The old and the new news: qui bono?

David Walker takes a closer look into structural censorship, which he thinks, is hiding behind our morning papers

When we think of censorship our first associations are with concealment through coercion, threats and direct violence. We picture shadowy cabals of powerful figures, conspiring to hide inconvenient truths from a deserving public; the tool of the autocrat and the spy. These are not the only forms of censorship, just the most direct ones, the most visible in the world and in pop-culture. While their importance is not to be downplayed, the structural censorship that pervades our society is a beast of a different nature; and most importantly it is one which we might slay simply by our awareness of it.

When I discuss structural censorship, I refer to the information that does not reach members of a society simply because the way a society is structured. Not because of any individual actively concealing something, but because our culture deems them uninteresting and, crucially, un-newsworthy. Many important facts are so; one only has to spend a day sifting through parliamentary records, C-SPAN, scientific literature, philosophical tracts or personal blogs to find information of great importance, but that goes unreported in the media and un-discussed in the pub.

Describing things as ‘structural censorship’ such may seem like obscurantism (a pleasantly ironic term), especially for those unfamiliar with similar ways of analysing violence. So allow me to provide you with an example I am currently concerned with; what news the media chooses to report upon. Specifically, its obsession with the present and neglect of past events.

It may feel counter-intuitive to describe news as constructed rather than reported on, but this is so. Within our collective consciousness news is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The term ‘fake news’ is particularly revealing: it is defined by being untrue, thus making its binary opposition – news – necessarily true. That is not to say that we trust everything we read, but an article or even a whole publication that we disagree with or distrust is, in our heads, is not categorised as news. Not long has to be spent on Twitter before you find people dismissing the journalism of The Sun or Huffington Post as not real news, unlike the things that I agree with.

On further consideration, however, it becomes obvious that news cannot be the truth, the whole truth or nothing but the truth. The most obvious problem is with the second criterion: too many things occur for all of them to be reported. The importance of them defines whether they are communicated or not. Few people would be interested to read an urgent news bulletin which raced to inform you that an elderly woman in Leeds just changed the channel after she got herself a cuppa. But two things follow from this: who decides what is and is not important, and how?

The obvious and traditional answer is the journalists and the newspaper editors. They follow their nose to find stories, write up the relevant and verifiable facts (often according to a strict formula) and the editors choose whether or not to publish it. But importance is not the only criterion. When thinking about the news we must remain conscious that for all their lofty rhetoric about the role of the fourth estate in society, it is an entertainment business not a public service. Sometimes the purpose is not to do the most good, but to sell the most ads. As such, the importance of a fact to the public is not the only criterion by which stories are judged. This might seem obvious to anybody who has ever browsed Buzzfeed. Even publicly-funded media like the BBC are not immune, as hostile governments and threats, both budgetary and existential, pressure them to compete for attention.

Prevailing academic opinion ascribes ‘news-value’ to many features of a story; reference to elite persons and celebrity, cultural proximity to the audience, and unambiguity among them. These values are the reason that science reporting is so widely derided as sensationalist and misleading; the incremental increase in understanding is never newsworthy and breakthroughs are, contrary to popular representation, not the norm in science.

Timeliness is crucial in reporting; what is referred to as a ‘hook’. A topic may be of both interest an importance, but if there is no reason to be discussing it now instead of last week, or next week, then it will not be reported upon and you will not hear about it. Even in feature writing, the past is only relevant in so far as it explains the subject of the story.

This is censorship by inactivity, indifference and laziness. This is why subjects like the Yemeni civil war, modern slavery, sweatshop labour, the impact of international economic policy, bioprospecting, mass surveillance, or how our addiction to cheap smartphones fuels tantalum wars in the Congo are relegated to a couple of column inches on the back pages, if they are seen at all. All of these things are of great importance to people, they directly impact our lives and would inform our decision making far more than yet another splash about a presidential tweet, a fictional cancer cure or a celebrity wardrobe malfunction.

This is not an elitist rant about the ‘dumbing down’ of the news media. The fact that these subjects seem ‘elite’ is the problem I am driving at; the role of the journalist must be re-affirmed as one who has the skills to communicate complex and multifaceted issues. People obviously can and should read whatever they like, but they should also think critically about what kinds of stories are reported, and which are not, and why that happens.

While the news media is in dire financial straits as it fails to cope with the digital paradigm shift, it may be argued that they must respond to market forces; give the people what they want. To say this is to blithely ignore the role the media plays in shaping what western culture deems entertaining. Others blame the internet and the vastly accelerated news cycle, on the basis that in the age of instant information things that happened yesterday are old news – people want their finger on the pulse not a nostalgic retrospective. This is even more fallacious; all that occurs now is the consequence of countless years of culture, the culmination of centuries old themes, arcs, narratives and problems. If we fail to inform people of the differing historical and philosophical perspectives through which any event can be seen, the fact itself is radically diminished in its use to us.

There is, however, a kernel of truth on both sides of that debate. Structural censorship is not the sole purview of the news media. As consumers, we facilitate it. But this does not need to be the case. As a culture, we have the opportunity to shift to a new paradigm of news, where the most important news values are the relevance of a truth to the public; how they help us make better informed choices in politics, health, ethics, purchase and life in general. We do that by being aware of the way the media works, and demonstrating an appetite for change.

The fact is that you don’t see a feature on the war in Syria until something happens there that makes for an exciting headline. The continuous, tragic human suffering and the countless and complex reasons behind it are not sufficiently newsworthy. We must show that our priorities have changed, but more importantly journalistic culture must reflect on its practices and consider why they allow this structural censorship to exist, and whether the assumptions about the people and the world that caused it to evolve are still, or were ever, true. Take your lead from new kinds of journalists; the satirists. Between the US late night shows there is Seth Myers’ Check-In segments, Samantha Bee’s excursions into day-to-day government dysfunction and John Oliver’s model of exploring arcane and complex topics for twenty minutes a week, there are a whole host of popular and informative features that don’t feel the absolute need to dedicate the second sentence to why they’re saying this now. They find problems with the world and discuss them, rather than waiting for them to erupt into something more catastrophic and therefore newsworthy. This is a model that can and should be adapted into non-satirical and unbiased journalism. This is not a totally new idea, magazines like Private Eye have been doing a great job of this for years. They’re saying it because it is interesting, and important to know.

Not all censorship is suppression of information. Some is just a collective decision to ignore it, a cultural tendency promoted by and originating from the news media. This is not a problem without solutions, but while we identify the roadblocks on the way to fixing this issue there is one question which we must bear in mind; qui bono, or ‘who benefits?’

David Walker



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