Wednesday, July 6, 2011

‘Citizen journalism’: complete cobblers or just a load of old cack?

I gather from the BBC News website that a UK edition of The Huffington Post is being launched today. I have spent the past few minutes trying to find it, mostly by using Google, but haven’t yet been able to track it down. But it’s still only 8.31 in the morning, so perhaps it’s a little late into work. All I knew about The Huffington Post is that it was launched my Arianna Huffington as a conservative commentary on the world, but is now regarded as more liberal, which is remarkable as most drift with age is in the opposite directions, i.e. we want to legalise everything when they are 20 and want to hang, draw and quarter everything by the time the are 40 and can’t go anywhere without a quart of whisky in our back pocket.

All I know of Arianna was that when she was still Arianna Stasinopoulos, she had a long love affair with the much older Bernard Levin (a big noise in journalism at the time, now I’m afraid ‘who he?’ for those readers who aren’t yet 70), but left him when he told her he didn’t want to marry and have chidlren and moved to America. She was later involved accused of plagiarism over parts of her biography of Maria Callas, married a man from a rich family, divorced him when she discovered that the other people he was seeing behind her back included men, and co-launched The Huffington Post.

While trying to track down the UK edition of The Huffington Post, I came across a website called the Online Journalism Blog (a rather clever name which seems to cover more or less all the angles; give it a print edition and I think it comes pretty close to having the full set) which reports the news of the launch. There I noticed that its report on the launch had already received six tweets (‘tweets’) and there is even a facility to ‘retweet’. Bless! And that got me thinking about the concept of ‘citizen journalism’.

On the face of it ‘citizen journalism’ sounds rather admirable in that it might be regarded as a ‘democratising’ force, but even after a just a few minutes reflection, there seems a great

deal less to it than meets the eye. What does it mean, exactly? Forget, for a moment, the ‘citizen’ bit and reflect on what ‘journalism’ is. There is, in my view rather less to that, too, than meets the eye.

Certainly, among others, the following will spring to mind: Horace Greeley (surely the patron saint of every spotty adolescent who has not yet paid a penny in taxes), ‘the public’s right to know’, the ‘public interest’, the Fourth Estate, ‘keeping sources confidential’, Watergate, thalidomide, Bernstein and Woodward, Arthur Christiansen and Dutton Peabody of the Shinbone Star. But let me beef up that list a little and attempt to rebalance it: Tunnels & Tunnelling and Carpet & Flooring Review (two publications which most certainly do exist, the first catering for men and women with a keen interest in tunnelling and the second for those whose lives involve laying carpets and other floor coverings. I have provided links for both to silences the doubters, and I should add that although the links prove a web presence, I first came across them before the web existed when they were most certainly print publication), the Daily Star, Asian Babes, Fox & Hound (pronounced ‘Fox and Hind), the St Breward Parish Magazine, Power News (the staff newspaper of the former Central Electricity Generating Board for whom I once worked), What Camera, the News of the World (‘The Screws’) and any number of coke-snorting alcoholics who earn their daily crust writing cobblers for the masses. My point is that this second list is no less legitimate and no less part of ‘journalism’. For the fact is that, in essence, ‘journalism’ is as much about being part of a noble tradition of ‘righting wrongs’ as so many would like it to be seen, as ‘eating’ is about ensuring the continued good health of the world’s population.

Certainly — and it is very important that I make this point — there are a great many men and women journalists who risk their lives in order that the public might know what’s going on; they are active — and given that many are killed that should strictly be ‘were active’ — in Russia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Argentina, the Philippines, Zimbabwe and many other places and are all doing an admirable job. (Let me mention some names with which I am familiar from listening to the BBC: Barbara Plett, Hugh Sykes, Damian Grammaticus, Lyse Doucet and Orla Guerin. There are many, many more) But there are a loads of others working in the media who are equally entitled to call themselves ‘journalists’, but whose work has nothing to do with ‘righting wrongs’. For example, my day at work consists of first checking the puzzle page proofs against the puzzles ‘hard copy’, then helping to read, check, correct and do whatever is necessary to the promo page, the letters pages and the ‘answers’ page; at what point in my working day is my life at risk? Which is all a very long-winded way of pointing out that being ‘a journalist’ as such doesn’t really add up to a row of beans. It’s what you do that counts.

And so we get to ‘citizen journalists’: I don’t know who first came up with the phrase, but don’t be taken in by it. It means very, very little and has more in common with advertising agency puffery than the real world. Yet it sounds so grand, doesn’t it, it gives the impression of democracy on the march, of a steady progress towards a more enlightened, more caring world. Here in Britain, as I’m sure is the case throughout the world, the websites of all the national papers now offer the facility to allow us, the reader, to leave our comments on a particular issue or news story. What does that tell us? Well, here is what it tells me: that a great many people have a great many different opinions on a great many different subjects. And none is willing or even able to listen to the other’s point of view. What counts, what is of supreme importance is that their voice should be heard. But you only have to spend a minute or two in your nearest public bar to establish that. What do you get when everyone is allowed to have their say? Nothing but a noisy cacophony in which nothing is intelligible. And so much for ‘citizen journalism’.

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