Power and Media – POLIS Conference at LSE #polis11

Yesterday, LSE (in partnership with BBC College of Journalism) hosted “The value of Journalism”, a day-long conference about the future of journalism. I had an exam in the morning so I could only attend the afternoon session, but it was fascinating. Here are a few important points that were mentioned at the conference if you couldn’t attend.


Has the press lost its power?

Steve Richards (The Independent), Janan Ganesh (The Economist), and Tim Montgomerie (ConservativeHome) were the three panelists for the talk.

For Tim Montgomerie, the new media is superior to the old media, even though he mentioned how some newspapers, such as The Telegraph, managed to understand the importance of social media very well. The Telegraph’s blogs for instance have massive readership as well as numerous comments.
He noted that the UK press is “much better” and much more competitive than the US press, and in the future the distinction we make between the new and the old media will blur and even dissolve.

For Janan Ganesh, the answer to the question is clear: the press has definitely lost its power and this for 3 reasons: its declining readership, the emergence of alternative source of news (24/7 TV news for instance), and the fact that the public is now better informed than a generation ago. He noted that broadcasters have the capacity and the possibility to do things that newspapers just can’t. The new media can break news and will continue to do so: the press does not have a monopoly on breaking news. Finally, he highlighted that when it comes to commenting the news (the analysis itself), the press is still dominant.

For Steve Richards, although sales are declining, the newspapers are still as powerful as ever. He remarks that because newspapers tend to have a centre-right consensus, this has a profound impact on the way we perceive things. They’re shaping politics and they’re shaping the debate.

Global News: International Journalism in an Age of Change

Peter Horrocks (BBC), Andrew Wilson (Sky News), Antonio Caprarica (London correspondent, Rai), Ignasi Guardans (Director of Public Affairs and Member Relations, EBU) and Hosam El Sokkari (Head of Audience, Yahoo! Middle East) were the panelists for the last conference of the day.

The question the talk tried to answer was whether there was a point of paying for public service (and good journalism).

Antonio Caprarica started by pointing out the differences between Italy and the UK. In Italy, only 2/3 of people pay for public service, whereas in the UK it is close to 92%. For him, the new media provides information quicker and in a more reliable manner. For example, the Iraqi war was told by bloggers and not by journalists or broadcasters. He noted quite rightly that unbiased transmission of news is impossible: when you tell a story, you take a stand. Finally, in response to whether the Italian political system was behind the public service broadcasting, he said “Yes. That’s the problem, it’s right behind us!” and later “This man [Berlusconi] is a special problem”. No need to say he gained the heart of the audience with his jokes.

Peter Horrocks, from BBC, said that because funding is being reduced, it is no longer possible for journalists to do their jobs all by themselves. He explained that partnership is essential, whether it is with NGOs, technology organizations, or other broadcasters. BBC thinks of news in terms of market failure: they intervene where there is a news deficit. What they want to do is “fill the information gap”. Horrocks finally reassured the audience by saying that even though BBC is partly funded by the government, this does not affect in any way the stories they decide to publish/broadcast.

For  Hosam El Sokkari, we should not forget that the audience is made of real people, and not just numbers. He said that there are 300 million Arabic speakers, 6% of the world’s population, 5% of the world’s Internet population and yet less than 1% of all online content is in Arabic. For Hosam El Sokkari, the news definitely need the public support; one cannot imagine a war being sponsored by X or Y. If you only relied on advertisers, you would be limited. Hosam El Sokkari noted that “intelligent content surfacing is as important as content creation”. Quite rightly, in the debate, he said that people have got used to consuming news for free online and changing habits will be a difficult task.

Finally, Ignasi Guardans said that, in this context of reduced funding, what is at stake is no less than the future of democracy. For him, the audience cannot just be a group of consumers, they need to be citizens. And citizens have a role to play in keeping a pluralistic media landscape. Public broadcasting service has to be in the hands of citizens, not advertisers.

Personal thoughts

I thought the conference was really interesting, at least the two sessions I managed to attend. I really appreciated that some speakers had the courage to say that there seems to be a consensus in the media right now not to criticize the establishment. It is true that people don’t want to be passive recipients of news anymore. However, I don’t think we are expecting to read “unbiased information to form our opinion” like Peter Harrocks said. If we wanted unbiased information, we wouldn’t be reading dozens of blogs everyday. Finally, I am a bit tired of hearing this whole old/new media dinstinction. The “new media” is only “new” to the late majority and laggards, if I may use Porter’s adoption curve terminology.

Make sure to go to POLIS website if you are interested to find out more about the conference!

Did you attend the conference? What did you think of it? Leave a comment below to let me know!