Has the phone hacking trial created a new form of journalism?

The idea that the democratisation of news means we are all journalists now is, sadly, a fantasy.

The dead tree press is dead, all hail the new journalism.

The publishers’ grasp is loosened now that a legion of bloggers and tweeters can break news and break the monopolies over it.

Up to a point.

Looking at the reporting of the phone hacking trial you would be forgiven for thinking that old models of reporting the news had been swept aside by something altogether more immediate and democratic.

Although previous trials have been liveblogged and tweeted, this one seems to have attracted a degree more coverage in that way from the media, perhaps because the media, or a part of it, is in the dock.

The break with traditional reporting was completed this week by the presence of Peter Jukes, an independent journalist and author of Fall of the House of Murdoch, who along with other reporters, livetweeted the first week of the trial.

What was different about Jukes was that as a result  of the response to his reporting, he was able to crowdsource sufficient funds to allow him to carry on until Christmas.

Hail the new journalism then, cut free of proprietors; funded by individuals and communicating with its audience via Twitter, blogs and independent web publications.

New journalism though? Not really.

In fact, if you look back at the roots of Fleet Street, it is resolutely the sort of journalism that gave rise to our newspaper industry. Finance, distribution and mode of consumption might differ, but fundamentally it is the same.

And this trial illustrates that perfectly.

 Fleet Street is where it is, not because of the whim of a newspaper proprietor – the Courant was the first to set up there – but because of geography. Positioned between Westminster and the City and on the doorstep of the courts it was perfectly placed to report politics, commerce and crime to its waiting readers.

The first court reporters were trainee lawyers, supplementing their income hawking tales from trials to a public as eager for scandal then as they are today.

The papers fed their readers the stories they wanted to read and so was born an appetite for news, even among illiterate working classes who would have the papers read to them. Papers were partisan then, as they are now, chasing a partisan readership, or creating it, depending whether you believe papers form opinion or reflect it.

So today the ‘new’ journalism does exactly the same as its print forebears.

At its heart journalism is a very simple thing, finding good stories and telling them well. The means of delivery may have changed from timber-based to silicon, but the essence of what those tweeting the phonehacking trial is no different to what those law students were doing around Fleet Street all those years ago. So I am  not so sure this is really the 'new' journalism.

Much is made of the way in which online publication creates a dialogue, and journalism academics will talk about the end of top-down provision of news. But does this dialogue really change the nature of what we do? The comments below online publication and their immediacy may make readers feel empowered, part of the process rather than an observer, but is it really anything more than a souped-up letters page?

In the past the relationship between publisher and consumer was far closer as the bills and papers were hawked around Fleet Street. That link was lost as circulations grew and printing became more industrialised. What tweeters and bloggers are doing is reconnecting with their audience and establishing the sort of immediate relationship that was there when newspapers were born.

The idea that the democratisation of news means we are all journalists now is, sadly, a fantasy.

Good luck to any blogger who wandered into the Old Bailey last week thinking they would file a few juicy pars to their blog on the travails of those in the dock.

Writing about that, and keeping the right side of the law while doing it, and producing something actually worth reading from hours of proceedings requires a special set of skills. Skills that anyone can acquire, but not everyone has.

Those who win an audience are still those bloggers, tweeters and writers who can find a good story and tell it well.

Protestors gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice to demonstrate against Rupert Murdoch's News International. Are all of these people potential news-breakers? Image: Getty
GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt