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When Paid Media is Not Professional

It is a truism that the world is run by elites. The very nature of power and wealth means that it is coveted most by those who are prepared to act most selfishly. As such, those who attain power are motivated to erect barriers to preserve their position. Those outside the elite are faced with the choice of kowtowing to it, in the hopes of gaining admission, or of attempting to overthrow it. Some elites are hard to displace. For all the scandals that have blighted the Catholic church, the Pope continues to be revered by millions around the globe. At other times, elites can be made vulnerable by changes that are outside of their control. The elites of the paid media come under threat when their revenue streams dry up, as occurred when broadcast television supplanted much of the cinema industry, or is happening now to the music industry because so many young people have redirected their disposable income to games and software instead of pop records. The old elites may survive, but only after a transformation that makes them slimmer and more supple. But there will always be some who will rely on protectionist behaviour in order to hold on to their throne as long as they can. Jack Warner, the legendary boss of Warner Bros. Studios, was so upset by the rise of television that in 1950 he insisted:

The only screens which will carry Warner Bros. products will be the screens of motion picture theatres the world over.

On other occasions, the elite respond with disdain for their rivals. In 2004, Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, criticized Wikipedia for devoting too much space to trivial topics:

People write of things they’re interested in, and so many subjects don’t get covered; and news events get covered in great detail. In the past, the entry on Hurricane Frances was more than five times the length of that on Chinese art, and the entry on Coronation Street was twice as long as the article on Tony Blair.

However, more recent analysis suggests that Wikipedia has now arrived at the stage where its contributors are literally running out of topics to write about. Just as importantly, the criticism that Wikipedia gave too much coverage to trivial topics ignored the basic fundamental that the format suffers no need to ration space in the way that a printed book would. A long article about Yoda from Star Wars in no way obstructs or detracts from an equally long article about Honoré de Balzac.

Despite the success of Wikipedia, and the important role by played Wikileaks in breaking some of the biggest news stories of recent years, much of the paid media continues to dish up an appallingly self-serving line about how it needs to be protected from economic realities, for fear that the world will end up forced into the laps of the amateurs. It is almost as if those who are chiefly employed for their communication skills are willfully blind to the nuances of language – they equate being paid with being professional, and they assume that the professional is superior to the amateur. Therefore, we need to protect those who get paid, or else we will suffer the agonies of amateurism QED. The most severe reactionaries are often the ones who think of themselves as progressives, as was neatly demonstrated by David Leigh of The Guardian in a bizarre rant where he demanded all British internet users be taxed and that the money should be used to pay his wages:

There are almost 20m UK households that are paying upwards of £15 a month for a good broadband connection, plus another 5m mobile internet subscriptions. People willingly pay this money to a handful of telecommunications companies, but pay nothing for the news content they receive as a result, whose continued survival is generally agreed to be a fundamental plank of democracy.

A £2 levy on top – collected easily from the small number of UK service providers (BT, Virgin, Sky, TalkTalk etc) who would add it on to consumers’ bills – would raise more than £500m annually. It could be collected by a freestanding agency, on the lines of the BBC licence fee, and redistributed automatically to “news providers” according to their share of UK online readership.

And what would happen if taxpayers refuse to pay yet another tax, just to keep David Leigh employed?

We’ll just get the timid BBC on the one hand, and superficial junk on the other.

It says on David Leigh’s profile that his work was behind the jailing of Jonathan Aitken and the exposure of secret payments by arms company BAE. But perhaps Leigh is not familiar with more recent scoops that were published by The Guardian, but powered by Wikileaks? Or would he agree that the tax on internet users should, in that case, not go to The Guardian, which did barely any investigation beyond reading the juicy material that was served up to it for free, but that it should go instead to Wikileaks, or maybe to Bradley Manning’s legal fees? Cablegate is just one of many examples where paid media professionals have been happy to receive valuable content for free, only to expect a handsome reward for being middlemen. What upsets David Leigh is that the internet is a wonderful tool for destroying the livelihoods of middlemen, forcing them to add some value that goes beyond levying a toll just because interesting and entertaining content can be bottlenecked by those who control the communication channels.

