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
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle