Panel discussion: the media and British politics

Daniel Sutton listens in on a gloomy forecast for the future of journalism from a panel of journalists

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“As editor, I worked on the assumption that print would die.” So, cheerfully, began Alan Rusbridger’s talk at the Oxford Fabian Society’s panel discussion on ‘The Media and British Politics’. The former Guardian editor was joined by freelance journalist Abi Wilkinson, and Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani, both of whom agreed with Rusbridger’s terminal diagnosis for print media: in Bastani’s words, “The market model of a newspaper looks a little bit ropey.”

The content of each talk was as sombre as the last. Wilkinson’s experience of the rise of online media was that “editors have people with fi gures breathing down their necks”, while “everyone is chasing the same clickbait funding.” For Rusbridger, this short-term commercialism was a death-knell for “patient journalism”, the meticulous investigations and careful fact- finding which he felt characterised the best of print media. The logical consequence for Rusbridger was “the possibility of a society without a verifiable source of information”; Bastani’s fear was that print would shrink to serve the demographics willing to pay for it.

Anyone aspiring to be a professional journalist? The gloom sets further still. Bastani estimated that news print revenues were typically falling around 7 per cent year on year; Rusbridger argued that “the ability for millions of people to do acts of journalism online is something no news organisation can match. I don’t think we have begun to understand what this new media can do.” The Huffington Post was singled out as a threat to professional comment-writing, able to attract a range of talented writers without paying them at all.

Amid the general lamentation, a couple of current affairs points were discussed. Rusbridger and Bastani both noted the success of the BBC’s news journalism: it was pointed out it accounted for well over half of the UK’s news traffic. At the same time, all the speakers felt that there was a justified level of scrutiny which came with that prominence, and none saw the accusations of anti-Corbyn bias Laura Kuennsberg has faced in her role at the BBC as unexpected.

On the other hand, there was little sympathy on the panel for Jeremy Corbyn and his poor rapport with much of the press. Wilkinson described the difficulties that lobby journalists had because Corbyn’s press office were inconsistent with deadlines and had “a bit of a fortress mentality”. Bastani agreed that the office was erratic, recalling interviews he had arranged with the Labour press office that were repeatedly cancelled; he did argue, however, that cuts in funding had been severe, and most likely hamstrung the press office.

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