The Media and The New Ism

The media is possibly the most powerful institution in any country – but the rise of fake news, state control and social platforms is eroding its trustworthiness. What can be done?

Mel Young: I think one of the key areas which need to be sorted out in a New Ism world is the media. It is currently very powerful. Some would say it is even more powerful than governments. If it does need to be changed, what does it change into? I think that is a very difficult question but one which needs to be looked at.

Alex Matthews: It’s such a pertinent question at the moment – there is a lot of conversation about the spread of disinformation in Russia, and the fact that many Russians are unaware of the nature of the Putin regime’s actions in Ukraine. I think it’s clear to most people outside Russia that the media there is biased – but what about here in the West? Can we trust what they say or is everyone working with an agenda? There are many newspapers and news outlets here in the UK that you know you have to take what they are saying with an extremely large pinch of salt. In a new ism, I think being able to trust the media is crucial – as you say, it is often more powerful than governments. Does the solution lie in giving ownership to groups of ordinary people rather than tycoons who have governments in their pockets? 

MY: In a war situation there is always propaganda on both sides and we are seeing that now with this Ukrainian war. In some ways, this isn’t surprising. But more generally, I think it is becoming more difficult to distinguish what is the truth and what is lies. There is still a lot of fake news about the pandemic. Where do we go to find the facts which then allow us to make up our own minds? I think you are right about the concentration of global media ownership with a few powerful men, not only making huge profits from their businesses but also controlling the media agenda from their own narrow political position. So, ownership is an issue, I agree, but there are other issues as well. We need a free media, and that means the media shouldn’t be controlled by governments. It also means that there should be greater investment in journalism. Many of these media conglomerates make huge amounts of money and they don’t invest in good journalism. The number of journalists employed in the media sector over the past two or three decades has reduced dramatically. This needs to be reversed and we need to find more trusted and honest journalists who tell us the truth.

AM: That’s an interesting point about the reduced number of journalists – I hadn’t ever thought about that. I guess in the age of the internet and social media, fewer people go to the traditional news outlets for their news, so there is less money to invest in journalists. I wonder what funding would look like – as you say, it’s crucial that media is independent of the state, but equally, in order for it to be free and to employ high-quality journalists, the money has to come from somewhere. The BBC’s model (funded by a licence fee rather than taxes) might come close – but even the BBC is under attack at the moment.

I think social media is another interesting aspect to come back to. Has our ability to share information at lightning speed across the world, without any involvement from news organisations, had a big impact on the media? Social media is here to stay, so how do we incorporate that reality into a fairer, more honest, more accountable media establishment?

MY: I don’t know, to be honest. We have to get a balance between freedom of expression and fact-checking. Social media is used by some people to put out fake news for their own political purposes, and that’s very damaging, no matter what political side you are on – it erodes trust. You stop believing everything eventually. I suppose we have to create rules about this. People are against rules because they say that inhibits freedom but we do have basic rules in other aspects of our lives. We have rules about driving a car and using seat belts, adhering to speed limits, driving carefully and so on. We accept that. I think we also need rules around the media because, actually, the media is so powerful. What those rules are and then how they are policed is quite another matter but that’s where the conversation about this should start.

AM: Yes it’s a very good place to start a conversation. The freedom of speech angle is very important – I think in order to start talking about rules, you would need to have a good handle on how the media stays free and impartial – because if people think their freedom of speech is threatened, then any conversation about rules and ethics will be a non-starter.

MY: That is a very good summation of the challenge. I don’t think we have answers but this issue does need to be discussed. In the New Ism for example we could come up with the perfect economic policies which are being implemented effectively but this could be destroyed by the media if it didn’t happen to like it. That would be totally counter-productive. So, in any New Ism, where the media sits and how it is organised has to be central to any policy planning and thinking.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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