The recent Sunday Times embarrassment and apology was a disaster waiting to happen. Over the years I’ve represented many journalists in retrenchment cases and disciplinary hearings and in the process I have gained insights into the changing nature of newspapers and newsrooms. It’s not a pretty picture.
In the old days a daily newspaper would have a reporting staff of anything between 20 and 40 and about a third of those reporters would be seasoned journalists with decades of experience. Standards were high and these senior men and women set the tone in the newsroom.
What happened? Printing a newspaper and distributing it is an expensive business and to make it work newspapers depended on advertising support. It was a good business model and it worked well for a century or more. Then came television and commercial radio. Advertising volumes decreased and newspapers had to reduce their costs and increase their appeal. They did so by adopting new technology, the litho printing presses which produced newspapers in full colour and then electronic editing which displaced hot lead, the old linotype machines and the artisans who set the lead and placed the cast lines of lead type in page frames.
Electronic typesetting and editing opened up the way for free suburban newspapers which were distributed door to door in a cheap knock and drop operation. That cost the dailies even more advertising revenue.
Another round of cost cutting saw a decrease in reporting staff numbers but what really did the damage was what journalists called “juniorisation”. It worked like this: when a senior reporter retired or resigned he was replaced by a junior at half the cost or even less. The newsrooms lost the old, steady hands, they lost intellectual capital and they lost institutional memory. Suddenly there were few seniors to look up to and give advice. A decline in reporting standards was inevitable.
But there was worse to come. The culture of newsrooms began to change. Much greater use was made of “free copy” from public relations firms and other shortcuts to good reporting were adopted.
Then came the internet, “online” news and search engines. The problem with the internet is that it is a bit like nuclear power which can supply vast quantities of clean energy or, in the hands of the military, can kill millions. It is probable that there is just as much disinformation on the internet as there is good information, but there are no filters. It is a wonderful tool in the hands of discerning people who know how to analyse and reason. Unfortunately, the discerning are in the minority with the rest of us tending to believe what we want to believe. If, say, you believe that alien abductions are real you will be able to fund abundant “evidence” to support your views in a matter of minutes.
And now we get to the real evil – social media.
Unfortunately, the technically brilliant may be morally adolescent. Facebook, for instance, says it is a platform and not a publisher and therefore it can take no responsibility for the content it disseminates. The law of libel does not apply to it because it is a platform and it believes in free speech. It is a hollow argument. We now know that Facebook has been abused to spread lies, propaganda, inflame prejudices and do untold damage to good people. Revenge porn and election manipulation are just two examples.
But Facebook and the other forms of social media insist that they are not responsible. They use algorithms to place advertising and some of that respectable material ends up financing perverts and the pedlars of disinformation. But, again, there is no acceptance of responsibility. And it gets worse still. Some of them track their customers’ messages and postings to get some idea of what kind of people they are, their prejudices, their passions, their weaknesses and then sell the personal details to analysts who may very well use the information for manipulation or blackmail. What a shameful way to treat your customers!
The practice has given rise to concerns about privacy and even exposing the young to evils like paedophiles or extremists.
In the process social media grabs the advertising revenue and undermines the business model of legitimate publications who do employ professional writers and who do check the facts. We need their editors and sub-editors to filter out the lies. Without this flow of verified information and analysis, democracy is in danger. The credibility of leaders is cast into doubt and respect for orderly government declines. The free press is one of the cornerstones of democracy but it is being destroyed by social media.
The bottom line is that the internet has enabled some really nasty people and organisations to pervert and pollute the flow of news and that becomes an attack on the civilised way of life.
So we end up with grossly understaffed and under-experienced newsrooms and reporters who even use social media as a source of information. It becomes easier to “plant” a story. It has probably happened many times. With the kind of dishonesty and corruption we have seen in our politics the Sunday Times saga was inevitable.
What do we do about it? The internet, when used intelligently, is one of the greatest tools at our disposal and we can no longer do without it, but we do need to devise defences against its abuse.
Advertisers must demand guarantees that their advertisements will appear only on legitimate websites and that there will be penalties it they appear alongside fake news, disinformation or worse. It is a reasonable request as no reputable company can afford to be associated with liars and swindlers.
The second measure is that social media and online news sites have to accept responsibility for the content they carry in exactly the same way as a publication or a TV station accepts responsibility for all they print or broadcast. It is a tried and tested remedy against slander and defamation.
All it will take is for one court case to produce a judgment finding a social media “platform” jointly responsible for a libellous tirade that has defamed a good citizen. Given the “circulation” of these platforms the damages award could be a very big number indeed.
Making these changes will be a real challenge to the creators of the algorithms and their bosses, but that’s good. They have had it too easy for too long. DM
While we have your attention…
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth – that’s why it matters.
Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé are our contribution to this unshakeable mission. It is by far the most effective investment into South Africa’s future.
Join our mission to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.