by the menial requirements of your everyday voter - such as UK citizenship or the need to pay taxes - Mr Murdoch has wielded more power and influence over Prime Ministers, putative and actual, than any normal citizen. His editors have been the satraps of his power, the unelected viziers demanding preferred policies from a timid and beleaguered political class.

How things change. The crisis in journalism effected by the hacking scandal has been boiling under the surface for years but has burst on to the scene largely without warning. It is not only changing the way that things are done but shining a light on the darker corners of the British polity.

The Independent's Steve Richards has written a trenchant article today about these changes. He remarks on the extraordinary scenes of once fearful MPs lining up to attack the Murdoch ‘empire’ (it’s always an empire, isn’t it?), and his key henchmen and women. It is a fine read, suitably over the top and biting about the malign influence of News International. I wonder whether it could have been written the day before yesterday, even at the Indy, which along with the Guardian has admirably not shied away from coverage of the scandal.

Few can emerge with much credit from the disentangling of these dubious and illegal practices. The bulk of the newspapers have failed to produce any sort of investigation, a sorry state of affairs brilliantly and damningly described by Peter Oborne in an essay for the Spectator. The Guardian stands honourably alone in this regard and we can only speculate as to the pressure that newspaper has had to withstand both within and without the incestuous media world.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has remained a vapid eunuch incapable of action against its own. The political class, repeatedly confronted as it is by the vicious excesses of tabloid journalism, cravenly failed to take a stand (barring a few exceptions, notably Labour’s Tom Watson). Only now as the giant is on its knees are they starting to run towards it, kicking and punching and biting for all they are worth.

The Metropolitan Police’s role is particularly murky and itself the subject of a potential investigation. While quick to leap into action against politicians - for instance on cash for honours or MPs’ expenses - police officers have proven less enthusiastic to pursue the papers.

The shabbiest actions, however, are reserved for our leading politicians. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, the collective currying for Murdoch’s favour has been a ludicrous sideshow of lilliputian proportions. Blair’s flight in 1995 to an Australian junket with News Corp executives; Cameron’s decision to employ Andy Coulson and his wining and dining with Rebekah Brooks; Ed Miliband’s toadying at the News International summer bash and signing up another former Murdoch man, Tom Baldwin, as his press secretary.

The press wields enormous power. It has the nefarious ability to destroy the reputations of individuals big and small. Such are this country’s libel laws that journalists rarely need to apologise for their grievous errors. With the stroke of a pen or click of a mouse, journalists can cause enormous unaccountable damage and it is now starkly shown that they have been employing illegal means to intrude on private lives with the utmost indecency and impunity. While gleeful to demand the hides of politicians when they err, key figures in News International now simply slink away into their unfathomable fortress.

Will there be any justice? Will Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson et al face the comeuppance they so often demand of others? Justice, in this instance, has to be more than a mere inquiry or two into News International. Justice requires a root-and-branch review of the way that the press conducts itself.

One of David Cameron’s predecessors in Number 10, Stanley Baldwin, when under pressure from the Rupert Murdoch of his day, Lord Beaverbrook, commented that the press ‘had power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ He pointed to journalism at its lowest point. What the journalistic profession could and should be is eloquently summed up by Peter Oborne:

Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for truth and decency.

If the result of this scandal is that journalism can return to these high ideals, rather than this tawdry state of affairs, then something good may come of it after all.

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