In Defence of the Middleman

Neil Kotre explains the need for journalists to hold to account people in power

135

The recent rise of political polarisation in the West, and the corresponding growth of populist movements of all ideological persuasions, has been widely discussed in recent years. Astute analysts have recognised a poisonous culture of scapegoating, through which a helpfully unspecified ‘liberal elite’ may be blamed for almost every socio-economic issue, lending appeal to any half-baked movement which claims to oppose the prevailing orthodoxy.

The role of the media has also attracted significant comment: gone are the days of Walter Cronkite imparting the uncontested truth to Middle America. Instead, we now see a plethora of outlets which enable ideologically-minded individuals to inhabit comforting bubbles of assurance, while branding anything which does not castigate the aforementioned establishment as ‘fake news.’

Though this widespread impression appears to ring true, particularly for those who view themselves as enlightened and immune to closed-mindedness, it omits one fundamental aspect of the efforts of nascent political forces to gain a media foothold. The US President’s pontifical Twitter feed exemplifies a perturbing willingness to cut out the middleman.

Perhaps this issue is best viewed from a historical standpoint. When nineteenth century statesman William Gladstone affirmed his support for electoral reform publicly, he addressed a huge meeting of interested citizens at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Enthused attendees could boast of how they had heard the ‘People’s William,’ and how he was now on their side. But they had no concrete guarantee of this: without the middleman, they had little choice but to take him at his word.

Most learnt of Gladstone’s famous speech through print. Respected newspapers could compare sweeping assertions with previous convictions and existing policy, enabling readers to reach educated judgements regarding the truth of public statements and wisdom of legislation. Recognising the value of good publicity and the vast perils of hostile coverage, party-media links rose throughout the next century, culminating in the prevalence of carefully spun press releases which ultimately became characteristic millstones around the necks of movements such as New Labour.

However, the recent social media explosion has enabled political forces, which may otherwise have remained fringe movements, to spread their message to a receptive audience of which Gladstone could only have dreamt. Anyone with internet access can read Donald Trump’s fresh observations on Twitter: high-octane information, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Politicians and activists may encourage ideologically-minded individuals to receive information from their favoured causes directly, rather than enduring seemingly biased yarns, warped through the multifaceted prisms of established broadsheets or BBC News. Why should we endure the middle-men, when the President’s quotes are recorded with unvarying accuracy on Twitter? Yet, as any History student will tell you, accuracy and reliability are very different. And primary sources aren’t necessarily more trustworthy than secondary ones.

Contrary to popular belief, good journalism doesn’t just report facts. Instead, informed articles should consider various factors to determine whether glimmers of truth lie within the murky sea of sound-bites. Personal convictions disguised as facts are troublesome, but well-versed opinions remain the foundation of healthy debate.

Contemporary efforts to circumvent media scrutiny entirely, deploying contiguous communication under the premise of increased reliability, are just as worrying as the ‘media bubbles’ of Fox News. Though all self-respecting political movements have recently endeavoured to cut out the middleman where possible, those which have benefited most are perhaps those which are likely to have wilted under the unfiltered spotlight of good journalism. Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is symptomatic of attempts to associate simplicity and directness with honesty: a dangerously false premise.