In medieval society, three ‘estates’ were formally recognised: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. Each estate had its social role and a certain level of power and – through the enduringly familiar nexus of violence, influence, persuasion and money – exercised it over the rest of society. In the world of universal literacy, the ‘knowledge economy’ and the 24-hour news channel, mass media as we’ve come to know it has no less fundamental a role in our social system.
It is obvious that the newspaper editor, executive producer and reporter in the field can have what confusing sociologist types would call a ‘hegemonic’ effect on politics because of what it chooses to report and, more importantly, how it reports it. Through the all too subtle spider’s web of editorial control (a pandora’s box to explore another time!), a particular worldview can be imposed hegmonically to the point that it becomes a social norm which is offensive or at the very least unseemly to contradict. This can take the form of grandiose dominant ideologies like the ‘Juche’ in North Korea or, alternatively, as pernicious manipulations which cast entire issues in misleading contexts.
Take for example, the neat little lie that Ahmadinejad called for ‘Israel’ to be ‘wiped off the map’. Never mind that the correctly translated Farsi says ‘this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time’ (something different entirely!), the almost universally accepted distortion casts the entire sphere of Israel-Iran relations in the light of a crazed lunatic threatening an entire populace with extermination. In reality there are two equally repugnant, implacably opposed, undemocratic but ultimately rational states in this shameful chapter of what some call international relations. But to contradict the accepted narrative is at best unfashionable and at worst unpatriotic or even anti-semitic.
Understandably then, given the influence it has over our discourse, the idea of a so called ‘Fourth Estate’ of the print and (later) broadcast journalist has been around for over 200 years. However, the tectonic plates that form the foundation of this pillar of the modern world appear to be shifting, which could have tremendously important consequences.
The potential change in the media landscape depends on two trends; the rise of new and independent media, but also the linked decline in the traditional fourth estate, and its response. Firstly then, let’s talk about the rise of what I’m going to call popular media (popular in the sense that it is media of the people).
The key trend, obviously, is the increasing primacy of digital content. You don’t need me to tell you that print circulations are falling significantly, as they have been for some time, with no end in sight. Equally evident is the struggle of the Fourth Estate to lay claim to an equivalent market share online as they have enjoyed offline facing competition from a slew of high quality blogs and news sites. And that’s not even mentioning the doubts of digital advertising revenue (or to put it more specifically, Google being a monopolist revenue hog). But what might not be so clear are the consequences of further advances in technology.
For now, the white van man still needs to be able to fold up his copy of the Sun and throw it on the dashboard, and the tweed-wearing classes still want to pore over a copy of the Sunday Telegraph over a spot of tea. However, the continued advance of small, low-power hardware and the associated proliferation of mobile devices could lead to a ubiquity of digital content that can be hard to imagine. Think a screen on the oven, on your fridge, in the dashboard of your car, inside the frame of your glasses, the notice board at your place of work, or the air-conditioning unit and so on. Clearly there is the potential for this to lead to a change in the way we consume media that challenges the necessity of standalone items like a newspaper.
In addition companies are investing heavily in reaching technological ‘convergence’. For example, Microsoft’s convergence slogan is ‘three screens and a cloud’, which suggests that there should be a unified, high quality user experience across all three screens (mobile, PC and TV) and on the internet (the ‘cloud’). Look at the progress made in just a few years. Compare Windows 7, Windows Mobile 6.5 and the earlier versions of the Xbox. They could easily have been made by completely different companies, and each have their own ecosystem and learning curve to be mastered before proper use. However, the user experience across Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and the newer Xbox versions is beginning to converge, and the three devices are beginning to speak a common language to all their users.
Into this space being created by the advance of technology new, independent news sources have sprung up, often as the organic result of their writers’ desire for an open platform after being excluded from the ranks of the Fourth Estate. And my God are some of these platforms high quality! Yes, there are useless idiots out there who sit in front of their screens drafting incoherent rant after rant. But the platform some sites provide for experts, professors, independent reporters on the ground and above all the intelligent citizen is invaluable. Let me be clear, with the exception of a rapidly shrinking number of low circulation print publications, including the London Review of Books and Le Monde Diplomatique, independent websites have been the only place I’ve really felt enthusiastic about what I’m reading, and what I’m learning.
So that’s the first trend; the rise of new and independent media online. But what about the press? How will they respond? Well, I think there are 4 ways it could go. Firstly, there could be a revival of the Fourth Estate. At the moment most of the press contents itself with predictable partisan gimmickry (ok so that’s a bit harsh but whaddayagunnado?). But, with substantial investment, the Fourth Estate could once again be a force for progress in the world. Investigative journalism can still sell papers and expose corruption (just ask Alan Rusbridger how he feels about the Guardian’s phone-hacking coverage). The problem is, however, it’s simply not going to happen. Where’s the money for that kind of risk? There’s nobody willing to spend so much money trying to revive what is commonly believed to be a dying format, and where there is not even a clear market to be had for it.
