Geoff Kemp's lecture notes are part of the 'University of Auckland Winter Lectures 2010: The End(s) of Journalism?'
A wise journalist once observed that a pun is the lowest form of wit - unless you thought of it yourself. You will have noticed that the titles of this series and this first lecture revolve around a pun. I thought of it myself. I'd like to be able to say the enduring tradition in English writing being followed is that of Shakespeare but in my case it's more that of popular journalism, probably the legacy of too many Saturday-night shifts penning punning headlines for football reports in the newsroom of a British tabloid.
The story is told of a sports sub-editor who headlined a match report on a goalless draw 'Much ado about nothing-nothing', only for a less erudite revise sub to change this to 'Much ado about nil-nil.' I can't vouch for the truth of the story but arguably it shows that puns don't insult an audience's intelligence, they pay tribute to it, because they require mental processing on at least two levels and corresponding knowledge.
The title of the 2010 Winter Lectures - The End (or Ends) of Journalism - suggests the twin levels of the series' main concerns. First, will the challenges of digitisation, media proliferation, globalisation, commercialisation, and audience and advertising fragmentation spell 'The End' for serious journalism, rather than 'mf', the letters we reporters used to type at the bottom of each slip of copy paper, indicating that 'more follows'?
Second, if journalism is dying, what are the ends, what are the purposes, for which it is worth saving? The same suffix could serve to supply answers such as accurate information, insightful interpretation and - not least in a series emerging from a politics department - democratic deliberation, popular representation and the supervision of public authority; in short, duties of communication that partner rights of free expression.
These might be summed up by taking the pun to imply at a third level the ideal of journalism's commitment to treating its audience as ends in themselves, and not primarily as means to other ends, whether revenue maximisation or undue political influence or career advancement. In this sense, we are the ends of journalism, 'we the people'.
These lectures will not tell journalists how to do their jobs, or condemn the news media out of hand, contrary to some reports. They won't deny that the media needs to interest people to serve their interests, nor that even tabloids have a place (although maybe not tabloidization). They won't predict the future with the assurance of Paul the octopus. The hope is that they allow the chance to reflect on some of the understandings and theories, great and small, explicit and implicit, which inform and interpret the practice of journalism, amidst processes of change which defy tabloid encapsulation.
Over the next few weeks, colleagues will consider journalism in a domestic and global context and in light of transformations since around 1984. Having chased the initial pun into my own title, I find myself covering the previous three or four centuries, which will need subbing down drastically. I believe a historical overview can set the scene, however. News by definition neglects what's been and gone but journalism has a past which shapes its present. It also has a future, in my view, even if time will not let it stand still.
I'll be considering 'the idea of journalism', meaning not just various ideas associated with journalism but the big idea too, the very idea of journalism, whose development, like that of other '-isms', can be traced as part of the history of ideas. I'll have something to say about the first two levels of 'the end of journalism' but I'm also interested in exploring the third level, the notion of 'we the people' as a form of collective 'end', forged historically and with an idea of journalism as its counterpart.
Much academic ink has been spilt on the question of what constitutes 'the people' or 'the public' as a self-conscious unity, an 'imagined community'(1). The need to re-imagine 'the people' or 'the nation' in a globalising, diversifying, networking world is one reason it's a hot topic. A recurrent theme is the media's role in helping forge self-aware publics at varying and intersecting levels. The 800,000 people watching the news each night at 6pm is still this country's biggest public gathering, along with the one-and-a-half million New Zealanders reading a daily newspaper (2). The point is that we 'respond to the day's news as if everyone was paying attention to it'(3).
It is possible to consider 'journalism' too as a unifying idea: an idea of collective agency and shared function that transcends a messy reality in types of medium, types of organisation, types of approach and types of people. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of journalism is 'one who earns [a] living by editing or writing for public journals', but while journalism may be a craft, a trade, a profession, a process and a product, it is also more: an imagined, though not imaginary, institution. This is a view from outside as well as inside, which is unfortunately why all 'journalists' get lumped together just above sex workers near the bottom of surveys listing trusted professions.
The idea of journalism transcends its best and worse examples. It can also be separated, at least in theory, from the broader idea of 'the media', which extends to the commercial environment where journalism 'lives' but against which its idea has also traditionally been a refuge, the vaunted independence of the editorial department.
It seems to me that if the idea of journalism over time has become some kind of analogue of the idea of 'the people' then shifts in the collective identity of journalism imply far-reaching changes. It could be 'analogue journalism' confronting 'analog switch-off', another pun, and a thought for later.
First the history. I'll divide it into three phases, which is schematic but hopefully suggestive: a formative age in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; an era of growing association in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and a more recent period of perceived dissociation or fragmentation. This sweeping overview is partial, shaped by my own work as a researcher and as a journalist, extending from the period I've been studying in the history of ideas, with the help of a Marsden Fast-Start grant, to events in my own past; the focus is print rather than broadcasting; and the setting is mainly Britain, of which I'm a lifelong student but, more importantly, is where modern journalism took root.
