Is truth now a permanent casualty?
The death of investigative journalism and who killed it?
By Phillip Knightley
Everybody who has anything to do with newspapers - either as a producer or a consumer - has been aware for many years now that something big has been going on in the industry, a sea change as deep and as radical as the arrival of the new technology in the 1980s.
Newspaper circulations are declining all over the Western world. Viewing figures for news and current affairs are down. There is general public contempt for journalists. In the last five years half a million AB readers - 'AB' means educated top income group readers - have deserted the British quality press. OK, so they just changed papers, found the tabloids a quicker juicer read. I'm afraid not. They disappeared.
It is an extraordinary fact that of the 11 million AB adults in Britain, the 11 million educated high-earners, about one-third do not read any daily newspaper whatsoever. All over the English-speaking world, many young people in all socio-economic classes have got out of the habit of reading newspapers.
"In its updated foreign policy, Washington talks of 'full spectrum dominance': the US should aim to be top dog in all spheres - military, economic production, business, culture and, significantly, information."
In any other industry, if customers were vanishing at this rate there would be panic. But in the media industry it is only recently that hard questions are at last being asked. Le Monde, announcing an English language version of Le Monde Diplomatique, turned on its own. "We all know that the media can no longer be trusted, that their performance is incompetent ... that they broadcast blatent lies as if they were manifest truths." The famous Polish correspondent and author, Ryszard Kapuscinski, agreed:
In the old days the most valued thing about news was its truth. Now that has changed. An editor no longer asks whether the news is true, but whether it is interesting. If they don't find it interesting, then they don't publish it. From an ethical point of view, this is a major change.
Is the media, particularly TV, in the business of "the mass production of ignorance"? Is it possible that the more TV news we watch, the less we know? There is a case to answer on both counts. If it is the media's job to interpret the world for us, why has the total output of factual programs on developing countries dropped by 50 per cent in the past ten years - 50 per cent!
Perhaps this has been due to the death of the old-fashioned foreign correspondent. You remember them, the expert in his or her area who had the language, knowledge and background not only to report on what was happening, but to explain why it was happening.
Professor Virgil Hawkins of Osaka University suggests that technology has killed them off. He says that the process goes like this: greater competition among media giants leads to budget cuts, so resources for newsgathering are diverted to buying and maintaining high-tech equipment.
This means foreign correspondents are expected to cover larger areas of the globe, and in the process lose their specialist expertise. "They race from one humanitarian disaster to another, with little time or background knowledge to grasp the issues behind the conflicts they cover". This tends to produce highly emotional first hand accounts, described by Claudio Monteiro of Leicester University in her analysis of the Portuguese media coverage of East Timor, as "good cause journalism ... journalism of affection", with the journalist as the hero of his or her own story.
Now, while all this has been happening, government interest in the media has intensified. It is as if governments realised, even before the TV and newspaper bosses, that the power, reach and influence of the modern media are enormous.
The CNN News group is available to 800 million people across the globe, BBC World can be viewed in more than 167 million homes across 200 countries, Al Jazeera reaches at least 75 million viewers in the Muslim world alone.
For any political party, the ability to 'handle the media' is these days seen as an essential element in gaining power and then, once in government, in maintaining it and carrying out policy. The old-fashioned government 'press officer' has gone. The British government has a 'Director of Communications and Strategy', whose job it is to manage the media and manipulate public perception of government actions.
The United States underpins its 'hard' power - its awe-inspiring military capacity - with 'soft' power - its ability to achieve its goals through the media; and its practitioners speak of a different world of journalism in which 'global media strategy' and 'international perception management' use journalists as pawns in the new Great Game.
In its updated foreign policy, Washington talks of "full spectrum dominance": the US should aim to be top dog in all spheres - military, economic production, business, culture and, significantly, information.
In an ideal world, a free press and a curious, sceptical army of campaigning journalists should keep democracies and their leaders in line, especially today. And, almost as important, it should act as a check to the increasing power of corporations, especially international ones.
So what's stopping these journalists? What's gone wrong? The list is lengthy.