Mercato e Democrazia

Trento, May/June 2008

"It is important to say, to a conference called "mercato e democraczia", that a market in information and in opinion is perhaps the most important market for a democracy to have. It is crucial for democracy because where journalism is free, the country is free – and vice versa. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that, in a free contest of opinion, truth would always win over the false: that is not always true, as we know from the experience of the century and a half which separates us from Mill – in which monstrous lies ruled for decades, and slaughtered many millions.

But he was right in this sense: that without a free market of opinion and information in a society, the truth tends to become what the ruling group says it is. I think it is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the American constitution, said that, in a choice between government by politicians and government by newspapers, we should choose newspapers: he saw the diversity of opinions in the very vigorous market of newssheets and pamphlets in the early decades of America as a superior form of freedom, indeed, as the most obvious expression of freedom of a people breaking free from the colonial British administration. I think he was wrong too: God forbid we should be governed by newspapers. Yet Jefferson saw clearly, as Mill had, that a market in the media was central to a form of democracy which lies at the basis of our own. We have come, in the past two to three centuries, to see that where the media are not free, nor is society.

What used to be called the press and is now the news media is critical, central to our polity. Because as well as informing, and opinionating, and analysing, the media claim to hold power to account: especially, they hold politicians to account.

The question which, among many others, this conference has discussed, is whether or not the way in which the media have developed properly supports democracy. For now we have many challenges, which come out of the market – as challenges to journalism usually have. These challenges are not just to journalism but to those informed by journalism: that is, citizens. These challenges are unprecedented in scope and variety - so much so, and so rapid are these changes, that there is some pessimism in journalists’ circles about our future. Many of the people here, journalists, will know about the pessimism: we had some of it on Saturday, in a session with Massimo Muchetti, Fedele Confalonieri and others. And there is cause for that: though I want to express grounds for optimism, I think we must be realistic. The ecology of journalism is changing: and because it is central to the ideas and practice of our politics and society, it will change these too.

Take an obvious, and by now common, example: free newspapers. Free papers account for something like 10 per cent of global newspaper distribution, and that percentage is rising fast. No doubt they are increasing citizens' access to information: quite likely, some people are reading something called a newspaper where they would not have done before. They give the main headlines and they will usually have a few stories of five or six paragraphs on a major issue of the day. However their main content is a certain kind of useful information - that is, information their readers can use, as for example lifestyle, entertainment and TV content. And they know that is what their readers want because market polling everywhere tells them so. The Brazilian paper Zero Hora has a system by which the circulation department of the paper rings up 120 different customers each day, and asks them what they think of the day's edition. The results are given to the editor every day at one o'clock. The editor was quoted as saying that "they usually want more of our supplements on cooking and houses and less on Hizbollah and earthquakes. Less, that is, of what journalists have been trained to see as important.

Newspapers in a market as competitive as this one now is for the media can't afford to buck that trend. If they don’t give the public less on Hizbollah and earthquakes, they will sink even faster than they are doing: or they will have to find some other means of staying afloat than that which has sustained newspapers for two centuries - that is, to sell enough copies to make some money from what people pay for the papers, and to make up the costs of production by taking money from advertisers who want to bring their products to the attention of these readers.

But now these readerships are not secure, so the circle - news and opinion equals readers, who attract advertisers, who give money to gather the news to attract readers...and so on, is now broken. Not for all, to be sure, but for most. The market can be a cruel places – as journalists, who have written about its cruelties in some comfort, now realise. But in any human situation, it is rarely the only principle. Society, and the market itself, provide escape routes.

Markets usually create niches, where particular products can flourish outside of mass sales. Business papers may have one: 24 Ore and the Financial Times may survive in their present form, at least for some time. But even they are not secure: and even less secure are the great papers  which have existed for decades, and have become synonymous with their countries – as The Times, Le Monde, Frankfurt Algemeine Zeitung , Corriere della Sera and even the New York Times. These papers were great because they were able to merge with a certain idea of their nation – to express a kind of core of ideas and an approach to the news at once diverse, and expressive of the national mood. But the market – especially the most successful entrepreneurs, as Rupert Murdoch in the media market - are impatient with such things as the national mood. They operate in the name of the market itself: they want to give the people what they want.

