Some thoughts on the trust gap between parts of the media and parts of the public in a social media age
Polly Curtis of the Guardian tweeted:
This followed an incident where journalists Kate McCann and Owen Bennett were confronted by protesters.
At a human level a frightening experience if you’re not used to such situations – and I’m not. There’s a reason for Puffles’ house rules numbers 4 & 5.
I remember panicking when I went along to an anti-globalisation demo in London and got caught up in the ‘kettle’ – the legal fallout of which didn’t come to an end until over a decade later. I remember being fuming at the organisers because no one achieved anything from that demo. It also persuaded me to read up on who the participants were, opening up a world of permanent civil strife in circles left of the Labour Party. (Monopolise Resistance being an interesting read at the time on the use of ‘front’ organisations).
Accordingly, over the years I’ve stayed away from protests & demos that have been driven by such front organisations. With the rapid growth of social media use – in particular by activist groups, the old ways of ‘command and control’ became obsolete. I remember going to one meeting of trade union activists during the bitter end of my civil service days in late 2010 with middle-aged speaker after speaker saying it was the students that had taken the lead, and how wonderful it was to see them running rings around the politicians, the media and the authorities.
What grew remarkably quickly in those days were networks of trust. I was able to figure out very quickly who I could trust and who I could not in terms of who was out and about reporting from the front line – at a time when both the mainstream media and the authorities were really struggling to cope with this new medium.
Unpicking this trust issue
I’m not going to focus on the incidents themselves – people have been arrested and due process of law now must take its course. The bit that I want to look at is the trust issue between the public, journalists, institutions & politicians.
Broken feedback loops – all or nothing
The traditional response to not liking something in a newspaper is ‘Don’t read/buy it’. For a TV or radio broadcast, it’s a case of ‘There’s the ‘off’ switch’. There’s no halfway house. At the same time, there’s very little communities can do when publications publish deliberately inflammatory headlines that raise community tensions – something I became aware of in my civil service days. Frontline community development officers complained that the nature of some headlines had the effect of undermining work to bring together polarised communities. How could communities hold editors and journalists to account for their content without such systems becoming a form of censorship?
The old-skool response was a letter to the editor or a green-penned piece of correspondence to ‘Points of View’ at which Terry Wogan would read out a summary of the complaints about lewdness in a drama piece here and there. With social media, complaints and feedback can be seen by everyone else – thus making it harder to ignore. (That doesn’t mean institutions have to take drastic action).
Journalists on Twitter becoming targets of online abuse
My experience of Twitter over the past five or so years has been one of multiple bubbles. What makes Twitter powerful is not its breadth, but the connections between different communities of interest and how they interact. Journalists generally need to be on Twitter because that’s where many news stories break. As the saying goes, Twitter is at its best within the first five minutes of a story breaking, then at its worst in the following 12 hours.
In recent months however, I’ve noticed a trend where journalists – in particular women journalists, have been on the receiving end of more and more abuse. You’ll have seen Twitter at its worst in the run up to the general election in 2015 – mistakenly labelled as the ‘social media election’ by some, but in reality was the print media’s election due to their ability to set the agenda with continuous aggressive headlines dragging the broadcast media with it.
From online to ‘in your face’ attacks
As a community reporter in & around Cambridge, with my filming I’m nervous about confrontation and putting up strong opinions from myself. Note on my Youtube channel I have turned off the comments – life’s too short to moderate the comments about remarks made by people I’ve filmed at public meetings.
So when journalists find themselves under threat, understandably it makes me a little nervous. The general public don’t (in my experience) differentiate between a qualified journalist and someone like me – a bloke and his dragon fairy armed with a camcorder. If it can happen to them it can happen to me.
Close proximity of multiple actors
What was unique about today was the close proximity of protesters, the police, journalists (lots of them) and politicians (again – lots of them). That’s not to say the Tories should not hold their conferences in a city where they have no councillors (Manchester) any more than Labour or the Lib Dems should not hold theirs in Bournemouth – where neither have councillors. Wherever you have a big gathering of politicians in power, there’s a chance there’ll be a protest. Over the years there have been so many in Trafalgar Square that it feels like the mainstream media treats them as no longer newsworthy. The only news outlets that seem to cover them are those owned by governments or regimes the UK government isn’t on the best terms with, or through independent media.
