Sunday 29 November 2015

Wake up call (3/3)

The final early-morning listen was a programme that sometimes contains some real gems. Something Understood. 
This episode was called: The Court of Public Opinion

Whom do you think Mark Tully’s guest was? Why, none other than Alan Rusbridger. 

Charlotte Church sang the opening number, Gabriel Faur√©’s Tantum Ergo, recorded before her credibility was blown to bits. No, not by her political activism; she ‘lost her credibility’ ‘at the court of public opinion’. 

Mark Tulley said social media has a lot to answer for. 

After thought-provoking readings from  Gustave Le Bon “The power of crowds”  and 

Tully said:
Accuracy is one of the most important attributes readers and listeners look for in quality journalism. 
Alan Rusbridger. who was editor of the Guardian for 20 years and only retired this year, says journalism will continue to provide accurate information and play its essential role in society, even though the social media have made a wholesale change in the court of public opinion.

I think journalism does what journalism has always done, and I think is completely necessary, but it lives in a completely different context in which everybody can be a publisher, so when I first became editor 20 years ago the only way anybody had of responding to anything the Guardian did was to write a letter, and I could decide whether to publish it or not, and mostly, we didn’t! 
But now anybody can respond, discuss with each other, publish, and that ability of everybody to answer and to distribute their own thoughts and material is a vast, vast change, probably the biggest change in 500 years.

And so what impact has it had on newspapers and journalism?

I think it’s very difficult to ignore the response, and the big question for newspapers is whether you do more than acknowledge it, whether you welcome it and embrace it, and my strong feeling as an editor was that it was better to embrace it because the response is usually quite informative and interesting.

But social media are often cited as being democratic, and as you rightly say everyone has the right to publish, but they can be extremely tyrannical and vindictive, can’t they?

Well yes, it has all the faults of democracy. Sometimes you get an ugly crowd mentality, although often that;’s counteracted by people getting together and saying ‘this is ugly’, so it’s often quite self-correcting. We’re learning how to use this amazing new democracy, but of course if you don’t like the sound of it you can just point to the ugly bits and say ‘well, we don’t like that’.

“I mean the way I tried to explain it when I was editing the Guardian was to talk about a play, say, the first night at the National Theatre, a new play. 
I always wanted Michael Billington our theatre critic in the audience. He’s an expert and he’s been writing about the theatre for 50 years now, but if you ask anybody and they say there were nine hundred other people in that audience and say is it conceivable that none of those nine hundred have got anything interesting to say about this play, it’s obvious. there will be highly intelligent and perceptive theatre-goers in that audience, do you want to hear from them? Well why not? That would surely add to the sum of that criticism. Now, out of that nine hundred, maybe only 30 want to do that, and out of that 30 maybe only 10 are any good. But if you’ve got 10 views of the play and could persuade Michael to discuss this with them I think that’s better journalism.

When it comes to this question of bullying, of media judgment, media courts and that sort of thing, actually what you might call traditional media can be just as vindictive, and just as wrong in fact, as the social media sometimes, can’t it?

Completely; if the people who have traditionally held the megaphone have often been quite vindictive and nasty, so I don’t think there’s a monopoly of virtue in newspapers, and I think actually one of the things that journalists have found in this new world, when they say” oh my god, these people are horrible, so vitriolic” you sometimes think, well, have you read what they’re responding to. Have you examined your own tone? Because you’re pretty vitriolic too, and this has led to an interesting thing happening, which is some journalists becoming more tentative in what they write. Some journalists are saying well this is more like a conversation. This is what I think, now what do you think? When you and I were at our peak, Mark, if I can put it like that, the moment the story ended was the moment you broadcasted it or published it, then you went off to the pub..


The most interesting journalists now said well actually the moment i press that button is the most interesting because that;s the moment people are going to respond, and if I go and make myself a cup of tea and come back and start talking to them I;m going to learn all kinds of things about this story that I wasn’t able to do in the first versions. So in a sense stories don’t have an ending now; they have a beginning.

Yes. One has to raise the dreaded question of control over the media, partly because of social media and partly because of the behaviour of the media itself. Do you think there is a way of controlling the media, which is not actually run by the media itself?

We haven’t perfected the regulatory system for regulating the newspapers. Arguably it works better in broadcasting, but I think social media does act as a check and balance. To give you a really trivial example. earlier this year an opera critic was very rude about an opera singer and referred disparagingly to her size and weight, and there was an uprising of opera singers on Twitter and Facebook who just said ‘we’re not going to take this any longer’ and ‘by the way, have you seen this bloke, he looks pretty odd too, and he’s no-one to judge’. It’s a trivia example, but there’s a strength in solidarity and I think 20 years ago no opera singer would have dared respond to a critic

I’ve always felt that in some ways the social media in some ways increases the responsibility of newspapers because when there are so many rumours, so much misinformation on social media it is very important to have reliable and trusted media organisations that you can turn to.

Yes  that’s true. Nothing I say should undervalue the skills of journalism, but, if you look around you now, quite often the place where things are first reported, or where the important evidence lies, is on social media. So, this year alone, some of the most compelling bits of journalistic eyewitness material appears on social media. I don’t think any journalist.. can’t cut it off and say well they’re all stupid, they’re not journalists. You have to look and sort out the wheat from the chaff and say, well, there are gems here and if we combine what we do with what they know we’re going to be better journalists.
I also discussed with Alan Rusbridger the crucial role that reliable journalism plays in sifting facts from the sea of rumours that floods social media.

Apologies for the lengthy transcription, but I think you’ll see what I was getting at. Motes and beams.
The infamous example of Alan Rusbridger’s trip to Israel with Tom Gross and the Guardian’s ongoing vitriolic campaign to delegitimise the only democracy in the Middle East.


  1. Surely 'motes' not 'moats'...
    Otherwise, another excellent article on this invaluable site.

    1. Oh yes, thanks. Fixed now! And thanks for your kind words.


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