11 November 2012

The Fall of Public Man

The mayhem at yet another of our key public institutions is adding to the sense of living through deeply unsettling times. It is also an example of when we need to read between the news, partly because political forces are at play, and partly because journalists are especially unreliable when they are reporting on their own.

I have been waiting for the time when news as gossip began to cause problems: the child abuse panic is, it seems to me, the first serious outcome of the confusion between social media and journalism. We have always known that journalism is about opinion as much as truth, but before the burst of electronic information there was some editorial control over the use of information. Once BBC correspondents began reading Tweets, collecting information from the internet, and broadcasting films from anonymous mobile phones - sources of information whose provenance they had no way of establishing - news lost any claim to being reliable or in any way attached to Truth.

In a democratic society this is problematic. We cannot possibly afford to obtain or sift all the information available to us: we need to rely on trusted channels. When the trusted channel we ourselves fund for this purpose has resorted to gossip we are really in trouble. It was back in 1974 that Richard Sennett wrote about the loss of distinction between public and private, but his theories have demonstrated themselves in ever-widening circles as we are encouraged to take an interest in the views of low-grade celebrities that would far better be kept to themselves. As he wrote back then:

'Masses of people are concerned with their single life histories and particular emotion as never before; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation', he wrote. Given that each self is 'in some measure a cabinet of horrors, civilised relations between selves can only proceed to the extent that nasty little secrets of desire, greed or envy are kept locked up'.

We should also be deeply suspicious about the timing of all of this. With the Leverson Inquiry due to report soon,  and to call for political regulation of the media, those who seek to maintain their unaccountable power are manoeuvring against any control. We should be asking why the Savile story emerged when it did? Who knew about the cancelled Newsnight story? And how did they obtain that information? The gutter press have a role here, but so also do the police, who are implicated in both the North Wales paedophile ring and the failure to investigate it fully.

We have seen the fall of George Entwhistle, generally regarded as a decent chap of the old school: a real journalist. He has been replaced, if only temporarily, by somebody who has no journalism experience and apparently is a marketing and management expert. The BBC has been under considerable political and financial pressure by those who would seek the fall of public broadcasting. I hope we can rally to the corporation's cause and defend our right to information with as much determination as we defend our right to health.

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