To condense further I'll alight on a year in each phase for illustration. The years are 1695, 1840 and 1984, so one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end, or perhaps the beginning of the end, or more likely just the end of the beginning...
2. Ascriptive Phase: Nominal Journalists - 1695
The year 1695 was the year censorship ended in England and journalists began. This is not the whole story but not too misleading. In 1695 pre-publication print licensing ended, which along with the subsequent passage of the world's first Copyright Act - enacted 300 years ago this year - provided sufficient assurance of free expression as an unpunished, paid-for commodity to fuel an upsurge in periodical publishing on what proved to be a permanent basis. Individual periodicals were often short-lived but newspapers with names like The Flying-Post and The Post Boy emerged in 1695 as double-sided sheets appearing every two or three days and survived into the 1720s, by which time they had been joined by other London and provincial publications.
These included the world's first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, first printed in 1702 in a thoroughfare called Fleet Street, as well as a range of rather different journals of comment like the Spectator, Examiner, and Review, the work of Defoe, Swift and other literary worthies habitually hailed as pioneer journalists. The periodicals were small-scale, hand-press productions, sometimes the work of a solitary writer-printer; very different to today's newspapers in size, scope and much else.
A first question might be why it took so long, given that the printing press had been operating in Europe for more than two centuries, and printed news in varying forms had been around for a century. The question is a reminder that conclusions about the fate of journalism in the internet age may be guesswork at the very start of a long process. The blunt answer to the question is that humans make their own history but not in circumstances of their choosing, Karl Marx's timeless way of saying there are no timeless answers.
Printed news and comment developed in interaction with the long-term growth of commercial society which so preoccupied Marx, initially supplying trade information in becoming a profitable trade itself. It also developed in tandem with turmoil, major political and religious crises, making bestsellers of Martin Luther's Reformation and Oliver Cromwell's English Revolution. Literacy was limited but readership gradually widened, its control becoming the task of censorship by the ruling circles of monarchical state and church. In late seventeenth-century England, however, they confronted a growing class outside ruling circles with the resources of money, education, leisure and interest to read news and discuss public affairs and expect its views to be heeded by government. Coffee-houses, newspapers and pamphlets would become the sphere of these men, and very occasionally women, as they began to conceive of themselves as a critical public of private citizens asserting itself against the privacy of policy-making by public officials. Censorship crumbled, the trade in news and political periodicals advanced. At last, journalists were in business.
As some may recognise, this is a bowdlerized version of the German theorist Jurgen Habermas's grand theory of the emergence of a proto-democratic 'public sphere', spreading outwards from early modern England. Habermas divides historians but has attracted media academics and democratic theorists, not least because of the further transformation he portrays in which the democratic public sphere withers in the face of twentieth-century annexation by commercial and political special interests, the public sphere remaining as a critical yardstick and ideal.
Habermas portrays a great sweep of history, as political outsiders began to grasp the value of arguing in the name of a new power called 'public opinion', separated from the state and the private sphere of economic necessity so able to criticise and regulate both in pursuit of rights and liberties (4). In this process, he allots a crucial role to what he calls the eighteenth-century 'establishment of an independent journalism that knew how to assert itself against the government'. However, he does not really consider how journalism grew to know itself, so foreshortens the process.
He is not alone. It tends to be assumed that where printed news and political periodicals exist so must journalists and journalism, but things are not this straightforward.
Consider a prime contender for the title of the world's first journalist, Sir Roger L'Estrange, who wrote in the reigns of Charles II and James II. I recently compiled a bibliography of L'Estrange's works and calculated his total printed output to have been six million words, including 1,183 issues of his sole-authored periodicals the Newes, the Intelligencer and the Observator. He was probably the most prolific writer of news and political comment in seventeenth-century England, yet surprisingly he found time for another job, as official government censor from 1663 to the Glorious Revolution. L'Estrange saw his mission to be silencing debate by crushing writers and printers, either literally or under the literary weight of millions of words defending divine-right monarchy and religious orthodoxy. Supposing 'Newes, or no Newes, to be the Question,' he wrote, 'A Publick [newspaper] should never have My Vote,' because it gives the multitude an itch and a seeming right to be meddling with government (5).
The L'Estrange paradox, then, is that he meets the dictionary definition of journalist yet could never have accepted the idea that he was part of a collective endeavour called journalism enlarging the public sphere. But there is also a more basic reason why he would never have called himself a journalist - the word wasn't used until around 1695.
The first relevant use came a year or two before, but by 1695 English readers were being informed that whereas historians required 'clear Judgment to distinguish the True from the False', 'Journalists' are 'sometimes clear and sometimes obscure' because they deal in 'Superficials that only Surprise; make a Flash and away' (6). Use of the label grew slowly, and sometimes only because those labelled wrote for newspapers with titles like The Weekly Journal, or The Saturday Journal. The writer of the Mercury was the mercurist, the writer of the Journal the journalist.
