No news is bad news

2013-07-18 00:00

“FOUR hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” That was the opinion of Napoleon Bonaparte, but in our age it is well known that newspaper circulations are declining rapidly, in some cases at a speed that might be called free-fall.

In Britain, for example, it has been calculated that at present rates, pillars of the national media such as the Guardian and Daily Telegraph could be near extinction by the end of the decade. Yet it was the first that exposed the hacking scandal that led to the Leveson inquiry; and assisted Julian Assange to publish his Wikileaks material. The second lifted the lid on the abuse of the expenses system by British parliamentarians.

In many quarters it is blandly assumed that the print media represent an obsolete technology that is simply being replaced by something modern. But, like most pronouncements about technology, this is both superficial and dangerous.

The decline of newspapers is potentially a massive loss to democracy and the freedoms of individuals and communities.

People buy and read newspapers for a multitude of reasons, ranging from the sport to local and international news, political opinion, features about people, motoring news, advertisements and, as The Witness has recently been reminded, the horse-racing card. There are many points of entry, but the paper comes as a package whose pages anyone can turn. The sports fanatic, the seeker of a bargain or the car enthusiast is highly likely to move, if only occasionally, to the local news or even the editorial page.

In short, the newspaper is an extraordinarily cheap and easily digested compendium of a great deal of what we need to know, both to conduct our personal lives and behave as responsible citizens. As many commentators have noted, it makes sense of the world around us.

The benefits of the Internet are well known: easily accessible (some of the time), interactive, and ecologically friendly. But as content is fragmented, it is very easy to be self-indulgent and ignore what perhaps we should be reading. And while people are willing to spend enormous sums of money on the latest technology, they expect what they access in cyberspace to be free of charge.

This is a perfect set up for the economically and politically powerful (often one and the same people), not to mention the crooked and self-important.

None of them likes the press and any diminution of its power is welcome. In this age of control dressed up as democracy, we need every possible outlet to counter the illegitimate and illegal exercise of power.

However, social media are not going to replace newspapers, in spite of all the hype about citizen participation: simply reporting an event is not journalism.

Who is going to challenge the corrupt in an effective way: Facebook and Twitter users?

Both radio and television can play a part, and they have their investigative teams that have uncovered dirty dealings in the public and private sectors. But what they produce is largely ephemeral and does not have the lasting impact of a newspaper.

It has generally been the print media that have put time and resources into the big stories and had the bottle to stand up to the powerful and their litigious inclinations.

Boris Johnson, former journalist and now mayor of London, puts it aptly, if somewhat crudely: “To rinse the gutters of public life you need a gutter press” (his desire for a memorable quotation presumably overriding use of a more dignified term such as vigorous press).

Not long ago, the Msunduzi Municipality was put under administration. The situation that placed it there was that all too familiar mix of corruption, incompetence, political arrogance and lack of conscience and morality.

This newspaper played a major part in exposing it with the help of people and organisations of integrity. But the crucial point is that such exposés require solid institutional backing.

They are rarely achieved by individuals and they need financial and legal resources, teamwork and time, careful thought and prolonged analysis with often lengthy documentation.

This is the world of that unfashionable and rapidly declining phenomenon, the newspaper.

The implications are best put by the prolific and highly respected British journalist, Andrew Marr. In his reflections on the media he writes: “If people are not able to follow, sustain and interpret complex arguments, they will give up trying to understand and influence the world around them.”

Newspapers are a key factor in that interpretation, part of education for democratic societies. What Marr is describing is nothing less than the death of meaningful democracy.

Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States, had another way of putting it: “Left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”


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