There is much that I agree with in Jeff Jarvis’s blog yesterday on Bloggers’ tales. I agree that online ‘errors can spread wider faster’. I agree that the internet changes the relationship of publisher and subject in the sense that the subject can now write back. I like the example he gives of how the internet enabled the prompt correction of a mistake made by the old media, in this case the BBC.
The BBC had reported that Tom Toulmin, the director of the Press Complaints Commission, had reported Toulmin as saying that ‘bloggers should subscribe to a voluntary code of conduct, or else there is no redress for errors’. This error came to light when Jarvis called Toulmin a ‘Brit twit’ on the basis of the BBC report. Toulmin responded immediately claiming that he had said no such thing to the BBC.
Where I quarrel with Jarvis is this sentence: ‘I argue that libel law was built for an era when few owned the press and the doctrine must be updated to account for the democratised and accelerated means of response today.’ I quarrel not with the second part of that sentence but the implicit assumption behind the first part that we are now in an era which is different.
This is the reverse of the truth. The press all around the world is now mostly owned by a smaller number of big companies than at any time in my lifetime. With the single exception of the BBC amongst the giants all these companies are limited liability companies legally required to base their decisions on what maximises profit for the shareholders. Amongst the medium sized media companies there a few, like The Guardian, who try and protect the journalism from the profit making imperative, by vesting editorial powers in a trust.
These giants control newspapers, magazines, television, radio, news agencies, book publishing, cinemas, record companies, etc. Several of them are dominated by a single very powerful shareholder, of which the classic example is the Murdoch empire.
The ownership of the internet is more diversified at present than the old media. But increasingly it is dominated by big shareholder controlled companies who have made their profits because of their expertise in computers. There are millions of bloggers but the vast majority of them have a circulation comparable to a parish newsletter.
What has happened in 2006 has been a rapidly accelerating convergence of the old and new media. The old media have put their journalism online in a big way. They are drowning the voices of the blogging community. Which is not at all surprising because it is only the old media which have teams of trained journalists reporting from most major capitals of the world and reporting about developments in the many specialist fields that affect our daily lives. Secondly, many of the old media giants have simply bought up some of the most successful of the new media, such as My Space.
The future has already happened. That is what media commentators should be focussing on. How do we regulate the activities of the media giants both old and new?
The libel laws are one tried and tested method. Sure, libel law needs updating. But the basic premise that free speech should not include the freedom to print lies still holds good. Free speech should not be a licence for powerful organisations to destroy the lives and reputations of the relatively powerless.
The battle for a free press has always had two targets. The first is the need to ensure the press is independent of government, a battle that still has to be fought in countries like China and Iran. The second, is the battle to prevent control of the media falling into the hands of a small number of people committed to their own ideology.
American consumer capitalism is an ideology. It is not the way the Christian God, the Muslim God or the Buddhist God think the world should be run. And it is not the inevitable result of evolution. It is based more on the survival of the fattest than the survival of the fittest. And its influence and huge marketing power pervades both the new media and the old media.
Now I really should get back to Christmas. The Christmas tree lights are up but there are a few dud bulbs which need replacing. And then there is the small matter of my Christmas shopping. My kids and grandkids are not going to be well pleased if I tell them they have got too many presents already, and that I am doing my bit for global warming by not buying any presents this year.