From the beginning, calling someone a journalist was an insult: an accusation of superficiality, scurrility, political partiality and venality, often richly deserved. The abandonment of press licensing made being a journalist a practical proposition but it was not yet a vocation. I call this period the ascriptive phase, because writers tended to be ascribed the name of journalist, rather than assuming it. This was the age that excoriated the hack writer of Grub Street, and none of those literary figures we sometimes call journalists - Defoe, or Swift, or Addison - would gladly have accepted the description. The subsequent historical journey was a path from resisting the label to accepting and seeking to justify it.
Justification was initially pursued by claiming a share in the growing currency of arguments for press freedom. These were arguments for the freedom of individual writers to use the press, rather than freedom for the newspaper press as later understood, driven by religious concerns as much as politics, the most famous, then and still, being John Milton's Areopagitica back in the revolutionary turmoil of 1644. Journalists as such were not flag-bearers for freedom of expression; they marched under the banners of other writers claiming liberty of the press on behalf of the republic of letters (7). Journalists did not defend journalism as such, because as yet there was no 'ism' to defend.
The best-known campaigner against censorship in 1695 was John Locke, who directed supporters to a pamphlet which the editors of his correspondence suggest was A Just Vindication of Learning and the Liberty of the Press (8). It was written by Charles Blunt, a rather tragic figure who had committed suicide shortly before because he loved his late wife's sister but could not legally marry her. The pamphlet's impact is uncertain but it conveys the arguments of the time.
Blunt mainly paraphrased and plagiarised Milton's case against censorship: as being historically the resort of tyrants and 'popish' persecutors, preventing the expression of individual conscience, and obstructing the free exchange of ideas that could generate truth and advance learning. These can be called arguments for an open press: essentially, the more writers the merrier.
However, Blunt added something: an early glimpse of the argument for the press as political watchdog, declaring that concern for reputation could subject the powerful to public oversight, an idea Locke called the 'law of reputation' around this time. This was arguably a case for a free press but not necessarily an open press, because its rationale was not the more writers the merrier so much as the benefits of a critical opposition free enough but also influential enough 'to assert itself against the government'. As yet, however, it remained an argument advanced on behalf of the individual writer not a body called journalism or 'the press'.
The eighteenth century was the gestation period for this body. Journalists gradually accepted they were linked in function, motive and justification, if divided by competition too: the Weekly Journal called a rival a 'Bastard Brother Journalist' (9). The forging and justifying of unity also continued to be reactive. A letter-writer to the Journal in 1720 warned that the growing 'Fraternity' of journalists was dangerous because 'the press has a subtil and irresistable Force: Here one Man speaks to the whole Nation' (10).
The challenge for journalists would become that of persuading opponents that this potential to speak to and for the nation should be welcomed not condemned, in an age when 'the nation' or 'the people' were seen either as the exclusive preserve of representation by king and parliament or readily construed as the mob. A letter in the Daily Courant in 1734 warned that to set up a rival to parliament was to 'erect a fourth estate in our Government, viz. the PEOPLE' (11).
3. Associative Phase: Analogue Journalism - 1840
A century later the long-term project of forging the idea and institution of journalism was making its greatest strides. It was baptised as an 'ism' in the 1830s and, by 1840, it was being proclaimed an analogue to the people dignified under the title of the Fourth Estate (12).
Other news was being made around the world in 1840, of course, even if it took time to make an impression on the British public. News of the signing of a treaty in New Zealand took four months to reach the London newspapers - rapid compared to 'news' of Abel Tasman's visit in 1642, which took forty years to appear (13). During those four months in 1840, the New Zealand Gazette became the first-ever newspaper printed here. Newspaper culture as well as people and much else were being exported on British models, making my London-centred story at least in part also the story of New Zealand journalism.
In May, as Governor Hobson shipped the treaty to Whitehall, the writer Thomas Carlyle was in London giving the fifth of a series of lectures later published as Heroes and Hero Worship. It is to this 1840 lecture that the term 'the Fourth Estate' is usually traced, although Carlyle gave the impression that Edmund Burke had coined the term in 1787. He wrote famously: 'Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.'
Professor Morrow is an eminent Carlyle scholar, so I could face correction, but in my view the description was Carlyle's. There is no separate evidence for Burke's comment, the phrasing does not require it, and a preoccupation with the Fourth Estate and the press was spurred by events after 1787. One of the more prosaic was that Parliament burnt down in 1834 and had to be rebuilt, raising questions about whether reporters should attend on sufferance in the strangers' gallery or be privileged with a press gallery. Less immediate were the two revolutions, industrial and French.
Looking back on early industrialisation from an 1840 vantage-point, British newspapers had gained an enlarged audience born of urbanisation and increased literacy, as well as the steam railway and steam press, soon to be followed by the rotary press. Newspapers and journals were larger concerns, tapping new sources of readership and advertising, staffed by journalists gaining new and differentiated roles, including that of employee. The Times, which first appeared in the late 1780s, had become a dominant force.
