Out of Print by George Brock: An unfinished and chaotic story

Brock convincingly disabuses readers of the notion of a “golden age” of journalism in the postwar period. But he often doesn't go far enough.

It is difficult to imagine a more tumultuous summer for journalism than the one that has just passed. It started in June with a British institution, the Guardian, striking at the heart of the US political system and its unhealthy relationship with mass surveillance. Led by its ferociously persistent blogger Glenn Greenwald, the paper’s US operation unearthed arguably the most significant story since Watergate: a story leaked to Greenwald by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Simultaneously, the great Washington Post, which broke Watergate and removed a president 40 years ago, was being sold in a distressed state by its owner, Don Graham. Conceding that it no longer had the means to invest what was needed to revive the Post, the company passed the title for a mere $250m to Jeff Bezos, the man who made a fortune from the online retailer Amazon – part of the vanguard of digital disruptors that have heaped financial pressure and technological challenge on the conventional media.
Neither of these significant events happened in time for the publication of Out of Print, though it is exactly this paradox of vibrant journalism and dying newspapers that George Brock sets out to describe. Brock, who spent 28 years at the Times and is now the head of journalism at City University London, argues that the experimentation and inventiveness of the new news media are cause for greater optimism than the red ink on the balance sheets of media companies.
Seeking to reassure the doom-mongers, he delves back into the history of journalism and demonstrates the shaky beginnings and rapid innovation that powered news journalism for three centuries before the maturation and slow decline of the business in the 20th century. His précis of the history is fascinating and elegantly done. Brock describes the flourishing and then censoring of the new presses under Cromwell, and traces their development through to the explosion in regional and London newspapers two centuries later. Between 1837 and 1887, Britain went from having 264 regional papers to 1,366 and papers in London grew by a factor of 12 – a growth rate to shame Silicon Valley.
Brock convincingly disabuses readers of the notion of a “golden age” of journalism in the postwar period. “The second half of the 20th century, a period seen by many journalists as an era of heroic achievement and stability by journalists, was also a long decline for newspapers,” he writes.
The problem is that this is an unfinished and chaotic story, which makes the gear change from a clear historical trajectory to the messy present rather heavy. For those who are never happier than when confronted with graphs of declining sales per thousand of population, the detail in Out of Print will be welcome. For those who like to imagine that journalism will always exist on a big scale in robust and large institutions, it makes for more troubling reading.
Brock seeks to lead us from the darkness of this downward growth chart into the light of case studies and new models that point the path to potential sustainability. Perhaps the local news collaborations in New Jersey, maybe the hyper-social approach of BuzzFeed, or maybe just a man with a very big chequebook and lots of patience, such as Jeff Bezos, will bring forth answers and money.
The book loses some of its coherence once Brock starts to explore the digital realm, simply because there is too much to know or digest. Unlike with his confidently set-out timeline of print journalism, we cannot know how this story will end. All witnesses at this point are unreliable. His remark that journalism will be remade by “existing organisations that adapt and new entrants who can supply a demand better than legacy news media” is relatively uncontroversial, but it does not go far enough in pushing at just how far this institutionally based idea of journalism has come under pressure to the power of the individual.
The path for modern journalism today follows the lines of the splenetic start-ups of the 17th century as much as it does those of grand institutions in the past century. 
Emily Bell is director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
A printing press in Yangon. Image: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?