The New Power of the Press

WikiLeaks and Glenn Beck show that journalism is becoming more influential—but also more reductive.

In the past year, journalism, which in the West sees itself as beset by decline, has vastly increased its power. Three large developments have made the implicit, yet huge, claim that journalism, our way of knowing what is happening in our complex world, is essentially a matter of competing high-decibel political dispute and total transparency.

Taken together, these developments—the takeover of U.S. politics by the broadcast media; the revelations about governments around the world from the WikiLeaks Web site, and the Daily Telegraph exposé of business secretary Vince Cable’s true feelings about the UK coalition government—ensured that the media ended the year with large victories over politics and politicians. What’s more, all three were claimed in the public interest. Yet it could as easily be said that they were morally indefensible. At the very least, each demonstrated that the line between public interest and moral indefensibility is thin and getting thinner.

These journalistic innovations are seen by their champions as greatly expanding the scope and power of journalism. This is correct. But they can also be seen as three great reducers; each reducing the worlds it describes to simple formulas and ignoring a complexity that journalism, by its nature, already struggles to capture. What are the effects of these new sources of power? And can such power, used in such a way, really be said to be in the public interest?

Journalism began to exert real power from the mid-19th century and from the first its ethics were held in low regard. Fictional representations, such as those found in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844) and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) were particularly scathing. Its ethical norms, fraught at the best of times, were and are most tested in its coverage of politics and politicians, subjects that lie at the core of the democratic mission it claims for itself. The two professions were bound to clash. They fish in the same pond, civil society, for the same fish—called voters by politicians, the audience by the media. Both now also fight, with increasing intensity, for the right to define the public interest.

The public interest is often defined as that which aids the citizen to be more fully a citizen—from information on votes cast and public money spent to revelations of state or corporate corruption. In more than 30 years of journalism, mostly for this paper, I’ve seen this concept develop; from a view that ferreting out as much information as possible was good for society (as well as for one’s career), to one framed in much more aggressive and polemical terms. In the labour and industrial correspondents group of the 1980s—a club of reporters covering British industrial relations and policies—three of my colleagues were Peter Hitchens, Trevor Kavanagh and Richard Littlejohn. As their careers moved from reporting to comment, each developed popular, highly charged newspaper columns that worked best when skewering ministers and other public officials, generally of the left. Their opinions expressed a depth of contempt that, in modern times at least, was unprecedented. But they became models to be followed.

During this period, investigative journalism became in some hands—John Pilger’s in the U.K. and Michael Moore’s in the U.S.—not just revelation but condemnation. I was at a meeting of Guardian journalists when a distinguished investigative reporter, with a record of revelations that on any criteria were in the public interest, argued that British parliamentarians should, in principle, be regarded with suspicion. The public interest has, more and more, come to be defined as that which can be shown to damage public figures.

The first of last year’s great reducers did not begin its work in 2010 but did reach a kind of apogee then. In the U.S., a journalism of extreme polemics has, under the heading of free speech, progressively built broadcasters such as Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart into major political figures. Political discussions for broadcast, once characterised by polite if insistent interviewing, developed under ratings pressure into a forum in which “shock jock” presenters would encourage guests into frenzied mutual denunciation.

In August last year, Glenn Beck, the most prominent of the rightwing talk-show hosts on Fox News, organised a “Restoring Honour” rally in Washington for his followers, aimed at reviving pride in America and its values. In October, Jon Stewart, liberal comedian and host of The Daily Show, organised a “Rally to Restore Sanity” as a counter to Beck. The interventions by these two contrasting media figures into the nation’s capital, still the world’s most potent political centre, made for a quite unsubtle joint statement: these broadcasters, more than the parties or the leading politicians, perhaps even more than the president, represented the masses and their interests.

The effect of their prominence on politics is clear. It reduces government by comparison. The implicit message, especially from Beck, is that governance is a simple matter of political will. Once this is in place, reform can be achieved with ease. In this environment, journalism becomes a high-decibel slate of complaint and tenuous assertion, much of it directed at President Barack Obama. Its protagonists constantly assert that it is a way of holding power to account and, therefore, in the public interest. There is no question that these rival polemics have stirred up much public interest. But as representative politics is itself represented as a betrayal of a free people, politicians in the centre must worry that they are being displaced not just in rhetoric but in function.

In November, the WikiLeaks Web site, which earlier in the year revealed huge numbers of documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, published its latest data on the workings of U.S. diplomacy. The material provided fascinating glimpses into the views of diplomats and those on whom they reported.

WikiLeaks, which was launched in 2006, is not journalism but it works under its rubric—of free speech, the benign effects of revelation, holding power to account—and it depends on established institutions, such as The New York Times and The Guardian for publication of its material. The ideology that inspires this not-for-profit “media organisation”, developed by its founder Julian Assange, also claims the high ground of the public interest. Officials and politicians, Assange has written, work “in collaborative secrecy to the detriment of the population”: the weapon with which to fight them is exposure. Yet in the case of the diplomatic cables, the revelations blew apart the convention that some diplomacy must be secret because it pursues ends that cannot be spelt out until all the actors involved are marshalled, separately and secretly, into the possibility of an agreement. Michael Fullilove, the Australian foreign policy commentator, argued that “with this dump WikiLeaks is not uncovering a particular secret; it is outlawing secrets altogether … Would the world be safer, saner or more pleasant if nothing could be held in confidence? How could wars be averted in such a world? How could peace negotiations take place? Would news sources talk to journalists?” That last question is more than rhetorical: journalism has depended on a web of private comments, understandings and leaks. Without these, it withers.