As for France, Carlyle's 1837 history of the French revolution had chapters headed 'The Fourth Estate' and 'Journalism', in which he pointed out their perils, charting the assumption of power by the French third estate, the commons, and the presumption of power by the Paris journals, as a fourth estate making twenty million commoners, 'hitherto the dumb sheep', now bray and growl (14). 'Journalism' was associated with the sans-culottes, the mob. One of Carlyle's lines is on every quotations website: 'Great is Journalism. Is not every able Editor a Ruler of the World, being a persuader of it'? What is missing is the rest of the passage, confirming its ironic tone and concern at the journalist's self-appointed role as voice of the people (15). In 1840, Carlyle declared that, through the press, Britain was 'governed by all that has tongue in the nation: Democracy is virtually there.'
It is hard now to feel the fears 'democracy' stirred as popular self-government believed impractical as well as downright dangerous. It was associated with the face-to-face democratic practice of the ancient Athenian assembly, as well as the caricature of uninformed, unfiltered brute force invoked by the ancient Athenian Plato.
The task of journalism was again that of making a virtue of perceived vice - showing that a press ostensibly open to all need not be the analogue of unruly democracy but of public opinion suitably informed and filtered through a responsible body. Call it 'virtual democracy' if you like, but the propagators of this idea of power with responsibility worked with the label of 'the Fourth Estate', 'the Press', or the new-minted term, 'journalism'.
The first discussion of this new '-ism' had come in an 1833 article in the Westminster Review, the journal associated with John Stuart Mill. Its starting-point was France, where, in the aftermath of revolution, Bonaparte tamed the journals by incorporation, the empire appointing editors and nominating official writers. The Review author noted ruefully that this gave French journalists a status lacking in Britain, but also that they had been dignified and enslaved, bound with gilded chains. The 'natural prerogative' of journalism should be political independence, the article declared, and the journalist free as 'an instructor and a representative' (16). By 1840 the self-image was sharpening, and the Guardian quoted a recent lord chancellor's speech observing that British journalism 'had by degrees become an important profession' which now must have a consciousness of its power (17).
Arguments for conscientious self-expression and the pursuit of truth in a marketplace of ideas continued to be used to justify the journalist's role, but the key argument for journalism's power was its influence as public watchdog, the Fourth Estate. Overturning largely negative appraisals like Carlyle's became central, and proceeded through increasingly self-confident self-justification, such as the celebrated Times editorials in which John Thadeus Delane responded to calls for restraint and loyalty by declaring famously: 'The press lives by disclosure. (18)'
Delane's editorials were unself-conscious about the way the Fourth Estate ideal rested on independence in editorial decision-making not only from government but from the people, involving largely one-way transmission aside from the vague message sent by purchase. And he was understandably silent about contemporary concern over market dominance by the Times itself.
Yet this involved no contradiction. The Fourth Estate case, that the more influential the watchdog, the better, carried the implication that an institutionally and economically strong press - in practice, bigger business - would be better placed to deliver the ideal. It could gain rather than lose influence by limiting access to outsiders and autonomy for insiders, filtering information and representation to be the analogue of a 'good public' through virtual democracy, rather than the potentially bad public of actual democracy (19). The Miltonic arguments for freedom of self-expression and diversity leading to truth were still held to apply but their connection with Fourth Estate principle was rhetorical as much as logical.
One way of putting this is to say that the Miltonic arguments applied to each journalist, as to any individual, while the Fourth Estate argument applied to journalism as a corporate body. Another way is through the distinction in the title of Robert Martin's book on American newspapers, The Free and Open Press (20). As suggested previously, the 'free and open press' is not one thing but two things. One involves an argument about the need for the press to be free, as an institution with enough influence to check state power, and the other the older discourse of openness to differing views and individuals. The Fourth Estate needed to be free, but it did not need to be open.
The Fourth Estate ideal wasn't some cynical big-business plot but a Faustian bargain where journalism gained status and influence in return for lending credibility to commercial growth. There is no question that gains in representation and information were involved, and the aspirations were not only those of bigger enterprises but of journalism writ large and small. The New Zealand Gazette of 1 August 1840, enumerating reasons why the country would one day attract 'the admiration of the world', included its share in what it called 'an undegenerated press, "the fourth estate", wielded with all the vigour of unshackled freedom'. It was a liberty not felt to be shackled by a 'pecuniary obligation' to the New Zealand Company.
Inevitably, however, the Fourth Estate strategy prioritised building institutional muscle and monitoring government over questioning other forms of power, including the economic priorities it shared. The Westminster Review article complained that journalism was tied to a 'manufactory' requiring 'huge capital', which led to market concentration and inflated newspapers full of advertising and trivia.
