James Curran, senior lecturer of Communication of the Goldsmith College in London, intervened in the forum Ciutadania, internet i democràcia. Una nova esfera pública?, organized by the CCCB. Comress-Incom UAB interviewed the author of Misunderstanding Internet and Power Without Responsibility.
Do you think that a clear division still exists between journalism and power?
I think that it is an enormous myth. The myth is that the press is the fourth estate, an independent institution representing the public and holding authority to account. In actual practice, the British press alternates between getting into coalition with governments in seeking to check society, or being an organiser of a jihad against the government. It can alternate between coalition and jihadism and that keeps politicians alert. So, apart from being independent, the fourth estate is an active player engaged in a very complicated scorpions dance with the politicians. There are many links between the two and the public is often sidelined. That is speaking from a British perspective.
Can we survive the situation created by media magnates without clear ethics or scruples as Rupert Murdoch?
I am embarrassed to refer to Britain again but it exemplifies the problem. There is a public enquiry taking place into the ethics of the press. That arose from the shock of discovering that a murder victim’s family had had their phones hacked by journalist wanting to get a new angle on a juicy story. This seemed to be very unethical to many people. There are human interest and celebrity stories without any public interest justification. The British press has the least credibility of any press in Europe to judge from the Euro barometer survey conducted in 2010. So, if you are looking for an example of an amazingly irresponsible press with very little ethical guidance, guidelines or loadstones, it is British journalism.
The British press has the least credibility of any press in Europe
What do you think is the role of journalist in the digital age?
The hope is that journalism can be reinvented combining professionals and amateurs. It has been tried in America but it hasn’t been very successfully. Professional norms don’t seem to work well with active volunteers. But it has worked very well in South Korea. Oh my news was built using core staff and, literally, thousands of volunteers who contribute stories. They have a core section which consists of contributions from citizen journalists which have been edited. They have more than a million visits every week. That’s an achievement.
It happens when there are youth protests against governments or business cronyism and against a culture of conformity. You usually need a very powerful wind of support coming from society to make these new innovative forms of journalism successful, because of the revenue problem. People are used to the content of the web being free so it is very difficult for citizen websites to make money. They need to be big with large audiences to raise money through advertising. The net is not the gold dust scattered over journalism that some people hoped it would be.
How has internet changed journalism?
It has made it much worse. The migration of advertising from television and print media caused budget cuts and the sacking of journalists. Now, fewer journalists have to produce more content. The result is a shallower journalism, citizen style journalism, and stories taken from other websites. Copy and paste! Is not surprising that theft occurs when you are under pressure. Independent journalism websites struggle to survive. There is no independent websites in the top 10 news websites. In the US there is only one, but The Huffington Post is not really independent. Top sites are controlled by legacy media. The notion was of a thousand flowers, demoted moguls and a new era of pluralism. This is not how things have turned out.
The internet has amazing technical potential. How can we harness this for good? It needs financing, new jobs and independent websites. The state needs to intervene to establish this regulation. It did so with radio and television so, why not with the internet?
You need a powerful social support to make innovative forms of journalism successful
Internet was viewed very positively. Now are we less confident?
We are wiser. Predictions did not take into account the context and how this can constrain what the technology does. What is the positive aspect? It makes political activism more effective as there is easier communication. Events can be publicised at short notice. It is an opportunity to rejuvenate democracy. What is the problem? The crises of climate change and the economy are global. However, the media centres on the nation. There is a disconnection between how the media are organised and what the problems are. Everything is organised at a national level yet these two problems need to be solved globally. Something has to change.
Now here we are living Catalan elections. Do you think that there are any effective or entertaining alternatives to cover elections as a horse race?
There is an increasing tendency to report politics in terms of political strategy rather than policy. That seems to serve two purposes: to entertain and to assert the independence of the journalist (e.g. a journalist can see through the political Public Relations strategy). The trouble is that it takes politics out of politics. The substance is removed and this encourages a disconnection from politics.