That is the first thing to grasp in the new age. That is, that there is ceasing to be only a journalists' agenda of what is important. There is the customers' agenda of what is important. The two may coincide – especially in business and financial papers, and in the political dailies. But they often don't. And when they don't, the journalists' agenda, the agenda which was constructed from a belief that our professional training and our ideals defined the nature of the news, tends to give way. The slogan that the customer is always right has come to the press. And increasingly they are customers, not only readers. The Daily Telegraph of London, for a century and a half the voice of British Conservatism, uses the market it has among upper income readers  to sell everything from pillows to insurance: that now accounts for a third of its earnings. Britain's great Conservative paper has become, in part, a catalogue of commodities.

One escape from the market, curiously, is provided by the main actors in the market, the owners. Owners in the media market will, more than any other market, keep loss making media going, often for many years, for reasons other than making a profit. One kind of reason comes from Sweden, where a foundation called the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, which is supported by the profits of a successful commercial group, publishes a monthly magazine and, more recently, a TV channel of high intellectual quality – addressing that part of the Swedish market for media which is not well served by the commercial media because, in a small country, it is too small to yield a profit – yet which wants to read and see certain kinds of things. The Ax:son Johnsons do this because they have set up a foundation which has as its aim the spreading of knowledge – and they use the media, among other means, to do it. That is one way.

Another, allied to that, is a belief in a certain kind of journalism. Many of the American city newspapers had this belief – and though the owners wished to make a profit, they were content, often, with a small one – and even sustained the paper, if they could, through losses. This was not wholly idealistic: they really did need, in the long run, to make profits, and often did. The Guardian of London is another example: it is owned by a trust which does not have to make profits for its shareholders, but which must make money to survive in the long run. Part of the crisis in American newspapers is that they have a new set of owners – corporations owned by those for whom profits are all.

Then there is the more common approach – of those owners who do not publish only for profit, but also for power. Rupert Murdoch, once more, is an example of this. For many years he has subsidised The Times of London through heavy losses – in part, I think, because he had a vision of a paper which was no longer that of the establishment – as it had been for over a century – but of a new kind of middle class; in part because it bought him credibility with whatever government was in power – and thus bought him power.

In this respect, there is no getting away from Silvio Berlusconi. He is the clearest example of one who has used his media empire to gain political power- and whose political power has clearly been of service to his media empire.  That is not the same as saying that he is a mere propagandist; that the news on Mediaset is like that of the ex-Soviet Union, all to the glory of the president. It is to say that he has brought together two markets – of the media, and of political power – and uses the one to influence and benefit the other. Even where used with restraint – and Italy, as a democratic country, imposes restraints, even on one as powerful as he – it is a dangerous precedent.

And now we have the Internet. With that, we are in one sense going back to our origins. The first newspapers, four centuries ago, with names like the Corrante and the Intelligencer, were promiscuous mixes of trade information, advertisements, gossip, news of wars and courts; leisure pursuits, with little distinction between them. We are re-inventing that - not just – indeed not mainly – within newspapers, but on the web – which is nothing if not a vast mixture. Also, both TV channels and newspapers are on the web, so people access both through that. TV channels put written stories on their websites, and newspapers put films – everything from the film of an interview to a documentary. TV channels will be entirely web-based very soon: so will newspapers. The differences between them, once absolute, will erode. This is a problem for free societies. Our societies  regulate television, but not newspapers or the Internet. But when all get together on the world wide web - why then should one be regulated – and one be free? Should we let all be free – or have all regulated? It is a question TV channels are asking with increasing urgency.

The Internet has brought us ways of transmitting information in vast quantities, with no borders, almost instantaneously. It has brought us volumes of opinion every day (two blogs are created every second, worldwide). If so much opinion is free, why buy it from columnists? You can Google for any fact and get an answer to most queries within seconds: so why buy news? Especially if someone will give you a paper at the station for nothing?