The argument that pursuit of profit made 'some show both of ability and independence necessary' was deemed inadequate because, for the journalist as for the politician, 'the bond between him and his constituents, should neither be seven-pence nor a shilling.' The article imagined the reader protesting, 'I buy the newspaper, and the newspaper is ready to sell me.(21)'
An immediate context for this discussion was the campaign against the 'taxes on knowledge', accused of driving all but the biggest newspapers out of the market or into illegality. John Stuart Mill, concerned that the purpose of newspapers had become simply 'mercantile profit', believed abolition could resolve the Fourth Estate paradox, because while the power of a dominant voice would be lost, 'the newspaper press in the aggregate, considered as the voice of public opinion, will be increased' (22)(23).
In the event, abolition had an ambiguous outcome since large-scale production became cheaper and so more dominant (24). In the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth century a raft of new national and local newspapers appeared but increasingly as industrial enterprises in which journalism was tied to economies of scale, the great popular and tabloid newspapers needing large audiences and advertising to match large capital.
But, on the other hand, a Fourth-Estate rationale also meant industrial-scale journalism required and was to a degree given its refuge through the demarcation of editorial and commercial functions. The idea of journalism's relative autonomy was furthered by professionalization through industry training, internal routines, and external association, the imagined community of journalists made manifest in first an association of journalists and then a National Union of Journalists. The Times owner Lord Northcliffe, perhaps surprisingly, welcomed the NUJ, saying journalists and proprietors could 'co-operate to uphold the dignity of the Fourth Estate' but it was not 'wise or politic' that their interests should be confused (25). The great Guardian editor, C.P. Scott, a few lines before his celebrated remark that 'Comment is free, but facts are sacred', observed that a newspaper was a business but journalism was an 'institution', which 'may make profit or power' its end or 'conceive itself as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function' (26).
Then came broadcasting, first radio then television, which changed everything and changed nothing, or nothing I can discuss in the time available. It transformed media experience, shifting the balance between word and image, and between information and entertainment. Vast potential, lack of prior ownership, a more paternalistic and socialistic context, and limited spectrum allowed public service to be made a more formal expectation, the BBC from 1926 becoming the Briton's Best Companion. Yet broadcasting represented no less an industrial-scale process, usually more, and so continuity as much as change in terms of journalism, sharing the difficulties of discriminating between public interest and the public's interest.
The Dissociative Phase: Digital Journalism - 1984
We must now leap to 1984, at the threshold of what I've labelled the 'dissociative phase'. Others may call it the year things began to fall apart. It's too summary a judgement and too precise a dating but 1984 and thereabouts evokes a time of change in technology, policy, economy and in journalism's self-image, or perhaps self-confidence.
1984 was a time when every home was dominated by a 'telescreen' that was never turned off, newspapers were everyone's staple daily diet, and the media as a whole generally churned out 'rubbishy entertainment and spurious news'. This, at least, was George Orwell's description in his novel 1984, which actually sounds not unlike 1984, the year Orwell made a byword for concern about the future. In 1984, things were about to change - in technology terms, at least.
A few weeks ago a journalism teacher at the University of Minnesota challenged her media students to go five days without using technology created after 1984; so no laptops, mobile phones or iPods, instead using pens and typewriters, landlines and cassette players (27). The aims were to make the students conscious of their reliance on technology and aware of what life was like for those who would be employing them. Less than 10 per cent made it past two days.
[1984 slide].Apart from making me feel like living history, so rather pleased I couldn't last two days either, the report made me think back to what life was like for journalists in 1984. It also made me think of Orwell, both for his novel and his earlier book The Road to Wigan Pier, in which as a journalist he reported on the condition of the workers of northern England in the 1930s, an expose of 'evil conditions, wretched pay [and] hopeless unemployment', as the foreword announced.
As 1984 opened, I was a journalist on the local newspaper in Wigan, having signed indentures as an apprentice reporter on leaving school in the town, around the time Margaret Thatcher got her new job as Prime Minister. The pay was still pretty wretched and unemployment locally once again hopeless, returning to 1930s levels in the bracing air of neoliberalism, which Britain knew as Thatcherism and New Zealand was about to come to know, although I'll leave it for others to explore the associations of 1984 as a starting-point for recent media experience here.
In one of the more picturesque passages in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell observed that the western world 'invents machines as naturally as the Polynesian islander swims' but only puts them into operation if commercially valuable (28). The AppleMac appeared in 1984 but had yet to colonise newspaper offices, while the Internet was still some way off, but computer technologies were ready and available to bypass well-paid, strongly-unionised printers. The newspaper publishers were campaigning for the freedom to do so under the label 'Project Breakthrough', assisted by government legislation limiting union resistance.
Journalists were promised a share in the benefits: more control over what was produced, more resources and job security, and more opportunities due to lower market entry costs. In January 1984 Mrs Thatcher told lobby journalists at their centenary dinner that under her government new technology would result in a 'varied, independent media', rather than being put to 'Orwellian use' - by which she presumably meant state control, rather than Orwell's journalism against 'wretched pay and hopeless unemployment'. She said press freedom must be reconciled with responsibility, the need to inform outweighing the need to entertain, but meeting these ends was in journalists' own hands. 'The real point,' she concluded, 'is that you are free, free to be what you are and free to make what you want of it all' (29).
