500 years of trustworthy publishing laid waste by two decades of digital technology

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DIGITAL MEDIA TECHNOLOGY, which started life as a sickly child with an uncertain future and turned ‘enfant terrible’ through its troubled teenage years, has emerged as a fearful finished article: a sinister, spin-doctored super-shyster which has all but assassinated its centuries-old parent, the British Press.

The greatest leap forward since Caxton and Gutenberg has taken little more than two decades to lay waste to hall a millennium of largely useful and decent journalism during which layers of trust were built up by generations of men and women dedicated to their craft.

I am not talking about Wapping: that was a publishing revolution, arguably a necessary and logical technological advance which first cost thousands of printers their jobs and is now doing the same to similar numbers of journalists, distributive and advertising staffs. The evil of which I speak came soon after; the incubus created in that Big Bang of the 1980s which spawned not just a threat to the news industry but now threatens democracy itself.

To its eternal credit, old-fashioned news reporting by television’s Channel Four and The Observer news teams laid bare The Cambridge Analytica Scandal, details of which were provided to disturbed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic (those same old-fashioned rules of the news industry, by the way, which discourage me from commenting further on the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ issue without independent proof).

Try as it might to stay honest and true to its calling, journalism has always been tempted off the straight and narrow: a cynical Rupert Murdoch would not be persuaded by Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie that Freddie Starr ate ANYONE’S hamster (I was there) but the Great Man swallowed his pride and let the headline run and next day, having seen the sales estimates, demanded a front page follow-up.

Similarly, David Mellor made love to his bit-on-the-side in a Chelsea shirt only in Max Clifford’s cash-crazed mind, and I think that privately we all knew it. And, as we eventually learned back in ‘83, if Adolf Hitler DID keep a diary it was NOT the forgery authenticated by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Baron Dacre of Glanton, proving that the great and the good are as fallible as the most venal amongst us.

The fallout from Cambridge Analytica goes deeper even than the recent misbehaviour of a criminal few which has done so much to dislodge public trust in journalism; it is not enough to point the finger at Donald Trump’s campaign as a ‘beneficiary’ of wrongdoing and, as a result, to cry ‘Foul!’ at his presidency.

Testimony from Carol Davidson, the Obama campaign’s media director in 2012, shows the Democrats were ‘mining’ Facebook information, albeit in her words “that those signing up to the Obama campaign did so knowingly. while Cambridge Analytica users were told they were contributing to an academic research project. That information was then passed to the Trump campaign…”

The lesson from the latest scandal is that the ‘eager client’ or irresponsible user of lies or illicitly-obtained information is as culpable as their creator: the Obama campaign may have gained permission to use the original Facebook users’ details but that gave the campaign access to users’ friends, whose permission had NOT been given.

A whole new type of media has mushroomed out of digital technology which goes way beyond what I and other ‘early adopters’ imagined it to be: i.e. a means of publishing and delivery which would replace print as the preferred messenger.

It is an interesting, as well as troubling, situation; perhaps the older generation’s mistrust of technology trumps the younger generation’s unquestioning acceptance.

Will we now see a steady abandonment of social media, perhaps in favour of Old Media which has been collated, distilled and published by trustworthy journalists instead of excitable, untrained gossips, wily PR men or sinister spin doctors (even when daily news IS delivered online instead of wrapping fish suppers)?

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