MEDIA apocalypse, but when? And after death, what kind of resurrection? A new study at Edinburgh Napier University will chart the rise of bloggers and other online voices, asking whether the demise of the Press is indeed at hand, and, if so, whether the blogging brigades can fill its supposedly worn-out shoes.
Is a new ‘fifth estate’ going to take over from the ‘fourth estate’ – in its day far more important, at least according to Edmund Burke, than the Lords, temporal and spiritual, and the House of Commons.
But the Press is not and never has been monolithic. Most of the debate on its future has been about news, but we will be looking at opinion, and specifically signed opinion – what our American colleagues like to call ‘op-ed’.
After a slow, typically modest, start, opinion columns have become a major feature of British journalism. In fact, some papers seem to be largely geared towards them. I won’t repeat the old joke about the Independent having more columns than the Parthenon. They might not have lifted that paper into financial heaven, but few would deny that they have made it worth reading.
Good columnists bring much to a paper: personality, colour, intellectual weight.
Q: Why are so many local papers, and so many free papers, as dull as ditchwater?
A: They do not have columnists.
There are too many second-rate performers, but, at their best, columnists are worth every penny.
Think Henry Porter of The Observer, whose pieces on civil liberties provoked an email response from Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Think the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens, often maligned but perhaps our country’s bravest defender of traditional morality.
Think the late Hugo Young of The Guardian, arguably our greatest-ever political columnist.
Think back to Walter Lippmann, unarguably America’s most eloquent and influential columnist, who single-handedly stopped President Coolidge from invading Mexico and 50 (ish) years later squared up to President Johnson over Vietnam.
Not to mention women like Deborah Orr or Maureen Dowd.
While often no doubt wrong, such journalists have contributed much to the ethical level of public discussion, acted as watchdogs, initiated (“I am the guy who jumps into the freezing sea first” – Hitchens) and steered debate, stuck up for minorities, championed the individual.
The question we want to ask is whether Guido Fawkes, Instapundit and company, the voices at the ‘top end’ of the blogosphere, can fulfill the same essential social and political functions.
They say, or some of them say, that they are the ‘new commentariat’. They see themselves as a fully-fledged alternative wing of the opinion industry, one destined to dislodge the ‘dinosaurs’ of the print media, but are their claims sound?
Are they qualified to pontificate on politics? Do they have staying-power, rat-like cunning, any literary ability? Imagine: if all newspaper columnists were suddenly eliminated, would we feel naked against the State, the corporation, the machine?
Could the bloggers insulate us from raw power in the same way?
I am getting fanciful, but you’ll get the drift. All the focus with Leveson, etc has been on the viability of reporting and news, but we need to consider the role of opinion too, because it is also a big part of a free and healthy Press.
For want of a better term, I am coining bloggers and the like ‘e-pundits’, as in ‘e-government’ or ‘e-publishing’. I want to know whether electronic punditry is the future and whether we should welcome it if it is.
The study will be part of a broader programme of research funded by a major grant from the London-based Arts and Humanities Research Council. Called Informing the Good Society (www.informingthegoodsociety.com), the three-year programme will also examine the future of another important information institution: the population census – another topic that has fallen under the radar of scholarly attention.
InGSoc will also be underpinned by more conventional academic research into the philosophical basis of information and communications policy.
Hopefully, this research, like the work of the great pundits, will make a useful contribution to the development of what Lippmann called The Good Society.
Alistair Duff is a reader in information and journalism at the Edinburgh Napier University.