It was hard to believe it was this straightforward. The freedoms of journalism seemed more than ever enmeshed with the freedoms prioritised by the institutions they inhabited, notably a free hand in the market and industrial relations. In a letter to her local paper, Thatcher had asked rhetorically: 'What might happen if control over the hiring and firing, and the writing by all those engaged in the supplying of news and information to the people of this country did get into the hands of one group'(30)? She meant the National Union of Journalists. Her response was to strengthen the hand of another group, media owners, whose priorities were more aligned with her own, reflected in a politically supportive national press if not a preference for informing over entertaining.
According to the lyrics Billy Bragg was singing in 1984, Fleet Street was the place where right-wing
'...politics mix with bingo and tits
In a strictly money and numbers game ...
You should understand
That those who own the papers also own this land
And they'd rather you believe
In Coronation Street capers
In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers'(31).
The issue of journalism's distance from the bottom line was also highlighted at this time by Harold Evans's new book about his doomed struggle for independence as editor of the Times after it was bought - along with the Sunday Times, the Sun and Britain's biggest-selling newspaper, the News of the World - by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. The Times reviewer said Evans failed to appreciate that 'in any cash-hungry organization the person providing the funds ... must prevail'; the editor has to earn independence by first meeting the needs of the organisation (32).
The trauma of transformation in the British media industry is generally identified with the Wapping Dispute in 1986, when the Times and its stable-mates moved to a high-tech plant in London's Docklands, leaving 5,000 sacked workers behind, while 1984 is mainly associated with the year-long Miners' Strike. Murdoch has called 1986 the start of media's computer revolution but this ignores the rumblings of the approaching storm that closed 1983 and opened 1984.
This was the Messenger Dispute, in which the owner of a group of newspapers in the Manchester area took on the powerful print unions and won, opening the way to the widespread introduction of new technology. The mundane aim was to replace well-paid union compositors with poorly-paid women typists - not even direct input by journalists - but the dispute escalated as unions, bosses, and government recognised the stakes involved. It culminated in the so-called Battle of Winwick Quay a month before Christmas as police cleared thousands of protesters blocking a print and distribution centre just south of Wigan. Those stumbling home at 5am, observed one account, 'could not have predicted ...that Winwick Quay had become the symbolic birthplace' of the new media revolution (33).
I was at Winwick Quay and disagree. I was there as a journalist but not as a reporter, nor agitator. It seemed likely even then that Winwick Quay was the birthplace of changes disastrous for printers but hardly pain-free for journalists given the likely reweighting of the balance C.P. Scott envisaged between the 'body' of business and 'soul' of journalism. But no-one could tell the future, and for all kinds of reasons journalists were split over the issues. In the final analysis it was a dispute over industrial practices and new technology, not journalism. However, looking back, it can also appear the threshold of a faltering attachment to journalism as a body in a position to stand up for its own, independent ends.
I was split too. At one point someone had the idea of getting everyone to rope themselves together so police could not break the crowd. In my mind's eye I can see the rope being held out to me amidst the chaos. Orwell spoke of the 'invisible chain' of community but I wasn't sure the invisible bond of journalism extended to the solidarity required to risk being split in two (34). I was saved from a decision by seeing my girlfriend led away to an ambulance, where I followed. A moment of excessive symbolism had passed, the battle was over and a turning-point had been reached.
Two years later, the Murdoch papers moved to Wapping, where behind barbed wire and police cordons 400 journalists could input their copy directly. Murdoch has said that by fighting the Battle of Wapping he brought 'a silver age to British journalism', keeping newspaper publishing viable, allowing 'greater freedom and flexibility', and, as he candidly added, ensuring 'higher profits, for News Corp' (35). His editor on the Sun, Kelvin McKenzie, declared that now the printers 'haven't got us by the balls... The only people who matter [are] the journalists (36). Ian Griffiths, a journalist sacked for refusing to work at Wapping, now at the Guardian, recently described more damaging long-term effects: it had proved an opportunity to put journalists 'in their place once and for all', he says: 'Through Wapping Murdoch set the tone for a compliant and non-confrontational press. He dealt a body blow to journalism from which we have not yet recovered. (37)'
Bill Bryson gives a typically sardonic account of his time working as a Times sub-editor at Wapping in Notes From a Small Island, recalling management handing out glossy brochures of future plans to keep up morale among the journalists. 'No two people seem to remember the same things from this brochure,' Bryson writes. 'I clearly recall architects' drawings of a large indoor swimming pool, with unusually sleek and healthy-looking journalists diving off a low board or lounging with feet dangling in the water. Others remember squash courts and exercise rooms... Nearly everybody recalls a large modern bar.' An old colleague still at Wapping later tells Bryson nothing more was heard of the swimming pool, while adding: 'Give them their due, they've increased our hours. They now let us work an extra day every fortnight without extra pay... They wouldn't ask us to do more work if they didn't like the way we did it, would they? (38)'
In 1988 the last national daily newspaper left Fleet Street and took the road to east London, taking advantage of new technology to remain profitable amidst competition for audience and advertising while, like the journalists at Wapping, blissfully unaware of quite what the future would bring. The following year saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and, no less significantly, the arrival of email, Internet service providers and the World Wide Web.
