Ft Hosts Media Soul Searching
01 April 1999

Mahatma Gandhi once said that 'the sole aim of journalism should be service'. Many see the aims of today's newspaper moguls as increased profit margins and political influence.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that 'the sole aim of journalism should be service'. Many see the aims of today's newspaper moguls as increased profit margins and political influence. Press ownership was one of several issues dissected at a recent 'Media and Public Confidence' conference, hosted by the Financial Times in London.
The event brought together senior British newspaper editors and journalists from around the world. Gandhi, quoted at the conference, believed that press control 'can be profitable only when exercised from within'. The conference was a surprisingly soul-searching examination of the need to exercise control 'from within'. Were editors 'dumbing down' quality broadsheets with trivial content in a bid to capture young readers and market share? What was a free media's role in democracy? Had newspapers and broadcasters abandoned serious study of great issues in favour of the cult of personality? And what about the obsession with sex, pornography and prurience, which the media profit from?

The event came days after the dismissal of England's football coach Glen Hoddle, following remarks to a Times journalist which implied that disabled people suffered the consequences of their previous incarnations. His views may have caused offence. But his hounding out of office by a voracious media was 'sanctimonious' and displayed an 'emotional correctness which worries me greatly', said Mick Hume, editor of LM (Living Marxism) magazine. Sunday Times columnist Melanie Philips agreed that the Hoddle saga 'illustrated the media's triviality, bullying and arrogance'.

Veteran broadcaster Sir Robin Day was more worried that The Times, in the same week as the Hoddle saga, had given scant coverage to the debate in parliament over the future of the House of Lords. Other broadsheets had done little better.

Chris Woodhead, Britain's Chief Inspector of Schools, lamented the lack of any serious analysis of the government's review of the national curriculum, even in the educational press.

Will Hutton, Editor of The Observer, maintained that the media had 'dumbed up', with more attractive writing, clear 'hooks' and narrative stories, in the need to capture readers. The British consistently spent 23 hours a week absorbing information from an ever increasing range of press, books and TV. But he was worried about the effect of media locusts who descended on a story for 48 hours and then moved on, 'leaving those who have been on the receiving end looking completely disabled and battered'.

Sex was no longer represented in the media as 'a subject of moral concern', said philosopher and writer Roger Scruton. There was no recognition of right and wrong and anything could be portrayed if it could 'bring with it a sufficient number of readers'. The acts of sacrifice involved in bringing up a family were being 'short- circuited' by a pornographic approach to sex.

Describing herself as a 'libertarian', Sunday Telegraph columnist Minette Marrin found herself agreeing with Scruton. She feared censorship, but was alarmed by porn's violation of privacy. Young people would only conclude that intimacy, modesty and discretion were meaningless.

For Daily Telegraph feature writer Graham Turner, the notion that sex was the sine qua non for fulfilment was the great lie of the last half- century. But he warned that moralists who are themselves short of morals are 'empty vessels. As one who has had to apologize to his wife for misdemeanors in this area, I speak from rather painful experience.'

BBC TV news anchor Martyn Lewis said that the media had an obligation to 'hold up an undistorting mirror to the world'. The BBC's own review of news policy now stated: 'Audiences are alienated by journalism which appears fixated by problems. They want a sense of how issues can be resolved.' Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, was alarmed that American newspapers were increasingly owned by a few big chains, a trend developing in Britain. This put pressure on editors to cut staff, and editorial quality, to achieve profit margins of over 20 per cent. He advocated three rules: no proprietor to be allowed too great a concentration of ownership; a bar on ownership by proprietors living abroad; and self-regulation of proprietors as much as journalists.

As Catholic writer Mary Kenny, a 'Burkian conservative', commented, the old Left had at least provided a 'non-conformist conscience' and an 'opposition to rampant market capitalism'.

International participants were brought together by William Porter, Chairman of the International Communications Forum which helped to organize the event. Jim Carey, Professor of Journalism at the Colombia Graduate School of Journalism in New York, believed that 'there was more good journalism in the United States now than at any time in its history'. But it was being lost in a sea of material and harder to distinguish.

Veteran French correspondent Bernard Margueritte, based in Poland, said freedom had an economic dimension. 'Now we have to build the moral dimension.' How could there be good media in a materialist, hedonistic, consumerist society? The media had a fundamental role in building the new society for the 21st century. There was no room for mediocrity and 'to change the media I first have to change myself'.

Lord Nolan, who chaired the conference, had headed the British government's Committee on Standards in Public Life. They had summed up the ideals of public goodwill as 'honesty, openness, accountability, integrity, leadership, selflessness. They are not bad mottoes for any organization.' He added that courage was 'a very necessary quality for journalists' -- as well as humility, humour and a sense of proportion.
Michael Smith

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