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News from Nowhere

Michael Foley

News and How to Use It: What to Believe in a Fake News World, by Alan Rusbridger, Canongate, 336 pp, ISBN: 978-1838851613

Alan Rusbridger’s new title is possibly one of the first pandemic books. One imagines him at his computer writing a bit before checking on his bread dough, then a little more before going out for his five km walk, returning to work on some more, before checking the bread, and then thinking of another section watching Netflix. From A for Accuracy to Z for Zoomers, the work is a form of glossary on journalism and media. It’s not so much a users’ guide, as the title suggests, as a collection of nuggets on the decline in trust in news at a time of pandemic.

Rusbridger is one of Britain’s most successful editors, a journalist since the late 1970s and editor of The Guardian from 1995 until 2015. Under his editorship, the newspaper went from a publication renowned for its liberalism (and typos) to being one of the leading online publications in the English-speaking world, with a website attracting 100 million unique browsers monthly, and with a presence in both the United States and Australia. A criticism of the book in a sense reflects the footprint of The Guardian, in that it is very Anglocentric.

Since the media, and especially the printed press, realised it was facing an existential threat to its traditional business model, with news available free over the internet and social media soaking up the advertising, the industry has been seeking to put the genie back in the bottle, and erect paywalls of various degrees of permeability. Some publications have been successful, some might still be so, but all lost readers, who were henceforth going to be forced to pay for what had been free content.

Rusbridger and The Guardian decided not to charge, but to build on the popularity of the paper’s website, and so created the world’s most successful left-of-centre publication, with a bold strategy that eschewed the pay wall or subscription model and built a business model that has relied on donations, membership, philanthropy and advertising. Like The New York Times, a successful subscription model business, The Guardian has benefited from an online world awash with conspiracies and misinformation, where people have been advised to inject disinfectant to secure immunity to Covid-19, or it has been suggested that proximity to G5 phone networks causes Covid, led by a US president constantly undermining verifiability in journalism. As to the question posed by book “What to believe in a fake news world”, well, possibly The Guardian for one.

The book’s format is unusual and does make it difficult to follow the argument, but Rusbridger pre-empts the critic: “What follows is in alphabetical form and is inevitably, quite subjective and a bit random. It deals with some aspects of how journalism – at its best and worst – is practised, thought about, paid for, owned controlled and influenced,” he says in the preface.

This is Rusbridger’s second book since retiring from The Guardian in 2015 and taking up the headship of an Oxford college and the chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. His earlier work, Breaking News, was a reflection on journalism as it moved from hot-metal to the computer screen, its role and its relationship to readers and to social media and the state. It was an exciting read, particularly in its treatment of the story about publishing the Edward Snowden leaks and the investigation into phone hacking. It was also an important and thoughtful memoir of a journalist and editor.

Apart from a mention of Flann O’Brien on clichés, and of the murder of Veronica Guerin, there is little of Ireland in this work, an omission which would normally not be worthy of comment, but Rusbridger has recently been appointed to the Future of Media Commission here in Ireland by the minister responsible for media, Catherine Martin. That makes his views on many of the issues he raises of some importance and interest to us. He is one of the few on the commission who has any professional understanding of news journalism, especially print journalism.

Some of the observations are no more than a few paragraphs: “Crap Detection” merits five, “Inverted Pyramid” – the graphic structure of a news story – gets one long paragraph. “Investigative Journalism” and “Journalism” are both short essays. But “Metrics” – how audience is measured, and the implications of this for editorial content – is long and detailed, reflecting the current dominance of digital in newspapers. “Fake News” gets a short entry, referring the reader to how it was used by the Nazis, but it turns up elsewhere, such as in “Brexit”, one of the longer entries. Fake news, Rusbridger argues, is not new, nor confined to social media or the internet. Boris Johnson, for example, used it when reporting from Brussels for The Daily Telegraph.

There is no entry for Covid-19, but the pandemic does feature. Under “Climate Change”, a major entry, Rusbridgeer compares the coverage of climate change and Covid. “In some ways the 2020 crisis can be seen as a dress rehearsal for climate change … In four months, we had a compressed version of how climate change has been playing out in the media over four decades. Ignore; deny; underplay; ghetto-ise; marginalise; question; disparage; balance; shrug; pay attention; pivot; reassess; jump.”

