The astonishing scenes from Washington last week have thrown a renewed spotlight on the roles of both the media and big tech in our society. The constant dissemination of false information and the subsequent banning of the President from both Facebook and Twitter for his role in encouraging the violence have thrown issues around the limits of free speech to the fore.
I’m not proposing to debate the issues around free speech here, but this crisis has thrown up two issues that we as an industry will have to debate with renewed vigour in the months to come.
The first centres around the extent to which media businesses, and technology platforms, have a civic duty to preserve the societies in which they operate. For too long, the industry has failed to recognise the damage caused by the pursuit of audience above all else. On one hand, the sacrificing of basic journalistic principles of truth and integrity in pursuit of controversial narratives that guarantee audience has created a culture of conflict, where one side now refuses to even engage with the other, never mind hold rational debate about the issues.
On the other, I must quote Professor Scott Galloway, who said recently : “Liberal media, terrified of being labelled “elitist,” has fallen back on a feeble bothsidesism that normalizes, and brings oxygen to, outrageous conduct.” A perfect summary.
This has to change, and it is for us as media professionals to lead that change. We must be more willing to embrace a range of voices, both in our output and in our own personal media diet. More willing to engage in rational debate instead of cheap headlines and name-calling. Robert Peston, the UK journalist, explained that he had written his brilliant book “WTF?” as “exculpation for my many years of blindness to the growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness felt by so many.”
We must not fall into the trap of fearing and dismissing those that we don’t understand and, most of all, we must recognise that if we fail to defend the values of the societies in which we operate, we risk losing them.
The coming challenges to the monopoly of big tech
The second issue thrown up by these protests has been a reminder that the role of big tech in this debate is not yet settled. For years, Facebook and Twitter in particular have insisted they are not publishers, lest they be regulated as publishers. Instead, they have tried to portray themselves as almost-celestially divorced from the content that appears on their platforms, mere facilitators of “free speech”.
The actions of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg this week in banning Donald Trump, as welcome and necessary as these were, have settled this debate once and for all. They are publishers and they are capable of making editorial judgements. This shows clearly that their attitude all along has been that of an absent and unwilling Editor, not an incapable one. The BBC quoted a senior member of the UK government as saying that “the bans showed they were now “taking editorial decisions””.
Prior to the current crisis, Facebook was already facing a host of legal and regulatory challenges in markets across the world. These were mostly focused on a combination of their monopoly positions in the advertising market and their disregard for copyright. 2021 might well be the year when they face the further challenge of being regulated in the same way as broadcasters or newspapers, forcing them to assume responsibility for the content that appears on their platform.
Their armies of lobbyists will cry foul and claim that this risks undermining the entire basis of their business model, which relies on the barest minimum of content moderation, with as much of that as possible done by algorithms rather than humans. This cry must be resisted. That business model is built on foundations of sand and should be recognised as such.
Covid-19 and the potential rebound
As if the challenges to the world’s leading democracy weren’t enough, we are of course still mired in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. I am writing this sitting at my kitchen table in my home in Wales, in the midst of yet another UK-wide lockdown, so the end of the crisis seems a long way off. But we should take heart, with the imminent widespread rollout of vaccines across the world, the end may be in sight. It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but we must begin preparing for it.
I’d like to close this piece with a reminder of the damage that the pandemic has done to the mental health of so many across our industry. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this subject, I can only talk from personal experience. I’ll confess, I’ve found this latest lockdown hard to cope with and I know that this feeling will have been shared by many, lots of whom will not be as lucky to enjoy the advantages that I have. What helped me last week as we emerged blinking into the New Year was the words of friends and colleagues, reaching out to me to offer their support.
So please, take a moment this week to talk to someone you may not have spoken to in a while. Drop them a note or call them up, you may just be the light in their day, at a time when the lights everywhere are dim.
President and CEO
FIPP – Connecting Global Media