The customer is always right, and he is increasingly active: this, too, the Net has done. Readers and viewers have become content providers. They are first on the scene of disasters or incidents, and with their mobile phones they become photographers and reporters. Even more importantly -  they use the spaces provided – as MySpace – to unload their mind, fantasies, desires, problems. A large number of people live much of their lives on these spaces. They exchange music, tips, reviews of films or concerts, sports; it is a forum of colossal activity in which people, usually young, sort out often multiple relationships in real time. What does that do to friendships, and the concept of friendship? Maybe, it improves it.

1989 was the year the wall came down: the Berlin Wall, of course, but also a wall between millions of people which no-one knew existed. It was the year in which Tim Berners Lee, working at CERN, the home of Europe's nuclear programme, invented the World Wide Web – at first as a network for scholars. But in less than two decades, it has become a site for trade, for argument, for news, for sexual fantasy, for gambling, for business start-ups and of course for selling. It lets you see almost everything almost instantly: it’s always switched on.

Linked to these developments, and particularly to the Net, has come a large problem of resources. As newspapers decline - and they are over all of the developed world - and as news and current affairs on television is less watched – and that is also happening all over the developed world – the news budgets shrink. In general terms, less money is being spent collecting news for the mainstream media than was the case ten years ago. Fewer correspondents are based abroad. This is most obvious in the US, where the corporations which publish newspapers and which do TV news are more sensitive to the demands of their shareholders than elsewhere- and so cut newsroom budgets and staffs more quickly. But it is also happening in Britain: it is happening in France, where the national press is in a critical state; in Germany; and here. The market, it seems, is presently hostile to many of the forms of news which we had taken for granted.

The market has thrown up another uncomfortable message. We may call it the challenge of  ideology. There has been for decades a kind of half-acknowledged assumption, which is that news should be balanced, objective, neutral, openly sourced and checked. It is of course often ignored: but it does exist, and exist powerfully, as the underpinning rationale of our trade. It assumes there is such a thing as truth, that we can give a truthful account, and that it is accessible using the tools I have mentioned. I would argue that reporting is impossible without some idea that truth exists.

Many now believe the truth cannot be told, because everything is relative; and, linked to this idea, those who believe that those who claim to try to tell the truth, don’t really tell the truth, but give a western, or a capitalist, or even an imperialist view of the matter. This is a serious challenge, for it saps the confidence of those who come into journalism. It certainly downgrades the job of finding out the journalistic verities –  the who what when where why?

But the market seems to say that bias is preferred by the audiences. In the US, CNN ruled the 24-hour cable news market without challenge. Then along came Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network, with very opinionated presenters and strongly opinionated news coverage. Soon, it had overtaken CNN. Look at CNN now: its presenters are often more opinionated, usually to the right, than those of Fox.  This is having a profound effect on those TV services which have seen impartiality as their core value. At a recent seminar organised by the BBC, some of the assembled senior executives doubted if they could continue a tradition of impartiality. Some no longer believed in it. All were conscious that the idea of it was under attack as never before. Do we have to abandon a kind of journalistic gold standard – which was to check all information, on balance comments among contending parties; to keep the authorial voice out, to be independent of governments, advertisers, business, lobby groups?

I have mentioned the political market. Politics is now media politics – nowhere knows that better than Italy. But everywhere, no serious political party can afford not to have its message dominate the airwaves. Only simple messages can dominate now; and the simplest message is personality. And thus politics, in a media age, must be personal: and since personality carries the message, the best way to destroy the message is to destroy the personality. Thus political coverage becomes increasingly the coverage of actual or would be scandals – financial, sexual, personal.  The boundaries between the public and the private are broken down on both sides – mostly from the media's side, because there is more to gain, but also from the political. That is true in rich countries and in poor ones: in all, the big political personalities become celebrities, and the celebrities become big political personalities. See the discussion of the American democratic primaries. See how much it is about the personalities of Obama and Clinton: how much time they spend attacking each other for relatively minor slips in their image.

These are some of the challenges, in telegraphic form. So what can we do about it?

