London: The News about the News

“Harry’s War is Over” was the headline all over London on the weekend of our grand gabby openDemocracy conference on “Credibility in the New News.” But, of course, that scoop about 23-year-old, third-from-the-throne Prince Harry at the front in Afghanistan had been suppressed for weeks by the embedded London papers until it finally surfaced in the Drudge Report. Is there more to be said about the near-death of British newspapering? They’re all colorful tabloids now, shrunken in size, seriousness and self-respect, except perhaps for the Guardian and the broadsheet Financial Times. Who’s got the credibility problem?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations at the Open Democracy conference in London here (39 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

tony curzon price

Tony Curzon Price of openDemocracy

Yet there we were at the London School of Economics in a wary, often worried meditation on the rewiring of the circuits that go from information to “content,” to news, to master-narrative, to belief, to action in the body politic these days. Tony Curzon Price, editor of openDemocracy, spoke with reserve about the “very hectic slow motion” in which the digital transformation in media reveals itself. “It’s all up in the air,” he said, “and it’s still falling, no one knows where.”

The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, a contrarian in the openDemocracy fellowship, is not reconciled to the ease of access to the blogosphere and what seems to him “massive self-publication by imbeciles.”

David Hayes neatly identified openDemocracy, of which he is deputy editor, with the spirit of the Gandhi line: “I want the winds of all the world’s cultures to blow freely through my house. But I don’t wish to be blown away by any of them.” The mission of openDemocracy and Web journalism, Hayes said, must be to build a space both broad and deep, that brings many kinds of outsiders into the conversation, because “everything now works both ways.”

masha lipman

Masha Lipman: “Pro et Contra” the Web

Masha Lipman gave a vivid picture of a burgeoning Internet culture in Russia — making not the slightest dent in the crushing power of the Kremlin. Mark Hunter, an American journalist who teaches at the University of Paris, argued that right-wing presslord Rupert Murdoch of FoxNews and left-wing movie man Michael Moore are the real success stories of the new “consensual media,” blatantly surfacing the identities of their customers in both style and content. John Lloyd of the Financial Times pressed the question of who, in the new market, is interested in the wider view — in reality — and who is willing to pay for it?

My takeaway is that we’re having a hard time thinking big enough — or talking as cheerfully as we actually feel — about the Internet blessings in store for a planet that must be liberated and reconciled in new ways. I have been reading Arnold Toynbee (1889 – 1975) recently (at Parag Khanna‘s urging) and on the flight to London I was struck specially by a Toynbee essay from shortly after World War II, just 60 years ago, that told us to be on the lookout for a “scaffolding,” an epochal tool (sounds like the Internet) for “the unification of the world.” We are, he suggests, the last innocents, the last provincials, in a world that our technologies have changed utterly. So here, from the meta-historian of civilizations, is what I take to be Toynbee’s summary of the 500-year course from Vasco da Gama, who reached India by sea in 1498, to the World Wide Web:

arnold toynbee

Arnold Toynbee

The main strand is not even the expansion of the West over the world — so long as we persist in thinking of that expansion as a private enterprise of the Western society’s own. The main strand is the progressive erection, by Western hands, of a scaffolding within which all the once separate societies have built themselves into one. … [The] future world… will be neither Western nor non-Western but will inherit all the cultures which we Westerners have now brewed together in a single crucible…

The paradox of our generation is that all the world has now profited by an education which the West has provided, except… the West herself. The west today is still looking at history from that old parochial self-centred standpoint which the other living societies have by now been compelled to transcend. Yet, sooner or later, the West in her turn, is bound to receive the re-education which the other civilizations have obtained already from the unification of the world by Western action…

The West alone has so far escaped this unceremonious treatment. Unshattered, up till now, by an upheaval of its own making, our local civilization is still hugging the smug and slovenly illusion in which its ‘opposite numbers’ indulged till they took their educative toss from the levelled horns of an unintentionally altruistic bull. Sooner or later, the repercussions of this collision will assuredly recoil upon the West herself; but for the present this Janus-like figure slumbers on — abroad a charging bull, at home a now solitary Sleeping Beauty.

Arnold Toynbee, “The Unification of the World,” in Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948. Pages 79 through 91.

For “the West” I would read the United States these days; we have met this Sleeping Beauty, and she is Us.

