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21 May 2021

What happened to the Fourth Estate?

It was an astonishing statement on so many levels when Prince William effectively accused the BBC of conspiring in the death of his mother. It is hard to overstate the impact the Martin-Bashir-affair will have on the media in the UK, not only on public service broadcasting.

As a journalist for 35 years, I have witnessed declining standards in both broadcasting and the so-called quality newspapers. Both have something else in common: a declining economic base. The two are related. Indeed, I find the story is best told from an economic perspective.

Broadcasting used to be a monopoly in the UK. Newspapers used to be an oligopolistic cartel. Tragically, both still behave this way, even though the environment has changed. Newspapers used to sell stories to readers for a small cover price or subscription fee, and sold readers to advertisers. Both were captured audiences. They had nowhere else to go. We all know what happened when Google and Facebook came along. Twenty years ago, you had to watch the political news on TV before you got the sports. Today you watch what you want when you want it.

It has been my experience in the media that those who thrive in oligopolistic cartels are not the same people as those who succeed in competitive markets. In oligopolistic cartels, like the media or the film industry, rubbing shoulders with your bosses is what gets you to the top. The media recruit from a small number of elite universities. Selection and promotion is mostly opaque. The boss decides. Economists have coined an expression for this: adverse selection

The decline of newspapers started before the digital age. In the UK and US, I would date this moment to the 1970s, when the age of the wealthy, hands-off newspaper publishers came to an end. This moment was well-captured in the West End play Ink. The digital age greatly accelerated the decline, a challenge that most newspaper publishers and editors failed to comprehend intellectually. Since then, many local papers have disappeared. The big national titles are still hanging on. They have a smaller readership than they used to. They find it harder to cheat with their circulation figures than they used to. They pay poor wages. Young journalists these days live in flat-shares or in the outer suburbs of London. Below the level of the media superstars and media entrepreneurs, traditional journalism has become a much diminished and impoverished profession.

Back in the old days the broadcasters set the agenda. When I was a young journalist in London, I used to follow the BBC news schedule almost religiously - what used to be the 9 o'clock news, Newsnight, Panorama, Question Time. I am not sure whether the programmes changed, whether I changed, or both. But I find most of that stuff unwatchable now.

The same goes for newspapers. I don't know many younger people who still read them at all. But even for information junkies like myself, they matter less than they used to.

What happened is that the old media are still pursuing the same model of selling stories. What they should be doing instead is providing information - the stuff that is in the public interest that would otherwise not get told. The vast majority of scoops do not fall into that category. They are leaks. Or worse, they are trial balloons. When journalists hyperventilate about fake news, this is mostly because they are no longer in control of the fake news themselves.

People are still willing to pay money for high-quality political or financial information. Or for analysis that challenges conventional views, as opposed to anonymous newspaper editorials written by committees.

This is what I would advise newspaper editors and publishers to do:

  1. Stop rewarding scoops. Reward information.
  2. Stop accepting journalism prizes. They set the wrong incentives.
  3. Stop mingling with the rich and famous in places like Davos.
  4. Do your job.

This would only be the beginning of a very long to-do list. A few will do this. Most will not. The old guard is still doubling down. There are more journalism prizes than ever. The fake scoop culture persists. The Diana interview surely interested the public, but it was not in the public interest. That's true for much of modern journalism.

But old habits die hard. Newspapers used to be a licence to print money, as a publisher infamously said. Now they are begging Facebook and Google to share some of their revenues. The road from oligopolistic arrogance to self-pity and nostalgia is a surprisingly short one. 

There is a famous saying of the digital age attributed to Bill Gates, that we tend to overestimate the speed at which things change, but ultimately underestimate the overall impact. That observation is a little too granular for my taste, but it fits the shift in the media industry. Public service broadcasting and newspapers will continue to do what they used to do, but with less money and fewer viewers and readers. Slowly, they will fade out of our collective consciousness.

One day, still a while away, they will be gone. And nobody will notice a thing.

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