Sunday, 20 October 2013

No News is not Good News

The news that Glenn Greenwald, the journalist behind the Snowden revelations, is leaving the Guardian to join a startup news service funded by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, has been greeted with the usual mix of self-absorbed journo-jingo ("independent, ferocious, investigative journalism") and tech-titan hagiography (Omidyar's "tech background and his focus on communities should prove an invaluable asset to the new company").

Omidyar's thinking can be summed up in three quotes: "Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement" (i.e. editorial policy should be driven by Big Data); "I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy" (note right kind); and he has a "rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world" (i.e. get government off our backs). Mutatis mutandis, these sentiments could have been expressed by Paul Dacre.

The published specifics of the new venture are few, which probably reflects a lack of actual development rather than an embargo. This is clearly vapourware at present. What we do know is that it will be digital-only and broad-based - i.e. the usual melange of human interest, sport and "the puffery of wares" masquerading as news, as well as in-depth current affairs (a liberal cliché) and investigative journalism. One characteristic is the foregrounding of established "brands" such as Greenwald, which is hardly a novel development. I confidently predict personalised news and advertising, which won't look too different to the Guardian online. As Christian Christensen has noted, Omidyar isn't just buying Greenwald, he is buying the left-leaning, educated demographic in the US (those liberals spend plenty big).

Coincidentally, a more sceptical review of Omidyar's business dealings was provided recently by Tom Slee, who noted that "Ven­ture cap­i­tal dam­ages commons-based shar­ing, and one name appears time and time again ..." Slee has also written a fine essay on the inherent pitfalls of Internet reputation systems, such as eBay, which has relevance to the wider topic of "citizen journalism" and how the Internet has impacted on news organisations. As the Huffington Post and other Web-based outlets have shown, journalism is becoming increasingly polarised: a few well-paid "superstars" at one end and a large reserve army of low-paid also-rans and blogtastic wannabes at the other. A return to the ecosystem of the nineteenth century and New Grub Street. It's just business.

This is part of a wider process of deprofessionalisation, also affecting sectors like teaching and nursing, which stems in part from automation and labour surplus, but also from the longstanding tendency of capital to commoditise labour and dilute craft skills. In such a situation, those who are vulnerable to being downgraded (the declassé) tend to insist more on the social respect that they feel is their due, hence the emblematic importance of investigative journalism and the nostalgia for the halcyon days of Woodward and Bernstein.

Meanwhile, John Naughton remains "baffled" by public indifference to the NSA/GCHQ affair and, more pointedly, the lack of concern from fellow journalists who "seem to have succumbed either to a weird kind of spiteful envy, or to a desire to act as the unpaid stenographers to the security services and their political masters". There is a bit of academic de haut en bas here, given that most journos have mortgages to pay and are as likely to keep their heads down as any other group. I've not kept a tally, but I suspect that NUJ strike action in recent years has largely focused on defending jobs and pension rights, not advancing civil rights.

Omidyar's initiative will be sold as pro-freedom and (implicitly) anti-state, but as with his involvement with the "open data movement", it is about privatising state assets and limiting the influence of government on business (but not vice versa). The Greenwald/Snowden revelations ultimately boil down to "you should not let the state access your data", but they say little about the rights of business to access and harvest that data for commercial profit. Greenwald is probably making a shrewd judgement that his interests will be better served by a rich patron in the US, rather than a fussy newspaper in a UK that has taken to victimising his nearest and dearest.

With the news that some sensible chaps will take a hard look at what GCHQ have been up to, we can now safely move on. Press regulation will once more become the bigger issue, though we will naturally avoid any vulgar reference to ownership. Meanwhile, the future of investigative journalism will depend on the indulgence of billionaires. It's hardly news, let alone progress.

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