Last Friday I took part in a debate organised by UNESCO to promote World Press Freedom Day (full video here). Lined up to argue in support of the motion that “Unregulated political comment online helps the democratic process” were Sunny Hundal of the Liberal Conspiracy blog; the founder of MORI, Sir Robert Worcester, and, speaking from the floor, me.
Arguing against the motion were Westminster University’s Professor Steven Barnett; the BBC’s Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thomson; and, speaking from the floor, Nick Jones, formerly of the same corporation.
With an audience of diverse professional backgrounds packing the Frontline Club, it was a healthy discussion – although if you’ve attended a journalism event in the last few years you’ll have recognised some of the threads throughout, as the usual straw men were wheeled out to justify either regulating the internet or ignoring it altogether: ‘it’s not representative‘; ‘it’s just sound and fury, signifying nothing‘ (actually, no one quoted Shakespeare, sadly).
I’ve addressed some of the general anti-web arguments in another blog post, but I thought I’d add a couple of specific observations about the thinking behind the arguments being put forward at the event.
The Zero Sum view of journalism
Thomson’s argument (listen in full here) started with the idea that political comment online could not be left in isolation, but needed to be selected and presented within an editorial context and analysis – not surprisingly, the sort of context and background that the BBC itself could provide.
Members of the public did not have the “understanding” that journalists could provide, said Thomson*.
When I suggested that understanding was not the sole preserve of journalists (audio here) Thomson, in her closing speech, expressed surprise that a journalism lecturer should not see the value in journalism.
Of course, I never said that, and I don’t believe that at all. But Thomson’s assertion provides an insight into how online comments – user generated content, whatever you want to call it – are often viewed within the media industry: as an alternative to professional journalism.
It’s what I call the zero sum view of journalism: any gain for user generated content is a loss for professional journalism. Either we win, or you win.
But of course journalism isn’t a zero sum game. The more people practising it, the better. A piece of professional journalism can be made better with online comments; and online comments can be made better by a piece of professional journalism.
And there’s enough room on the internet for both the BBC’s regulated/moderated form of political comment and comment that takes place away from the cultures of Reith and Ofcom.
Having one does not take away from the other; having both provides a richer media lanscape and more opportunities for people to participate in the national conversation in a way they are comfortable with – ways that may, to the surprise of media executives, help the democratic process without the assistance of journalists.
Often the zero sum view is a paternalistic one, an emotional reaction akin to a parent who refuses to believe that their child no longer needs them. What if they make what I think is the wrong decision? Well, perhaps they will. But as journalists we have to make a decision too: do we give people the tools to stand on their own? Or do we tie them to our apron strings?
On other occasions the zero sum view is a fearmongering one, used to justify laws and regulations with potentially onerous side-effects.
At one point a penny dropped in the mind of the person sat in front of me when she said that until now she had seen the internet as a place to publish content, but she had realised that it was also a place where people seek information. The difference is significant.
The Bad Experience view of UGC
Another recurrent theme in these debates is the “What I’ve seen online is awful, therefore everything online must be awful” argument. I find it incredible that experienced journalists and academics can be so confident in arguing from such a limited position of empirical proof.
All it takes is one example of positive online comment to disprove this. Just some examples mentioned were
- the ‘We Love the NHS’ campaign raising engagement with the US Healthcare Bill;
- the Simon Singh and Trafigura case raising awareness of libel law;
- and the Digital Economy Bill debate online that made tens of thousands of people stay up to watch Parliament TV, click through to Hansards and inform themselves on the peculiarities of whips and wash-ups
- (I’d very much welcome other examples, by the way)
At this point, the person putting forward the Bad Experience argument often clams that your example is an exception. “Of course I don’t mean the blogs/commenters/etc. that do practice some good journalism.”
This is a circular argument, serving only to sustain itself.
Some journalism helps the democratic process; some journalism doesn’t. We don’t write all journalism off because some of it is bad.
The sooner we get away from this irrational prejudice against a particular medium – the web – and toward a sophisticated understanding that a medium is all it is, the better. We had the same with newspaper publishers looking down their noses at radio, and then TV (and novels and the waltz before that).
As Padraig Reidy put it via Twitter of the motion: ‘Unregulated political comment online helps the democratic process’ – “take out “online” and the proposition is silly, no?”
And to those whose bad experience of the web has scarred them so, deal with your fear in the healthiest way possible: confront it, and get back on it.
If you think the web is useless, make it useful. If you think Wikipedia is full of errors, correct the ones you find, or shut up. If you think the web only consists of ill-informed echo chambers, get in there and add an informed view.
Along the way, you might just find that there are hundreds of thousands of people doing exactly the same thing.
*Heather Brooke’s book The Silent State is full of similar sentiments used by public sector employees and ministers when expaining why supposedly public information should not be released to the public.