The rise of the people's news

Observations on media

After the Hutton inquiry had finally done for Andrew Gilligan and his bosses, Noam Chomsky made the only point that mattered: "The idea that the state - whether hiding itself beyond a judge's robes or not - should even have a voice in whether a journalist's report was 'unfounded' is utterly shocking." Now, we see another journalist, the editor of the Daily Mirror, hounded out of his job by big business shareholders, mostly based in the US.

Yet as mainstream journalism succumbs to this corporate Stalinism, so the high-tech products of the same empire threaten to liberate the non-corporate media as never before.

The public got to see both US military caskets and torture inside Abu Ghraib prison through digital photographs, made not by journalists, but by participants in both stories. At the internet site First Draft, the journalist Tim Porter comments: "Imagine how quickly the slaughter of innocents at My Lai would have become known had it been captured by a palm-sized digital camera (or phone) instead of reported by letter."

Digital and internet-based technologies make participants in any event potentially irrefutable witnesses to what really happened. Backed up by websites and bloggers around the world, these "citizen reporters" now represent a significant challenge to the compromised intermediaries of corporate journalism.

Niccolo Machiavelli recommended princes to make a person a puppet by "dignifying him, enriching him, binding him to himself by benefits, and sharing with him the honours as well as the burthens of the State". Today, citizens unbound by riches and honours are free to flash whistle-blowing stories and images around the world, and thus to impose a news agenda on conventional media outlets.

Photographs of the Abu Ghraib tortures were on the streets of Baghdad a few minutes after they were first published on the net - and a few months after the mainstream press had blanked the story. Writing at www.spiked-online.com, Brendan O'Neill observes: "The driving force for the torture scandal was not in Washington's or New York's newsrooms . . . it was in effect handed to the media by disgruntled military men."

Indeed, US officials first revealed that they were investigating allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib on 16 January. The following day, the New York Times published a single article, after which the story vanished from sight. Two months later, a further isolated report appeared in the Washington Post. Six weeks later, the story erupted through the internet.

Again, while the mainstream media kept well out of harm's way during the recent US assault on Fallujah, Arab journalists and western bloggers e-mailed a steady flow of horrific images and reports.

We appear to be living in an age when, for the first time, people rather than power can set the news agenda. That is big news.

David Edwards is co-editor of MediaLens (www.medialens.org)