The messengers vs the controller of the message
This post raised more than a fair amount of comment
Given the history of Murdoch’s media businesses over the past nearly-half-century, and in particular post-Leveson, any appointment to the BBC that contains either a former government minister or a former Murdoch executive is going to raise interest in those critical of the mainstream media. Whether it’s the above-case, James Purnell (Ex-Labour Cabinet Minister) as director of strategy & digital, or ex-Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten (ex Conservative Party Chairman), you can see why questions are asked about those at the top of large institutions. Even more so the current Chair of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead given this select committee hearing.
With decision-makers relatively hidden, do those frustrated about the mainstream media then take it out on those they see on their screens?
This is not to say “Why ain’t they spitting at the bosses instead?!” Rather, it’s the opposite of the big name chief executive such as Richard Branson: with no visible, accessible and accountable senior executive, the only visible ‘targets’ as far as social media is concerned is whoever is on the telly. With social media as I mentioned, the whole world can see who has said what in response. Thus the virtual whirlwind gathers speed.
It wasn’t just high profile journalists such as Michael Crick of Channel 4 targeted, it was less known ones too. Once it became known they were journalists, for a small minority it was open season. This makes me think that part of the problem is sector-wide for the media. Given the number of women journalists who have said (independently of each other) how more aggressive Twitter is becoming, combining this with some stepping over the line to face-to-face confrontations, it’s time to take stock.
Much more transparency needed – in particular on the criteria editors, directors and producers use to select which stories to lead with and how much content to include
One of the most frequent complaints about the mainstream media I see is why certain events & incidents are not reported in the mainstream media. What I’ve yet to see is anyone from the news institutions coming back with a response stating why such stories are not being covered. As a result, too many people are kept in the dark about how the media really works. Inside that vacuum, myths grow. It’s similar with the civil service – if Whitehall isn’t transparent, the public understandably leans towards believing the worst. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve had to explain the difference between civil servants and politicians. They are not the same.
“What ideas would you like explored?”
Two big ones really.
A regular public cross-examination of editors in the print, broadcast and online press over the articles they produce and publish.
This would be post-publication/broadcast, so wouldn’t act as a censor. What and how this would be done I’m open to ideas. An independent commission appointed by and accountable to Parliament? A parliamentary select committee? Something that allows the general public to petition whoever is the ‘scrutineer’ (I don’t like the term ‘regulator’) and one where the public can attend and/or watch online live.
A series of nationwide public conversations/gatherings where those in the media regularly seek the views of the public on how to improve content & coverage
These for me would be just as much about educating the public on how the media works as well as shining the daylight of public scrutiny to incentivise broadcast media institutions to improve their systems & processes. The other thing to remember is the cohort of journalists we have needs to reflect the society it serves. It’d be interesting to see data on members of the Press Lobby that have regular access to Parliament – see the Twitterlist here.
Much more transparency over how panellists, guests & interviewees are booked
Every time a representative from a partisan think tank is interviewed on a prime time news programme, my Twitterfeed goes into meltdown. What many people are not aware of is that those think tanks are ruthlessly efficient and effective at getting their representatives in the media. Credit where it’s due – they know how the system works and they work it to their benefit. To take an anonymised job description for a full time communications officer for one, it is as described below:
- Build and maintain relationships with national and regional media outlets. Ensuring [we are] featured regularly on media platforms on both [our] initiatives as well as general topics is critical to the organisation’s mission.
- Create new and manage established contacts with journalists and policymakers through building relationships.
- Raise the visibility of the organisation by scouring relevant news stories that can be used as entry points for the [us] to be involved in the news agenda.
- Represent [us] at events and meetings and, where appropriate, as a spokesperson.
- Draft and disseminate press releases, quotes and comments to the media.
- Organise events such as media briefings and party conference events.
- Maintain and improve an effective media monitoring system in order to maximise opportunities for [our] media exposure, and to track and log appearances.
- Manage and increase the impact of [our] Twitter, Facebook and other new-media accounts.
- Manage the maintenance and development of the media sections of [our] website.
- Handle and respond to out of hours media calls.
- Other duties and projects as assigned
The above approach is systematic, proactive, personal (a focus on 1-2-1 relationships with influencers inside institutions they want to influence) and devastatingly effective. As far as the Conservative Party goes, for think tanks that back their policies it allows ministers to decline interviews but suggest someone from said think tanks to defend their policies. With an unreformed media, I can’t help but think that opponents of the Conservatives need to adopt similar strategies, otherwise they will continually be playing catchup to a well-funded and well-oiled media machine.