Michael Williams

The lessons of Leveson for the young

December 25, 2012 The Tablet

The invitation to breakfast came out of the blue from a former Sunday Times colleague who I hadn’t seen for years. As we chatted over scrambled eggs and smoked salmon in a fashionable Soho café, I realised the plan wasn’t to chew over the old days. He told me he been engaged by the national print media to find out why young people were no longer inclined to read newspapers. As a university teacher of young people aspiring to become journalists, could I put him in touch?

He was right to be worried – and – I sensed – actually rather desperate. Newspapers are leaching younger readers at a disastrous rate. Put simply, the average under-26-year-old is much more likely to buy a chocolate bar than a newspaper on any given day. And this in a world where the print press is losing some 10 per cent of its readers every year and hardly anyone new is coming aboard. The ecology of the newspaper industry makes North Sea fish stocks look abundant by comparison.

One of the great unspokens of the Leveson inquiry and the debate over the past few days since its publication, has been what young people think of the print press – which I think may be fairly described as, at best, indifference and at worst alienation. Long gone are the days when a keen sixth-former would sign up to a half-price subscription to The Times and remain a loyal reader into old age. Loyalties of the young these days are both more promiscuous and discerning and tend to go the handheld device that offers the smartest and access to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google News, eBay, Flickr, Tumblr or whatever happens to be the latest niche blog of the day.

Meanwhile, the demographics for the old media are dire. According to the latest research from the consultancy Enders Analysis, print media occupy only 7% of the leisure time of British adults, while for 16-24s it is a dismal 4%. Research shows that buyers and readers of print media are ageing, with the average age of Mail and Telegraph readers in the mid to late fifties, while two-thirds of the readers of the Guardian, which likes to flag up its youthfulness, are over 35. The so-called “digitally engaged” lose interest in print products never to return. Once the newspaper-buying habit in a household is lost, it tends never to return because of “lack of exposure to the product”.

Over the months that Leveson has been unfolding, I’ve been monitoring the attitudes of the 150 or so undergraduate and postgraduate students who study media ethics as a (compulsory) part of their degree at Britain’s biggest academic journalism school, before entering the industry. Even though they are training to become media professionals, only around 10 per cent regularly read a newspaper, and for most of them, the media landscape depicted by Leveson belongs to a Jurassic era, the world of their parents and even grandparents.

One analogy offered was “like Drop the Dead Donkey on an old videocassette”. Many observed with some bemusement a judge apparently from another era, peering down his spectacles, at a succession of larger than life characters, from a “Street” that ceased to have any meaningful existence years ago, of witnesses scoring points off each other from ancient feuds, and speaking in a quaint argot  of “scoops“ “stitching people up”, “blagging” and “doorstepping”. In a procession in front of M’Lud, Fleet’s Street’s finest self-importantly delivered high-flown words on the nobility of their calling. But do we care? Not much, since we’ve never heard of them and don’t read their newspapers anyway.

It’s easy to dismiss this as the arrogance of a dumbed-down generation – routinely derided by the popular press as somehow thicker and lazier than its predecessor (as each new generation is always labelled – another cliché that turns off the young from newspapers). But thanks to the BBC website, Google News and other aggregators that can be magicked up with a tap of a finger on the screen of a mobile device, this is probably the best-informed cohort of young people ever. This is why they are baffled by Lord Leveson’s dismissal of the importance of the importance of the internet in just four pages at the end of his report describing it “an ethical vacuum”. For them, social media and the internet are the Holy Grail that unlocks every conceivable form of self-expression.

But there is a positive legacy from Leveson – in that the new generation of 18 to 23-year-old aspiring journalists are certainly more “moral” than their predecessors. The virtues they hold most dear, as I discern it, are what might be described as openness, transparency, honesty. These are hardly new words in the vocabulary of the established press. But in an altered world, their meaning is subtly different. Openness means being frank about your sources and generous with your weblinks. Transparency is having the courage to subject your journalism to public scrutiny (or as one student put it, “the best bits often lie not in the original article but in the feedback it generates online”). Honesty is, in the words of another, “not writing ‘The Truth’ in a headline when actually you mean the opposite, as The Sun did in reporting Hillsborough”. In all these things, the new media have the capacity to deliver more honestly than the old world they are fast rendering extinct.

The hinterland for new entrants to journalism is already vastly different from the one that formed the backdrop of the decade preceding Leveson. It is one in which the content rather than the media delivering it increasingly matters. In this new world, a younger generation championing openness find an unlikely ally in the old school editor of the Daily Mail’s somewhat racy website. Martin Clarke says in his evidence to Leveson that the internet has “destroyed the ability of governments, companies and individuals to control the flow of information to the public. Rather than try to fight it, it may be that politicians and the judiciary will also have to recognise the new reality: they can no longer control what people are allowed to know.”

Michael Williams is head of media ethics in the School of Journalism and Digital Communication, University of Central Lancashire. He is co-editor of ‘The Future of Quality News Journalism,’ to be published by Routledge in  July 2013.

December 25, 2012 The Tablet

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