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  • hurley

    Where, pray, was Roger “Tallyho the Fox” Scruton? UK press culture a glory of sorts, near and abroad, long ago and sometimes of late. Remember when The Guardian had the largest foreign bureau? The broadsheet Independent of the 90s the most beautiful newspaper I’ve seen. Excellent writing and a sense of visual mystery on every page. Its decline a sorrow to British journalists I’ve met, and to me. Even its cultural pages have gone south. The Financial Times still a fine paper on a reportorial level, but barking on matters editorial, though often culturally up to snuff, no matter the column on “motoring.” The Times maybe the most dire decline of all, The paper of record become a tabloid extravaganza of things you’re somehow coerced to think you want to know someting about but properly shouldn’t. The Guardian still vital but compromised in ways I can’t put an answer to. Answers, anyone?

  • hurley
  • Masha Lipman made some good points about Russia, but her dismal predictions for the future of the internet in Russian may be a bit too rooted in the 20th century. True the Kremlin has dominated the crucial first 6 channels, traditionally state run TV from back in the days where there was only 6 channels. It’s true that they use this control to marginalize opposition and push their agenda. They do this effectively on many levels, so effectively that Russia does have a free press, you can print whatever you want, no one will read it.

    One can look at this and say the Kremlin has a death grip on the media, you can say the internet doesn’t compete, but only if you are stuck in the mindset that the internet of 10 years from now will bare any resemblance to what we know it to be today. The internet of today is nothing like the internet of 10 years ago, and will continue to change. The internet becomes exponentially faster, and exponentially important. Russians are rapidly getting high speed internet. In a city like Moscow, which has just surpassed London in cost of living, a smokin’ hot fast connection can be had for $25. For $25 a month I get a 6000kbps with an outrageously fast upload, and free Wi-Fi anywhere in the city, oh and with basic cable, in the US this is about $80-$100 worth of service. If you want DSL, you can get some sort of connection for about $10 or so. Just like the cell phone took off because of the lack an acceptable telephone infrastructure, the internet will take off as the news and entertainment source. Television and Radio are the 20th century, in 10 or 20 years we will have our news and entertainment delivered to us directly over the internet. It doesn’t matter if you control Channel 1 if no one has rabbit ears anymore.

    In this by allowing an uncensored internet the Kremlin has taken their eye off the ball. The internet of 10 or 20 years from now will make blogging look like the telegraph, and make the TV of today look like the TV of 50 years ago. The longer the Russian internet is allowed to grow and develop out of the Kremlin control, the stronger it will become, the more it will enter people’s everyday life. The more that the forces of the left are pushed out of the mainstream, the more likely they will become internet pioneers. True the opposition has yet to capitalize on any of this, but give it time.

    The internet is the future, the television is the past. So, by her assertion that the internet exchange fails to have any effect, she may be right in the present tense, but predicting that this is the future of the internet in Russian life is a mistake.

  • nother

    I’m am about to give a whacked-out analogy, but for the sake of conversation I go forth with it. The Catholic priest scandal was detestable but there is one good thing that has come from its exposure. People will forever more discerning about whom they trust their children with. A blind faith has been eradicated.

    I feel that the bright side to the Murdoch/Moore media is the eradication of blind faith in the Cronkite-esq. voice of God media. If we can all agree that all media is subjective, a more civil discourse is possible.

    “I’m not a slave to objectivity. I’m never quite sure what it means. And it means different things to different people.”

    -Peter Jennings

    Another blind faith that has been eradicated is in institutions of authority. The bright side to the New York Times not questioning the worst foreign policy in American history is that we would all be fools give to them our full trust again.

    Chris and guests ask the question about who will be the new authorities in media. My answer is that we have been liberated from blind faith and the new freedom forces us to be our own authority. Jacques Derrida said, “We are all mediators, translators.” On a practical level the instrument of the internet has enabled us to employ that mediation more fully.

    My worry going forward is that the next blind faith that we have to wrestle with is the idea that if it’s not somewhere on the web then it’s not somewhere.

    “But the first problem of the “media” is posed by what does not get translated, or even published in the dominant political languages, the ones that dictate the laws of deceivability, precisely, on the left as much as on the right.”


  • rc21

    The BBC was just caught in another lie today.A false story showing the IDF bulldozing the house of the latest mass murdering terrorist. Apparently the house is still standing.

    Perhaps false reporting like this is why the media has lost so much credibility. Thank God for Blogs like Powerline, LGF, American Thinker.etc.

    Without them, Reuters,BBC along with other left leaning news outlets would carry on never having to worry about thir phoney stories being exposed.