Covid-19 itself began as a far-away problem. Initially, it was a story that failed on every count, as “there was no newsroom metric which would convince a busy news editor under pressure to drive clicks or subscriptions that this was a story worth paying attention to”. Of course the busy news editor was probably isolated in his or her decision-making, the science and health correspondents having been let go in the last round of cuts, so there was no one to raise the alarm. It was more than eight weeks before the mainstream media began to take note, as the effects of the disease began to show in Europe and America. Still, the media was not too alarmed. When things deteriorated, it was not easy to catch up. Experts disagreed and newsrooms were not equipped to choose between the scientific and societal arguments. Some suggested it was not much worse than the flu, some were in denial, some parroted the “withering scepticism coming out of the White House”. By March, the story swamped everything, and was no longer just about health, but politics, business, sport, food, economy and travel. Whether a study of the Irish media would show a similar pattern has yet to be researched.

Suddenly, the question of what information one could trust during a pandemic became a matter of life and death. Rusbridger suggests we had choices about where to find information on “this new plague”. Politicians were a source, if one was lucky enough to live in New Zealand or Germany, but less so in China, Hungary or the United States. Also scientists, who were increasingly thrust into the public eye, or the good and often bad on social media. And then there were journalists. Some carried out fearless public service reporting, investigated government inaction, offered simple but reliable explanations of complex concepts: “The best news organisations have performed a real, vital public service.” Contrastingly, as with social media, Rusbridger identifies the bad as well as the good, and singles out Murdoch’s Fox News, which he says will have a “special place in journalistic hell”. Its coverage helped contribute to numberless deaths. Nevertheless, journalists hope the surge in those attracted back to professionally produced news content will make up for the huge losses in revenue, especially advertising revenue.

A number of individual journalists warrant mentions. One is Robert Fisk. Fisk died in October last year in Dublin, where he had a home. He had worked in the Middle East for years. His work appeared in The Irish Times (when that newspaper took the London Times Service and Fisk was a Times reporter) and was also read in Ireland at a later stage when the London Independent was owned by Ireland’s Independent News and Media. He contributed to RTÉ and spoke at events in Ireland. Rusbridger notes that while Fisk was almost a cult figure among his admirers, his colleagues often had a different view. Rusbridger includes many critical accounts of his work: “he saw things the rest of us did not”, or his descriptions were “very different from what either myself or my colleagues had witnessed”. Rusbridger’s main focus though is Fisk’s reporting from the Syrian city of Douma, in the wake of a reported chemical attack which killed between forty and fifty people. Most Western governments and correspondents attributed the attack to the Syrian army, while the Syrians and their Russian allies responded saying the video that had horrified the world was fake news, according to Rusbridger.

A small group of journalists, described by The Guardian as favoured by Moscow, were taken by the Russians to Douma. Fisk was one. He reported that he walked around the town without minders in his search for truth. He found a doctor who denied there had been gas poisoning. His reporting from Douma enraged his colleagues, who cited their own witnesses. Rusbridger said it was difficult to know whom to believe. “Why is he so mistrusted by so many of his colleagues and yet revered by so many readers? What does it say about trust in mainstream media when even a veteran correspondent like Robert Fisk states that in future we will have to rely on the Julian Assanges of this world to give us real truth.”

How important is this anyway? According to the British journalist James Harkin, quoted by Rusbridger, there is a need for investigative reporting to break though the noise of electronic information in a climate thick with propaganda, conspiracy thinking, and reassuring half-truths. “Otherwise the next war might begin with a grainy contested image launched online from some distant and inaccessible outpost right onto the pages of a newspaper that has recently sacked all its journalists.”

Curated is an overused word, associated as much with menus or lists of cocktails as museums. But one could say that what Rusbridger describes as subjective is curated, in the best sense, because of his own expertise and the intellectual interconnections he draws between what might appear to be random observations in the hands of another. So, who might be a model reader? Maybe a student, who wants accurate and verifiable information about media and journalism (there is an excellent bibliography and most references are online and accessible) from a known, authoritative and reliable source.

1/2/2021

Michael Foley is professor emeritus at the School of Media, Technological University Dublin and a journalist.

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