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25 October 2023

Two cheers for the mainstream media

Organisations like the BBC are the last defence against a post-journalistic world.

By Fred Skulthorp

Hating the BBC might be the last thing that brings us together. In 2003, eight in ten of us trusted Auntie to “tell us truth”. Today that number has fallen to less than half. The outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas has led the corporation to get an often deserved battering from both sides of the world’s most divisive conflict.

First came an apology over its “misleading coverage” of a pro-Palestinian protest, in which a reporter appeared to wrongly link demonstrators to Hamas. Then came the controversy over its refusal to refer to Hamas as a “terrorist” group. All this was capped off last Wednesday. The BBC jumped the gun on the reporting of an explosion at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, sending out a news alert to millions of people suggesting that the Israel Defense Forces were responsible for the deaths of up to 500 people.

Auntie’s authoritative sheen seemed to be faded at a time when once it would have shone. Stern foreign correspondents in linen suits and dull but authoritative bulletins from around the globe belong to a bygone age. Ours is the era of shouty viral interviews by presenters whose long history of mistakes is just a Google search away, and of poorly worded notifications that risk escalating violence across the Middle East.

Is this the end of mainstream media? After the last two weeks, the question almost seems to pose itself. It’s clear that news desks can no longer compete with the “open source” reporting that now flourishes in a world of conflict and disaster. Not just the BBC, but the UK’s other broadcasting staples: Sky and ITV have also been criticised for their hastily formed narratives.

This isn’t a one off but a recurrent – and dire – trend across the West. In the past decade there has been a haemorrhaging of trust and audiences from our established media institutions. Increasingly, the idea of a collective, non-partisan source of news seems to be another anchor of our national life that has broken off and is drifting away.

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One source of the mainstream media’s decline has been the way our news institutions have responded to the digital news revolution. The BBC offers a grim example of this self-defeat: audience strategies like “digital first” try to tap into social media algorithms; the evolving habits of the disengaged and young people leave hacks trying to respond to the swarm dynamics of Twitter or TikTok.

Hand-wringing about “misinformation” often ends up amplifying conspiracies at a time when the mainstream broadcasters struggle to fully inform their audiences in the first place. Cuts abound, hampering long-term reporting and leaving different news desks – investigative, international and local – stripped of resources and experience. The BBC World Service lost hundreds of jobs at the end of last year.

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Still, this dying leviathan fulfils a useful function in today’s fractured online spaces. Tribes of every political shade and issue imaginable feed on mistakes and misreporting like gleeful piranhas. From supporters of Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn, Elon Musk to Dan Wootton, there is a highly appealing gnostic truth to be had regarding the imprisoning illusion of mainstream media. It is corrupt. It lies. It is not fit for purpose. It wants to keep the truth from me, you, us and the sooner we get rid of it the healthier the flow of information in Western societies will be.

[See also: Elon Musk’s death drive]

Musk’s takeover of Twitter, renamed X, has offered both ideological and technological thrust to the idea of a media ecosystem free of the hegemony of “legacy media”. Gone are headline links from news articles. Now 140 characters by someone who bought their own blue-tick verification are encouraged to reign supreme. “I don’t read the legacy media propaganda,” Musk wrote on the platform. “I just get my news from X – much more immediate, has actual world-class subject matter experts and tons of humour.”

Joining this approving chorus is Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former adviser, compiling lists of the old regime of pundits and hacks, what he calls “Non Player Characters” in the new world. How to spot them? “They say ‘I’m leaving Twitter,’ but they never leave,” he taunted.

What would the world be like without the much hated legacy media and its hapless minions? The answer lies in an acceleration and eventual triumph of what we’re already living through. One of the bleakest chroniclers of our digital media revolution has been the analyst Andrey Mir, who describes the concept of “post-journalism” as a world in which “the death of news” leaves the survival of media outlets dependent on an elaborate form of audience capture. Gone are the old informational hierarchies, which come to erode their authority by relying on this exact model. In their place is a frenetic realm where people are left only, as Mir puts it, to “speak their mind”.

Mir’s apocalyptic prognosis reminds us of the problem of a news information system without hierarchies, or indeed the perils of alternative sources posing as the inheritors of the ancien regime. Without its most effective muse-antagonist, the alternative mediascape would have nothing to pull the curtain back on. The authority it once claimed to offer on the talking points of the day would be revealed as little more than an illusion.

Lacking resources required for the slow and boring process of news gathering from a variety of sources and about an array of stories, and bearing the responsibility for setting the agenda, alternative media would soon find themselves guilty of the very things they accused mainstream media of: ignoring one story for another, lacking context, bias. And all this on platforms driven by the ideological whim of Silicon Valley’s billionaires.

One thing is clear. In 2023, being at the top of the news information hierarchy is a crown no one wants to wear. The chaos of the last two weeks has served to remind us of the reality of a new media ecosystem, thrust upon us by the age of digital news, in which both mainstream and alternative sources of news are left to keep each other in check. They must also come to settle on a more uncomfortable truth: they need each other more than ever.

[See also: How the centre right was lost]

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