Richard North, 17/07/2020  
 


It would be difficult not to appreciate the irony of the editorial in the Telegraph complaining that "a mob of tweeting progressives is killing off the free press".

Broadcasters and newspapers, it says, have fallen prey to the idea that world views expressed by a minority on social media are universally held, then going on to say of the Twitterati:
There was no longer a search for truth but the promulgation of "an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else". In seeking to expose perceived wrongs, self-righteous groups try to shut out any alternative view via censorship techniques like "no platforming". It is essential for freedom that newspapers and broadcasters do not let them.
The sense of outrage is palpable as the paper spits out its complaint about the "orthodoxy", the one "whose job is to inform everyone else". But the real complaint is not of the action but the fact that Twitter seems to have usurped the function of the legacy media. You can almost hear them squealing: "that's our job!"

For perhaps centuries, the media – and especially the so-called "quality" press, has regarded itself as the "orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few". They see it as their job, their exclusive mission, "to inform everyone else", and how dare those upstarts in the social media presume to take over their god-given role.

Equally, it is for the legacy media to decide who is and who is not given a hearing. When you start referring to "self-righteous groups", there could not be a more appropriate description of the claques that infest the newsrooms of the major titles.

And when it comes to censorship techniques like "no platforming", the papers have been doing that before the term was even invented. The Telegraph, in particular, has been quite deliberately "no platforming" this blog and its editor for some years now.

While Booker was alive during the later days, he was instructed not to mention me by name and, if the blog was identified in his column, it would be removed by the sub-editors acting under the instructions of the editor. Equally, no book of mine has ever been reviewed by the paper, despite the unimpeachable credentials of my publisher.

The very fact that this blog has consistently produced high-quality analysis on the EU and related matters, produced by an acknowledged expert and a published author to boot, yet was not mentioned once during the EU Referendum campaign – despite its obviously relevant title – tells its own story.

The papers, and the broadcast media, have been indulging in their own brand of censorship for as long as I can remember. You either play their game, to their rules, or you don't get a hearing.

Running a blog doesn't help either. When the blogging phenomenon first became established in the States, in the late nineties, some of the more famous bloggers could match the legacy media in reach and influence.

As blogging caught on this side of the Atlantic, the established titles – still finding their way around the unfamiliar medium of the internet – felt threatened by the popularity of the freebooting British writers, and went to war with the genre.

The Telegraph reacted by launching its own blogging platform, seducing writers to join them by the promise of occasional exposure on the newspaper platform. Those unwise enough to accept the offer were buried and, when it was safe for them to do so, the paper quietly wound up the platform, wiping out years of work for some writers.

For the independent blogging community, the entire media corps reacted with hostility. Serious commentators were largely ignored when the tabloids gave space to "beauty" writers and the like, trivialising the genre. Occasionally, they would steal our work, and almost never did they link to us.

Now, with the rise and rise of social media, the boot is on the other foot – and they don't like it. Far from depending on the legacy media, the social media has in many respects replaced it. It is made for the millennial grazer with the attention-span of a grass hopper, leaping from headline to headline without ever engaging in the substance of reports.

Unwittingly, the legacy media has been feeding the monster, opening up Twitter accounts and posting an endless array of titbits in the hope that their "followers" will come to their sites and read the detail, thus racking up "hits" which are bankable when it comes to charging advertisers.

To their horror, though, they've been discovering that the Twitter and other social media readers don't stray from their cosmos. They have experienced exactly the same phenomenon with which I am familiar: with a daily hit rate averaging 100,000 my click-through from Twitter, where I post links, is consistently in single figures. Facebook isn't much better.

For the legacy media, they are being caught by a double whammy. Not only is social media hoovering up their readers, they are soaking up the advertising revenue as well. They thus face the worst of all possible worlds – declining readership and revenue.

Apparently, the only traditional title making any money these days is The Times servicing a subscription readership from behind an impenetrable firewall.

With equally impenetrable accounts, however, we can only take their word that they are turning a profit, which is probably about as reliable as their claim that they are continuing "to invest in the highest quality journalism". Its £26 a month "digital only" subscription is not value for money. And it's certainly not a free press.

By contrast, though, the "no-platforming" Telegraph is performing so badly that it is no longer prepared to publish its circulation figures. But, before the paper went "dark", both the weekday and Sunday titles were showing unremitting losses.

However, even The Guardian, which recently was proclaiming the success of the "donation model", while keeping its copy paywall-free, is reported to be running into trouble.

It is to cut 180 jobs including 70 in editorial despite drawing on the Government's job retention scheme. The publisher warned that pressures on advertising, its recruitment website, live events and print circulation have created "an unsustainable financial outlook". It blames the Covid pandemic for much of its problems, putting the paper on course for a revenue shortfall of "well over" £25 million.

While the Mirror and other titles are also suffering, and local papers are having a dire time of it, with the Reach conglomerate taking a huge hit, oddly enough, the BBC is also in trouble.

Despite its license-fee model, backed by criminal law, it too is having to make cuts. So far, 520 jobs are to go from its news operation, from a workforce of 6,000 people – although how you can be that useless with that number of people is a modern-day mystery.

But, interestingly, the BBC is also cutting back on its social media operations, admitting that some of its journalists have become addicted to the genre. The corporation is taking the unusual step of banning individuals from running their own work accounts.

Too late, possibly, the legacy media is realising that social media is not its friend, but a merciless competitor that is doing it immense damage. On the other hand, while they treated bloggers as their enemies, they were undoubtedly misplaced. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two which they could have usefully exploited.

Probably now, it is too late. It is not only the social media which presents a challenge. Movers and shakers, who have traditionally relied on the media to report their doings, are finding they can cut out the middle man and report directly to their audiences.

Politicians, in particular, can post their speeches on their own websites, or YouTube, and use social media as noticeboards to let people know they are there. Whether they will have the same click-through problem I don't know.

All that, though, means that the legacy media is in for a rough time. But whingeing about how hard-done by they are isn't going to do them any good. In fact, when we see the entitled ones complaining that they have lost their monopoly of influence, most of us will think that this is an improvement.






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