I've taken the story from the birth to the death of Fleet Street - but what about the end of journalism? Clearly, journalism didn't die in 1984, and while good journalism may have suffered since, in ways later lectures will consider, it too survives and finds outlets old and new. My girlfriend recovered only to suffer becoming my wife, and this year was named Journalist of the Year in the New Zealand Community Newspapers Association awards, just to prove there are decent journalists around, contrary to the opinion polls.
Perhaps journalism will never end. The American academic Michael Schudson, writing in 1995, suggested that the body called journalism can never die, because society needs it too much. He imagined a scenario in which journalism is suddenly abolished but citizens are left free to tap into any information source they want on their computers and send their own information to whoever they choose. He said citizens would face a dilemma of trust. 'People would want ways to sort through the endless information available. What is most important? What is most relevant? What is most interesting?' A demand would emerge for people to gather information, to interpret it, to offer independent analysis, maybe to offer partisan opinion if clearly signalled... Journalism - of some sort - would be reinvented. (39)'
This sounds convincing. Even when everyone has their iMac, iPhone and iPad, they will need the human with three I's - the independent information intermediary, the ideal journalist. However, a state of nature scenario like Schudson's risks assuming timeless human needs that real history does not always confirm. People survived without journalists until the seventeenth century and without journalism longer still. History is not necessarily on its side. Some argue that journalism is doomed to dissolve, fated to fragment, its bodily integrity broken on the wheel of technological and economic transformation, the parts picked over by tweeters and bloggers, its place usurped by online individuals floating free in cyberspace. Is this what history tells us?
I don't think so, although neither does it suggest dire predictions don't come true. Roger L'Estrange warned that liberty of the press would eventually lead to democracy and in many ways he was right. People lived before journalism existed but more people have lived more fulfilling lives with journalism than without it, believe it or not. The idea of journalism as a body with the structure, resources and commitment to informing and representing the public is still needed. But we no longer fear democracy nor share the nineteenth-century impulse to tame it, so perhaps what lies ahead is the increased interaction between professional journalists and online information intermediaries, those who Schudson labels para-journalists.
One way history might help us think about the present moment is in terms of the distinction of 'free press' and 'open press' models, in updated form that of 'free media' and 'open media'. What we are arguably seeing is the historically-derived dominance of the 'free press' model now encountering the challenge of a new or revived 'open press' model. The Fourth Estate privileging of the powerful watchdog is meeting a reimagining or reapplication of the earlier arguments for individual self-expression and a diverse marketplace of ideas. The idea that, in media terms, the bigger the better is being confronted with the idea that the more the merrier.
This may sound all too merry. A century or so ago, the great editor W.T. Stead, who founded one of the papers I worked for, wrote an article called 'The Future of Journalism'. Stead advocated 'government by journalism', claiming the press could be superior to parliament in informing and representing the public, but he acknowledged that large-scale, monolithic media were not sufficiently in touch with the individuals making up the public. He predicted that the future would need to be one in which journalists were connected to 'a network of corresponding associates': a thousand or more informants who would channel news and opinions upwards. Stead suggested that each networking associate could be rewarded with a free copy of the newspaper. The idea didn't really catch on.
Stead's dilemma has been partly solved by technology. There are now vast grassroots networks of individuals channelling news and opinions, sometimes carried upwards through journalists, who used to go out and meet contacts and now sit and surf like everyone else. But Stead's problem is also about the institutional and business models that can foster fruitful interaction between the processes of journalism and an online realm rooted in individual self-expression. The 'free press' fears Babel and the dissolution of the audience, as a public and a market; the 'open press' fears colonisation by mainstream media, even as online 'meta-journalism' adopts modes of selection, checking and rating with increasing sophistication. I have no ready model to propose, only agreeing with a speaker at last year's World Media Summit that digital technology is 'a means, not an end'. Since Rupert Murdoch was the speaker, it was a reminder that the ends journalism is tied to do not promise an easy coming together of 'free press' and 'open media' priorities. No-one gets the Times free online any more, as of the past month. Journalism has to pay. But either way it means the end of the idea of journalism quite as we have known it, late-breaking news in a history of continuity and change (40).
Yet, in the final analysis, perhaps mainstream journalism retains an ethical edge in one respect. The British philosopher and Labour peer Baroness Onora O'Neill launched a campaign for media reform in her BBC Reith Lectures by arguing that traditional rights of individual free expression cannot be simply assimilated by large media organisations, justifying freedom from regulation. She argued that as corporate bodies they take on duties of communication, such as representing the public and making information properly assessable, which can be encouraged and if necessary enforced on behalf of 'the people'. This has affinities with the free press-open press argument in that journalists as individuals have rights of free expression but journalism as a body has higher ends of public service. If we want to spin this, we could say it puts journalism on a higher moral plane than non-journalists, which may seem a rare privilege.