Leigh is not alone in his prejudices. Lord Leveson spent over a year hearing how paid media professionals engaged in all kinds of sordid and despicable behaviour in order to make money for themselves and the businesses they worked for. In contrast to Leigh’s opining over ‘quality’ media, it turns out these people were paid to hack into the phones of grieving parents, to bribe police, and to steal health records. Yet, on the completion of his report, Leveson flew to Australia and gave a speech on the topic of protecting the paid media from unfair competition by amateurs. I must have missed the part where Hugh Grant was demanding statutory regulation of twitter because some member of the public made an unkind comment about his haircut. I thought he, and most others, were upset because of the actions of those who sought monetary reward for invading his privacy. Nevertheless, Leveson’s public lecture at the University of Melbourne concluded we must:

…ensure that the media not only remains subject to the law but that it is not placed at a disadvantage where the enforcement of the law is concerned. We will therefore have to think creatively about how we ensure that the law is capable of equal application, and is applied equally and fairly, against the mainstream media and bloggers, tweeters and other amateur online journalists.

To be fair to Leveson, he does not despise every amateur. He went as far as to say:

…blogging adds to free speech and is not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, that is somewhat short of saying it is a good thing. But it was pretty clear where Leveson’s biases lie:

In the future, professional newspapers, magazines and journals both online and in print, will compete ever more directly with the blogger and tweeter, whether good, bad or indifferent, whether accurate or fiction dressed as fact.

The prejudice is clear. Some bloggers and tweeters are bad or indifferent, and some present fiction as fact. It seems to have escaped Leveson’s attention that the same observation could equally well have been applied to paid journalists. Some paid media is bad or indifferent, and some presents fiction dressed as fact. But I suppose that from Leveson’s giddy perch within Britain’s elite, it must be natural to think that only best climb so high, that they deserve their rewards, and that the rest of us must be kept in our place. On the other hand, there is a good chance you are reading this precisely because you do not believe that purveyors for profit are significantly more trustworthy than your fellow citizens. You must have faith that a blog can contain value, even though it is given freely. With that in mind, let me remind you of ten instances when the paid media were a lot worse than indifferent, and where they paid very little regard to the facts.

1. The Hitler Diaries

In 1983, German news magazine Stern told Britain’s Sunday Times that they had obtained 62 handwritten volumes of Adolf Hitler’s personal diaries. Eager to publish the story before any other journals broke it, they gleefully shared the extraordinary revelation with the world. There was only one problem – the diaries were fake. After historians lambasted the gullibility of the press, Stern released some of the diaries for tests. Quick examination showed that not only was the ink too modern, but so were many of the written phrases. Stern had paid a cool £3mn to the forger who produced them, but seemingly spent nary a penny on obtaining a decent second opinion about their authenticity.

2. The Zinoviev Letter

The Hitler diaries were far from the first example of the press hastily publishing an extraordinary document supposedly written by a political extremist. On the eve of the 1924 general election, the British Daily Mail published a letter purportedly from Grigory Zinoviev, head of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. The letter talked about agitation leading to revolution in Britain, which was a great embarrassment to the moderate Labour government of Ramsey MacDonald. Zinoviev dismissed the letter as a forgery soon after. After a lot of investigation, modern historians, including those who have had access to secret intelligence resources, have determined whilst the real source of the letter cannot be determined, it may very well have been a forgery. However, concerns about the letter’s authenticity did not lead the Daily Mail to exercise any self-restraint.