About the technological challenge: we cannot stop it. There is a story told of David Ben Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel from 1948 to 1963. As an intellectual, Ben Gurion paid little attention to the new invention of television. Once, when he went to visit his grandchildren in London, they didn’t run to greet and kiss him, as they had always done. Instead, they were sitting glued to the family's new television, and barely looked at him. Yitzhak Navon, later a president of Israel and then his secretary, said he never got over it. He made sure TV didn't come to Israel till after his retirement.

Ben Gurion could stop it, because of his power and prestige and the fact that the state was new and most people were relatively poor. But no one can now ban the new technology of the Internet – though many, as the authorities in China, try to control it. We journalists can, however, use it. In the obvious ways – as using it as a wonderful tool for delivery of our writings; as a fantastic medium for rapid checking; and as a carrier of vast and varied amount of opinion. Somehow, we have to figure out how to make it pay enough to sustain the expensive newsgathering systems we need to gather information and hold power to account. We have to get people to advertise on the Internet in the same kind of volumes that they have done in newspapers and TV. That does not seem to me impossible.

Nor is it impossible to change ourselves. Reporting for a newspaper is no longer just a pen and notepad job. Journalists now do audio and video interviews for their newspapers, and put them out on the web pages which newspapers are increasingly becoming, in an attempt to rival television. On Saturday, I had a discussion with colleagues on 24 Ore on a web cam: we did it in minutes. Will it rival TV? Not soon: but in time, it may, at least in some things

Still less obvious, and now just showing its possibilities in the US, is a merger of the techniques of the mainstream news media, and those of the new breed of citizen journalists. Jay Rosen, who does a wonderful blog called PressThink out of New York University, is now experimenting with this with a grant from Reuters: his experiment is to use the journalists' skills of reporting and the discipline of checking, merging it with the on-the-ground information and engagement which no reporter can match. In this way of working, stories aren’t the end, but the beginning; once done, they are out there for emendation, additions, criticism and reconstruction – both by those who read and know more than the original writer, and by the writer him or herself. It might be called wikijournalism, after wikipedia: a work constantly in progress.

We will have to get the resources for journalism from somewhere; and we will have to try to keep, or to make, journalism honest. I find it hard to believe that that is impossible: or that the market, which has often been a friend to good journalism – a better friend, in the sweep of history, than the state -  is now uniformly hostile. The market is not enough, I believe: we in Europe have usually supplemented the TV market with powerful public TV networks – and we should continue to do so. I was glad to hear, in Friday’s panel discussion, that Fedele Confalonieri agreed.

Since we can do little to stop the large technological and market trends, we must work with them. That means making the web offerings as attractive as possible; rethinking how news and current affairs can be done, especially on television; developing new niches for new kinds of journalism, which will be increasingly interactive with those who read or watch it; and bringing in new, non-commercial financial support – both from the state, and from not-for-profit institutions. Indeed, the new journalism in the US and elsewhere is largely funded by not-for-profits; only that can assist it to get an audience. For sure, the model which has existed for two centuries, in which companies were prepared to pay news media to deliver an audience,  to which they advertised, and their payment for the advertising  supported the news media, seems now to be insufficient. We need to construct new ways.

We have to continue to believe in what has sustained us for many years: that journalism is a necessary part of an enlightened society. Journalism is impossible without a view that truth exists – even if it can never be attained, it should be sought. Journalism is a necessary part of our politics, our culture and our sense of ourselves: these are inconceivable without it. Politicians, officials, journalists and the public, who built the public service ethic in newspapers and in broadcasting, have to do it again for the net – not to constrain it, for that would be impossible, but to expand it, and in so doing, expanding the possibilities for ourselves.

It is some two years since Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and chronicler of the brutalities of Chechnya, was shot to death in the hall of her apartment building. Her diaries have just been published, and are being sold here. In them, she does not spend any time seeking to show that journalism is essential to give a record of horrors, lies, betrayal and repression. She simply does it – or rather, did it. Some of us have put ourselves in harms way for journalism: very few have rivalled Politkovskaya: let us hope none of us has to pay her price. But that is sometimes what it takes: journalism is tested at its extremes, and we owe it to those who go to the extremes to make more of it better."

John Lloyd