The sorry state of scrutiny

The sorry state of scrutiny

Why no bail-out for the newspaper industry?

I always enjoy the various addresses given at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – Stephen Colbert’s legendary 2006 performance deserves your time – and this year President Obama acquitted himself with another witty performance (though not as good as his 2005 roasting of Rahm Emanuel) but it was the postscript that was most interesting.

Addressing the celebrity journalists (who have, by his own admission, given him a very easy ride), Obama chose to acknowledge the hard times that have hit the traditional media; newspapers are shutting down, journalists losing their jobs, and the threat of free online distribution of news and analysis leading to falling circulation. Even historic newspapers like the Boston Globe were threatened with closure by its parent company if the Unions didn’t agree to cuts.

I am caught in two minds about the impact on the traditional media. To a certain extent, I take the bloggers’ cause – that the MSM has for too long lived as a client media for the political machines, and that it has taken truly independent new media outlets to force issues like Smeargate into the agenda. I think is a perfect example of how a cheaper distribution model allows for specialist commentary (on polling and betting markets) which cater for those with an appetite for more detail and interactivity than the MSM allow.

Blogs can afford to cater for specialist interests where the Dead Tree Press ever tend towards a generalist audience (see the trajectory of the Telegraph in the last 18 months). Combine with that backdrop the complaint of bloggers that journalists are merely regurgitating stories from the AP wire, the blogosphere and some assorted PR agent’s press releases, and sympathy might seem in short supply.

But there is also a problem. I have recently become a devoted fan of the wonderful HBO series ‘The Wire’, set in Baltimore. One of the seasons is based largely in the offices of the Baltimore Sun, one of the major US newspapers, and it paints the picture familiar to the film of ‘All the President’s Men’ that the investigative reporter is all that restrains the unfettered corruption of the politicians. The disintegration of that newspapers, though cuts and trophy-focussed leadership, is traced largely to the corporate influence of the holding companies, but this trend has now been greatly exacerbated by the economic crisis.

I have enormous respect for the writer of ‘The Wire’, David Simon, who gave an exclusive interview to the Guardian newspaper some weeks ago. He decried the loss of local newspapers as being of series threat to democracy. He is quoted as saying “The internet does froth and commentary very well, but you don’t meet many internet reporters down at the courthouse.”. From his perspective, the death of local papers is an open invitation for political corruption.

I think he is being unfair. The work being done to uncover sleaze and the hidden stories seems more often to be done by roving FoI campaigners like Heather Brook, or by Guido’s army of moles, or by Dizzy’s relentless Hansard-trawling. His story of meeting an editor is most telling.

I would be deeply sorry to lose many of the local papers who are the only publications who will ever take an interest in corrupt councillors. Beyond Private Eye, dodgy planning applications and misuse of office rarely make our national papers. My greatest fear about the much-lauded benefits of ‘devolving power to a more local level’ is that scrutiny will suffer, as stories of local corruption are rarely interesting enough to be given the stage they deserve. That said, the Fourth Estate has not covered itself in glory in recent years, and if it expects the taxpayer to come to its aid (as we have done for the banks) then it will need to demonstrate that what it offers our democracy is worth more than what is offered for free by the blogosphere.


Comments are closed.