3. ‘Unbiasing’ the Biased Polls that Were Not Biased After All

Most Europeans take it for granted that America’s Fox News Channel is unreliable because of its right-wing stance. On the other hand, it is fair to observe that many Americans are similarly hostile to what they perceive to be a more widespread left-leaning bias in other parts of their mainstream media. However, even the most sympathetic Fox viewer was left aghast on election night when President Obama was re-elected, exactly as most mainstream polls predicted. For weeks in advance, the Fox commentariat had routinely explained that the mainstream polling firms were biased, and accused them of trying to rig the election in favour of Obama. The polling firms’ turnout models were lambasted as unrealistic, and Fox repeatedly showed that the ‘real’ results would be a win for Romney, once the polls were adjusted to remove their systematic errors. The recalculations involved re-projecting the turnout on the basis that blacks and minority voters were bound to turn out less than they had in 2008, and that whites would turn out in higher numbers. Unfortunately for Fox, the real poll turned out exactly as the opinion polls had predicted: the minority turnout was ‘impossibly’ high, and white turnout was lower than Fox had expected. If anything, the mainstream pollsters had slightly underestimated the support for Obama.

Fox admitted their mistake after the election, and spent some time reviewing what had gone wrong. However, given that Fox’s presenters were viciously criticizing polling firms for exerting an undemocratic and undue influence over voters, Fox’s apology could never make amends. Fox News had wrongly accused others of the very fault that Fox was hypocritically guilty of – the fault of biasing factual information in order to sway voters.

4. Piersgate/Pissgate

Piers Morgan has done well for himself, presenting big TV shows in the US and UK. However, in the Leveson Report, his testimony that no phone hacking occurred whilst he was editing the Mirror was described as ‘utterly unpersuasive’. Nevertheless, Morgan is a media celebrity who has done very well out of the lack of professionalism exhibited by the paid media. In 2004 he was booted out of the Mirror after publishing a sub-Abu Ghraib story about British soldiers peeing on Iraqi prisoners of war. The military very quickly responded, showing how the photographs were crude fakes. They were even able to demonstrate that the photographs had not been taken in Iraq. Nevertheless, the media elite still clasps Morgan to its bosom. You have to wonder if an amateur would have received the same benefit of the doubt that Morgan has received all his career.

5. Breaking Glass

It is one thing for journalists to lazily allow themselves to fall for a hoax. It is another when the journalists are the hoaxsters. However, plenty of journalists have been downright liars. One of the worst was Stephen Glass, who wrote for US journal The New Republic between 1995 and 1998. What he wrote was a mix of fiction mixed with fact. When short of a quote, he would make one up. When short of a person to include in a story, he would make them up. And if he needed to invent a company, a building, a location for an event… he would make it up. He even created a phoney website for one of the fake companies he wrote about. When his lying ways were finally discovered, The New Republic reviewed all 41 stories that Glass had written for them, and found that at least 27 of them had contained fabrications.

6. Using New Media to Fool Old Media

Old media snootiness about new media is truly amazing, when you come to realize how much the lazy, paid employees of old media will simply reproduce whatever they read on new media without doing a single satisfactory check. Why argue about the relative low quality of new media, if old media fills column inches and broadcast time by simply copying what anyone could have read from a blog in the first place? There are now many stories where mainstream journalists have been discovered repeating lies from biased and unreliable sources or even believing spoofs from such outlets as The Onion. However, one American has perfected the art of using new media to bluff and bamboozle mainstream nitwits. Ryan Holiday is a self-styled ‘media manipulator’ who cleverly builds up his presence until, lo and behold, he is actually on the mainstream media, presenting himself as an expert. And Holiday is no one-off prankster. He fooled Reuters into thinking he was a stressed-out Generation Y investor. He told MSNBC a story about being sneezed on, and he told CBS an embarrassing office story. On ABC News he pretended to be an insomniac. And the New York Times printed excerpts from an interview about his vinyl records – which was pretty amazing given that Holiday does not have a record player! (Go on, check out the note at the bottom of their revised article). All in all, Ryan Holiday is proof that the mainstream media is happy to be fooled by an individual so long as they act in a way that fits the journalist’s preconceived expectations.

