Did Mesopotamian clay-writers complain to each other about the untrained upstarts using this new papyrus stuff? Maybe they wanted it regulated. Perhaps they sniffed about these new citizen scribes who wrote things down even though they had no qualifications, and belonged to no elite tribe or sect.
When the printing press appeared, did pen-and-ink scriveners get all of a tizzy at the thought of dilettantes publishing their views in the new medium? Did they worry that any Thom, Dicke or Harrie could print something, uncontrolled by the guilds of the quill? Did they call for regulation? Did they consider themselves to be the anointed custodians of clear thought and good writing?
When radio first sparked into life, I wonder how many traditional hot-metal pressmen signalled the end of civilisation as we know it, and domination from unlettered clods whose only skill would be to talk nonsense on the wireless. I wonder if they felt the new medium should be regulated. I wonder if they resented untrained, unqualified upstarts having the temerity to put their opinions out in the ether without the approval of owner or sub-editor?
Nothing changes. Today on RTÉ, I heard a debate among the brightest and the best of Irish journalists about something they called New Media, and the same sense of ownership and defensivess revealed itself. I heard people talking sanctimonious tosh about responsible professional journalists with proper standards, as opposed to the anarchy of the internet. The point they made was this: traditional journalists check their facts, whereas we lunatics on the internet write whatever half-digested nonsense comes into our heads.
This lecture comes at a time when traditional media hasn’t exactly been covering itself in glory. Last week the traditional, mainstream Independent published a disgraceful mistranslation of a Polish article, in a cynical rabble-rousing effort to stir up hatred against immigrants. This week the Examiner published a piece of pseudo-scientific nonsense by a pop-psychologist that set back the cause of autism by 30 years.
What did these two articles have in common? First, the facts were wrong, and second, the professional journalists involved in running the papers lacked the skills or the will to detect the errors.
Not too long ago, Rupert Murdoch was forced to shut down the News of the World for tapping the phone of a murdered girl. Three or four years ago, the entire mainstream media united to destroy the lives of the McCann family, having decided that parents had murdered their child, even though they had no facts whatever to support the conjecture.
Today, the Irish Times carries a report of five senior Sun journalists arrested on allegations of bribing police and public officials.
I know we all make mistakes, but this is the mainstream media, some of whose members feel entitled to lecture people for thinking, and for publishing those thoughts in an accessible medium.
I’m not sure if journalism, like many other groups, is a mutually-reinforcing clique believing in US and Them, but it would be surprising if it were not. This happens with police, doctors, criminals, artists, prostitutes, footballers, soldiers, chefs, priests and assassins. However, I don’t believe any of these groups, apart from priests, has managed to build up such a self-regarding sense of its own infallibility while at the same time having no facts to support that belief.
This is not an attempt to damn journalists — just a reaction to the patronising tone I heard today on the radio. There are certainly many fine journalists, and I know several of them personally.
Some journalists, such as Robert Fisk and Jon Pilger, changed the way I saw the world. Hunter S Thompson defined much of my youth. Con Houlihan showed me how it’s done properly. We lost a wonderful example of the craft in the last few weeks: Mary Raftery, who exposed much that is rotten in our little country. But for every good one, there are five illiterate hacks who never read a book in their lives, and it irks me to hear people like John Waters and Kevin Myers telling the public to be quiet. If you want an opinion, I’ll give you an opinion.
We should never accept this. People were writing long before there was ever a school of journalism in this country, and I would never accept a lecture from someone just because they chose to go working on a newspaper after leaving school. Indeed, it’s a pity that more of them didn’t seek careers in the real world for a while. It might also be no harm for some of them to read the papers occasionally.
Closed shops and restrictive practices give rise to bad work. Smug, self-satisfied journalists are bad for democracy, as we saw in the lead-up to the bank bailout. While traditional journalism slept, the only people reminding us what was going on were well-informed bloggers who did it, not for money, but from a sense of public duty.
Therefore, as an avid reader of newspapers and a ravenous consumer of broadcast news, I must say that I admire a good reporter, but that doesn’t mean that he’s in any sense superior to me or that I should stop what I’m doing simply because he doesn’t like it. I was disappointed to hear genuine old-fogeyness coming from relatively young people on today’s radio show. Maybe that’s what happens when people have too much stake in what they do, and come to believe that everything is a threat. I couldn’t help feeling that some of the participants weren’t really criticising electronic media but simply protecting their patch.
Eamonn Mallie stood out as a beacon of integrity among all this nonsense and of course, when I went to look at his site after the show, I found it bears a remarkable resemblance to this one! The only thing that puzzles me is his statement that it cost him a fortune to set up.
That’s a pity. It shouldn’t have. Talk to me, Eamonn.