Digital technology has fuelled churnalism, in that it has increased the speed of information flowing around the world, enabling newspapers and news organisations to cut back on actual journalists. It’s harder and harder to develop a genuine exclusive story, so they simply get regurgitated. It’s easier for companies, brands, interest groups to circulate their stories and agendas, so more of them do it, and more of their stories are picked up by the news agencies, reported and repeated.
This has democratised the news, in that anyone can access information in ways and at speeds that were inconceivable a generation ago. Like it or not, Twitter is at the vanguard of this, as it has accelerated real-time reporting around the world. On a domestic level, this has enabled and enriched my TV viewing, from the shared experiences of watching the UK election debates, reality shows like #strictlycomedancing, and even dramas. It is the mechanic for up-to-the-minute weather reports, through the brilliantly simple #uksnow…
…and it has enlightened the world with horrifying despatches from #egypt, #iran, and #japan.
But it has also fuelled the darker side of churnalism, by which I mean often desperately low standards of reporting, where stories get printed first and fact-checked only when they are exposed. A couple of examples from recent months…
Last year the Daily Mail failed to notice that the twitter account @realstevejobs wasn’t in fact the real Steve Jobs, and so it reported a tweet from this account as fact, that Apple might have to recall the new iPhone4.
Kat Arney spotted The Independent reporting The Big Chill Festival’s surprisingly original name, a ‘fact’ it acquired from Wikipedia.
The demand for stories about and obsession with ‘celebrities’ can mean that anything they say gets reported… even if the celebrity in question didn’t actually say it…
But all that’s pretty trivial really, in the big scheme of things. Twitter and Social Media have given freedom of expression a new dimension, in that apparently anyone can say apparently anything, and be heard across the globe. And sometimes ‘They’ are listening, and They don’t always share the same opinions.
Early in 2010, during a prolonged period of wintry weather that caused disruption across the UK, a man named Paul Chambers was trying to visit someone in Northern Ireland. He needed to catch a flight from the Robin Hood airport in Northern England. On finding he would be unable to catch the flight, he was understandably annoyed, and tweeted his frustration.
Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!
David Allen Green, through his Jack of Kent blog, has documented what happened next with brilliant clarity. Despite every ounce of common sense across the country and indeed the world suggesting this was a massive over-reaction and waste of public money when some other reprimand and punishment might be more appropriate, Paul Chambers was arrested, lost his job, and found guilty of sending a menacing message.
In a childish, petulant and marvellously futile show of solidarity, the twitterati came together to protest at the way the Crown Prosecution Service had applied the law. The CPS argued that the publishing of such a remark was menacing in its own right, regardless of whether there was any actual or intended menace. Reprinting the remark (as I have done above) was an offence. So I, and thousands of others, reprinted the menacing message, signing off with #IAmSpartacus, a tribute to the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s masterful film.
Surely they couldn’t arrest us all? But why not? As is his wont, Charlie Brooker took this a step or two further…
A few days later, I noted a tweet commenting that in the aftermath of this sort of thing, Twitter had changed. It used to be like a conversation in the pub, full of bad humour, trivial nonsense, occasional bad taste and even mildly offensive jokes. Now it was still the same conversation, but in a pub in Soviet East Germany. You never knew who might be listening, and what they might think, and what they might do.
In my final part of this series of posts, I’ll review the tremendous Das Leben der Anderen, one of my favourite films of the last 10 years.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that Twitter has turned the UK into a paranoid police state, but I genuinely feel that the media and some elements of the state struggle to control it, simply because it cannot be controlled, at least not in a democracy, with Freedom of Speech, and all that.