7. The Unwilling Autobiography of a Living Billionaire

You might think that no investigative journalist would be foolish enough to write a fake autobiography, including faked interviews, when the autobiography is about a real, living man who does not want their autobiography to be published. You might think that no book publisher would be foolish enough to print such a book. And you might think they would both be cautious when the subject is one of the richest men alive. Well, if you did, that just shows how credulous people really are. People want to believe they are being told the truth, even when they are being told inordinate whoppers. And the lies can seem that much more believable when they are backed by a mainstream publisher like McGraw-Hill.

Clifford Irving had already had several books published by McGraw-Hill when he approached them in 1970 with his latest project. He promised them the autobiography of Howard Hughes, the rich and famous aviator and film-maker, who by then had long been a notorious recluse. The publisher was naturally interested, and there were convinced by letters addressed to them and purportedly written by Hughes, but which were forgeries. So the mainstream publisher went ahead and signed contracts with Irving and Hughes (again, Hughes’ signature was forged) and they proceeded to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances and expenses to Irving and ‘Hughes’. Irving and his accomplices then proceeded to accumulate as much public and private information as they could get on Hughes, including a manuscript for the unpublished biography of one of Hughes’ business associates. Irving cobbled this material together and bundled in some made-up quotations from make-believe interviews that he claimed to have held with Hughes in a variety of exotic locations around the world. In reality, Irving was enjoying a series of wonderful vacations at the expense of his publisher. In late 1971, Irving duly delivered his ‘work’ to the publisher, who proceeded to publicize the forthcoming book and release excerpts of it in Life magazine.

Irving gambled that Hughes, old and afraid of public life, would do nothing to reveal Irving’s scam. McGraw-Hill backed their writer even when some of Hughes’ associates cast doubts about the book. Eventually Hughes gave a tape-recorded telephone interview to several journalists he was familiar with, denouncing Irving’s book as a fake. Even so, Irving persisted with his gamble, saying that the voice on the phone line was not that of Howard Hughes. Finally, when Hughes’ lawyers sued, McGraw-Hill started to do some real investigative work of their own, discovering that their money had gone into a Swiss bank account opened by Irving’s wife under the invented name of Helga Hughes. McGraw-Hill narrowly escaped the ignominy of publishing the full book, but Irving was to serve 17 months in prison for his crime. Afterward, Irving kept on writing, concentrating on fiction.

8. The Wrong Guy

Everybody loves the good old BBC. After all, they do not show adverts. And whilst all those commercial organizations might have deplorable standards, you can rely on the good old BBC… unless they are just too busy to check who they put in front of the camera. On 8th May 2006, Guy Goma, a business studies graduate from the Republic of Congo, was patiently waiting to be interviewed for a job as a ‘data support cleanser’ at the BBC. Meanwhile, a producer for BBC News 24 was looking for Guy Kewney, so he could be interviewed on live TV about a court case between Apple Computer and Apple Corps, The Beatles’ record label. The producer walked up to Guy Goma, asked if he was ‘Guy’ and was waiting for an interview. Unsurprisingly, Guy Goma assented. Before he knew it, the wrong Guy was on live television, forced to bluff his way through the ridiculous debacle…

9. The Rest of the BS from the BBC

What really beggars belief in Leveson’s remarks about protecting commercial media from amateur competition is that British taxpayers already have to pay for a public-service rival to commercial media… and this public service has yet again revealed itself to be utterly flawed. Here is a quick summary of three of the worst BBC failures of the last ten years.

Weapons advisor David Kelly took his life in the aftermath of the BBC’s reporting about ‘dodgy dossiers’ in the run-up to the Iraq War. In 2003, the subsequent Hutton Inquiry reviewed how the BBC had handled Kelly and his information, and concluded that the BBC’s editorial and management processes were ‘defective’. As a result, the BBC Chairman and BBC Director-General, both of whom earned huge salaries, were forced to resign.