Investigative reporting has been one of the strongest developments of postwar journalism, illuminating government deceit, corporate fraud and criminal activity. The reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post in the early 1970s on the illegal efforts of Nixon’s White House to destabilise the Democratic party remains its defining moment: but through exposures such as The Sunday Times on the effects of Thalidomide in the 1970s, The Guardian on bribery scandals in British Aerospace in 2003 and The New Yorker’s revelations about abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, there is a long roll of honour that has produced huge public revulsion and government reforms. Now, WikiLeaks publishes confidential information on the grounds that government is a conspiracy, and publication redresses the balance in favour of the public. By its sheer volume, however, it reduces investigative journalists to bit players whose job is to redact the output and provide context. More, it gives itself the right to decide what might or might not be dangerous for the individuals named or identifiable in the revealed documents. This is a perilous power to have.

WikiLeaks also sets a high bar for ordinary journalism—tempting it to shock and awe through more intimate revelation. Last month the Daily Telegraph revealed that Vince Cable, the business secretary, had given frank and pejorative assessments of his Conservative coalition partners. He also declared himself “at war” with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. These, like WikiLeaks, were undeniably interesting—but perhaps not as interesting as the fact that Cable’s thoughts were given to two young women reporters posing as constituents of his. Their journalism invaded a space assumed to be largely private—that occupied by MPs and the people they directly represent.

Journalists have used undercover disguises before. The most well known case is The News of the World’s Mazher Mahmood, who is known as the fake sheikh after frequently posing as a wealthy Arab businessman to embarrass and expose those under investigation. But the disguised intervention into the relationship between a member of parliament and his constituents pushes these tactics further into the upper levels of political power than Mahmood ever went. In doing so it asked politicians a question more urgently than before: to whom can I say what I think?

The newspaper, and others, argued that to know a senior government member’s private views is in the public interest, since it allows citizens to understand what the real tensions are within the government that they elected and pay for. The grounds for this view have been prepared—for politicians private space has already shrunk to a few defensible areas, such as family grief. But the Cable episode is still an innovation: editors and political writers have historically understood and accommodated some wriggle room between the public statement and the private sigh. Not now, though. The implication of the Telegraph’s journalism is that having its reporters lie about their identity is justifiable where it reveals that a politician’s semi-private statements clash with those made in public. The further implication is that private doubts, boasts and assurances ought always to accord exactly with public ones, and that when they do not it is shocking enough to require exposure. This definition of the public interest would hold that we—the public—should not only know as much as possible but as many facets of our representatives as possible. After all, everything that is private could be shown, under certain conditions, to have some public consequence.

In one view, both the revelations of WikiLeaks and of the Telegraph would, if they became the norm, encourage a more truthful public sphere. Conscious that everything was potentially transparent, we—and especially our leaders—would develop into super-rational beings uncomprehending of the notion of mendacity. Politicians would give the whole range of their thoughts on every subject, in support of their party or otherwise; officials would make public their plans at every stage; diplomats would reveal all conversations and the public would have the maturity to understand and take no unfair advantage of these disclosures. But no conceivable society could live in such transparency. It is more likely that a transparency culture simply causes a displacement of the semi-private into the wholly private—with public figures relying more on public relations to act as a shield, and turning an increasingly bland face to the outside word.

There is no question that WikiLeaks and Cable’s indiscretions engrossed a vast audience: Whatever you say about the public interest, they interested the public. In conversations about these revelations—especially those on Cable—I was struck to find that almost no one criticised the journalism that produced them. The interest was in the content. With this discovery journalism has struck a mother lode, which at a time of falling audiences, it surely needs. These innovations will not go away.

Journalism is, of course, a great reduction to begin with. Any journalist not too full of himself to admit it realises, sooner or later, that the trade demands a facility for simplification that squeezes the most complex events, trends and characters into a limited form with limited, stereotypical narratives.

Within that 1980s labour and industrial correspondents’ group, there was a self-deprecating joke, adapted from the concluding line in an old U.S. cop series: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” it went, “and we can’t get one of them.” It was wry recognition of the smallness of our efforts in the face of a deluge of facts, claims, declarations, private discussions, secret understandings and contradictory data.

Despite these limitations, journalism has acquired a great power in our lives. But it is also embattled by technological change, the loss of long-profitable business models and the fracturing of audiences.

In its search for new sources of power and influence, it has produced a more reductive vision of itself, and of politics, than previously.

One common claim of the three great reducers I have discussed here is that the public can gain a greater grip on the actions that are taken in their name through being an audience for untiring media polemic and huge revelations. In different ways, each also holds conventional politics in contempt, either explicitly or implicitly. As such, they are all very much the product of contemporary media mores, even while they appeal directly to the classic, centuries’ old ideas that underpin journalism—the right to freedom of speech and the press, the duty to expose falsehood in public figures. In doing so they are redefining the relationship between political and media power, and giving a new and radical interpretation of how the public interest is served by journalism.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.