Possibility the second: the destruction of the Fourth Estate. The press gets knocked out with barely a whimper by the crowds of info-warriors. New media reigns supreme. Now I can’t quite see this happening either, because there is a tendency for media, online and offline, to concentrate around a smaller number of key players. At the moment, people get their news from around 1-3 sources. Even politicos like myself can only keep track of so many threads. This simplicity is as necessary on the internet as it is in the newsagent. Put it this way; there are simply not enough spaces at the top of the Google search rankings to have that many news outlets, nor could there ever be. In my opinion, the future will lie somewhere in between the 2 extremes.
The traditional press will have to migrate to the web and adapt to it. The clustering of voices can even work to their advantage if they play their cards right. This is very much the Guardian model; a continuation of professional journalism forming the core of the product, but also a degree of synergy with reader-led content production with its ‘Comment is Free’ section, and reaction through a discussion ‘below the line’ as they say (though I really think the Guardian could work on this area!). Big companies can harness new media and bring some of it in-house; for example the New York Times absorbing the blog of pollster Nate Silver to form the backbone of their polling coverage.
Some, of course, will either be too unorthodox to be included, too academic, or will resist inclusion on principle, and rightly so. These bloggers will remain independent, but will find themselves clustered in communities of like-minded people, like Daily Kos and FireDogLake. Both independent and corporate media may also develop fully blown news aggregators which use site data, as well as personal data such as a user’s ratings, interests and views to select the best of what the web has to offer for that particular reader. Indeed, these services already exist, but there is a vast room for improvement in their personalisation algorithms and, I think, room for those algorithms to be applied more effectively if they are used within a certain ideological or editorial framework.
If that is how development of new media occurs, it is my hope that there will be a subsequent democratising effect on content production and access to consumption. Could it lead to a breaking of the mould, increased transparency and accountability and better journalism and whistle-blowing, or will the promising aspects of genuinely enlightened writing be lost in a new cloud of misinformation written by people wearing underwear in their mother’s basement? Whatever the outcome, what is inescapable is that it will be harder for spin doctors to control ‘the message’.
And that leads me on to my final point. The fourth possibility about how this transformation plays out is that the dark forces of Murdochian newspaper barons, telecoms companies and the Alistair Campbell/Malcolm Tucker/Andy Coulsons of this world form an unholy alliance to kill this digital media revolution whilst it’s still in its infancy. Their weapon of choice? ‘Bandwidth prioritisation’. Otherwise known as the ending of Net Neutrality.
At the moment informal Net Neutrality keeps the web free, dynamic and open, but it is not enshrined in law. Attempts to set up a code of conduct broke down earlier this year mainly due to the reservations of Virgin Media, and so the door is still open for bandwidth prioritisation. Most people don’t immediately see the huge importance of the principle that ‘all bytes are created equal’, and therefore don’t care about this issue. But if ISPs are allowed to boost speeds to certain sites, and throttle speed to others or even block access entirely, then there could be dire consequences.
If your broadband provider started throttling back the speed at which you could use some services, say a Skype video call, or a BBC iPlayer stream , would you care then? What if it blocked access altogether if you did not pay a higher tariff? The notion of a cartel of publishers and ISPs getting together to control and restrict access to parts of the internet which challenge their oligopoly, and charging the consumer higher tariffs for the pleasure is a disturbing one. The unparalleled free speech, dynamism and openness of the internet will be curtailed, and the potential for the flourishing of a transformative popular media will be crushed. The Government must not let that happen.
And just to round off, here’s some (relevant) Zappa live in New York. One of the very few FZ tracks where he’s put some of his colossal brain power into the lyrics. The usual eccentrically brilliant musicianship, and some delightful joking around ad libbing from Frank’s friend, television and radio announcer Don Pardo. I’m pasting the lyrics to the studio version below, in case there are any inconsistencies. Do listen along.
High Quality Grooveshark version from Live in New York 1979.
Lower Quality Youtube version from Overnite Sensation (studio)
I am gross and perverted
I’m obsessed and deranged
I have existed for years
But very little had changed
I am the tool of the government
And industry too
For I am destined to rule
And regulate you
I may be vile and pernicious
But you can’t look away
I make you think I’m delicious
With the stuff that I say
I am the best you can get
Have you guessed me yet?
I’m the slime oozin’ out
From your TV set
You will obey me while I lead you
And eat the garbage that I feed you
Until the day that we don’t need you
Don’t go for help, no one will heed you
Your mind is totally controlled
It has been stuffed into my mould
And you will do as you are told
Until the rights to you are sold
That’s right, folks..
Don’t touch that dial
Well, I am the slime from the video
Oozin’ along on your livin’ room floor
I am the slime from your video
Can’t stop the slime, people, look at me go