O'Neill is an authority on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, so perhaps draws inspiration from his famous 'motto of enlightenment': 'sapere aude': literally 'dare to be wise', although Kant rendered it as 'dare to use your understanding', suggesting the difference between a solitary individual thinker and someone using their understanding in the cooperative communicative process he called 'public reason'. Solitary thinkers are not responsible to others; public communicators are. Kant's motto of Enlightenment was also the motto of this university as part of the old University of New Zealand. The understanding of someone guilty of committing tabloid journalism is meagre, but I'm grateful you've given me the chance to use it (41).
1. Anderson, Imagined Communities
2. Nielsen Media Research: National Readership Survey 2009-2010, and TV Ratings Measurement
3. Theodore L. Glasser, 'Journalism and the second-person effect', Journalism, 10(3) (2009): 326-328.
4. Warner, p. x.
5. Roger L'Estrange, The Intelligencer, Published For the Satisfaction and Information of the People, no. 1 (31 August 1663), pp. 1-2: 'Supposing the Press in Order; the People in their right Wits, and Newes, or no Newes, to be the Question; A Publick Mercury should never have My Vote, because I think it makes the Multitude too Familiar with the Actions, and Counsels of their Superiors, too Pragmatical and censorious, and gives them, not only an Itch but a kind of Colourable Right, and License, to be Meddling with the Government.' .
6. Pierre Le Moyne, Of the Art both of Writing & Judging of History (London, 1695) p. 24
7. Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letters no. 15 (4 February 1720), in Cato's Letters, vol. 1 (London, 1737), p. 96. The claim of press freedom as the bulwark of liberty was also made regularly in The Craftsman in the 1720s, and had been suggested earlier in Matthew Tindal, Reasons Against Restraining the Press (London, 1704), p. 14. On the routinisation of the press after 1689, see Carolyn Nelson and Matthew Seccombe, 'The creation of the periodical press 1620-1695', in Barnard and McKenzie, Cambridge History of the Book, pp. 533-550. On politeness, Lawrence E. Klein, 'Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century', Historical Journal, 45, 4 (2002), pp. 869-898; Steven N. Zwicker, 'The Constitution of Opinion and the Pacification of Reading', in Sharpe and Zwicker, Reading, Society and Politics, pp. 295-316. See also G.C. Gibbs, 'Press and Public Opinion: Prospective', in Jones, Liberty Secured?, pp. 231-264.
8. Locke, Correspondence, vol. 3. May have been Reasons Humbly Offered: see vol 8.
9. Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letters no. 15 (4 February 1720), in Cato's Letters, vol. 1 (London, 1737), p. 96. The claim of press freedom as the bulwark of liberty was also made regularly in The Craftsman in the 1720s, and had been suggested earlier in Matthew Tindal, Reasons Against Restraining the Press (London, 1704), p. 14. On the routinisation of the press after 1689, see Carolyn Nelson and Matthew Seccombe, 'The creation of the periodical press 1620-1695', in Barnard and McKenzie, Cambridge History of the Book, pp. 533-550. On politeness, Lawrence E. Klein, 'Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century', Historical Journal, 45, 4 (2002), pp. 869-898; Steven N. Zwicker, 'The Constitution of Opinion and the Pacification of Reading', in Sharpe and Zwicker, Reading, Society and Politics, pp. 295-316. See also G.C. Gibbs, 'Press and Public Opinion: Prospective', in Jones, Liberty Secured?, pp. 231-264.
10. Locke, Correspondence, vol. 3. May have been Reasons Humbly Offered: see vol 8.
11. The Daily Courant, 16 March 1734.
13. Sharp, The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman; Slot, Abel Tasman and the Discovery of New Zealand.
14. Reprinted in Freeman's Journal (Dublin) 23 October, 1833.
16. Journalism, Westminster Review, 18:35, January 1833 pp. 195-208.
17. Manchester Guardian, 15 April, 1840.
19. Curran p 25.
20. New York, 2001
21. Journalism, Westminster Review, 18:35, January 1833 pp. 195-208.
22. John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I (On Liberty) > CIVILIZATION 1836 > paragraph 524
23. John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I (On Liberty) > CIVILIZATION 1836 > paragraph 524
25. Northcliffe, 2 October 1912, in Gentlemen, The Press! pp. 170-171.
26. C.P. Scott, 'On Journalism', in C.P. Scott, 1846-1932, The Making of the Manchester Guardian (London, 1946) p. 161
28. Road, p. 238.
31. Bragg, It Says Here, 1994.
32. Times, 13 November 1983 p. 11.
33. Goodhart and Wintour 1986, in Negrine, Television and the Press since 1945, p. 159.
34. Lion and the Unicorn
36. Engel, p. 281.
38. Notes From A Small Island
39. Schudson, The Power of News.
41. Engel, Tickle the Public, p. 9.
Lecture notes: A final version will be further edited and corrected for possible future publication.