In 2009, the BBC was fined £150,000 for ‘Sachsgate’, a tasteless episode where overpaid celebrities Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross spent an entire episode of Brand’s radio show amusing themselves (and nobody else) by leaving lewd and boorish messages on the answering machine of Andrew Sachs, a minor celebrity. The very well paid Director of Radio 2 resigned following a deluge of complaints. Ross, however, went on to joke that he did not mind the twelve-week suspension he received, because he enjoyed the holiday and he earned so much money that he hardly needed the pay.

Fast forward to 2012, and we found the BBC was unable to bring itself to broadcast a perfectly justified Newsnight report about the serial child abuse conducted by Jimmy Savile, former BBC star. Then, just a short while later, they exercised almost no self-control at all in broadcasting a different Newsnight story that wrongly implicated a senior politician as a child abuser. Incredibly, the BBC felt unable to find sufficient evidence to break the news story that one of its biggest presenters had sexually abused what is now reported to be over 450 children, sometimes on BBC property after inviting the children to appear on his BBC shows. However, the BBC were quite happy to report that an unnamed senior politician had abused a boy at a care home, even though the simplest fact-check would have revealed the politician had never visited that care home. As a result, yet another BBC Director General stepped down, receiving a £450,000 pay out for his trouble.

You have to wonder if Leveson suffers from a congenital defect suffered by all British elites. Call it ‘elitist blind spot’, if you will. The BBC is woeful, although it is a taxpayer-funded organization that is under no commercial pressures whatsoever, and despite paying astronomical salaries to its leading ‘talent’. It is genuinely hard to imagine how complete amateurs could possibly do any worse. Not only are amateurs less likely to do the harm that the BBC has done, they cost an awful lot less. In terms of accuracy of information or quality of entertainment for every pound spent, the BBC seriously undermines the argument that ‘paid’ means ‘professional’ and that ‘professional’ is better than ‘amateur’.

10. Back to the Broom Cupboard

Philip Schofield first came to national prominence as a continuity presenter for Children’s BBC. During the after-schools children’s segment of programming, it was his job to sit in the “broom cupboard” and fill time between other programmes by talking to a hand-puppet called Gordon the Gopher. Twenty-seven years later, Schofield has wrongly come to believe he is some kind of heavyweight presenter. As a result he thought it would be clever to spend a few minutes reading tittle-tattle on the internet about who may or may not be child abusers (see above for how the BBC’s Newsnight started that ball rolling). He wrote down the names on a card, then waited for an opportunity to ambush the British Primeminister on his daytime ITV show, handing over the card and demanding that the Primeminister give an instant reaction. And if that was not crass enough, he was so careless that viewers could see the names he had written on the card.

Far from holding themselves to a higher standard than the amateurs of the internet, Schofield showed that media’s paid professionals all gladly and freely suck at the teat of the internet, but then expect to be paid for taking gratuitous advantage for their superior access to power and celebrity. Most people, unlike Schofield, would be cautious about believing unproven claims that they have read on the internet. In contrast, Schofield can lend credibility to even the most scurrilous misinformation, even when he has done literally nothing but copy what he has read from some unknown webpage. As a result, ITV found itself making an additional big settlement to the same politician who was first wrongly implicated by BBC’s Newsnight, just because Schofield had needlessly presented his name on television and acted as if the baseless assertions of others should be taken seriously.

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There is a moral to this story, but it is not about protecting the privileged or expecting them to conform to high standards, and it is certainly not about enforcing those same so-called standards on everyone else. On the contrary, we should expect the professionals to be as utterly lousy as any amateur, and hence treat them with an appropriate degree of scepticism and irreverence. Where the law should intervene, and how it intervenes, should be based on the impact of any transgression. On that basis, Leveson’s argument is a folly; the malice and mishaps of the mainstream media cause far more harm than any blogger or tweeter will. What Wikipedia proved in its victory over dead tree reference books was not that amateurs drag down the professionals. On the contrary, the Wikipedians have shown that no matter how much you pay the professionals, the best professionals still perform no better than the sincere and motivated amateurs. But try telling that to the elite, and of course we will hear a different story. After all, they are paid to write the story that suits them.

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