We are on the threshold of a golden age of journalism – Jon Snow

CHANNEL 4 News journalist Jon Snow has voiced concern about the relationship between the leadership of the UK Government and News Corporation, including its owner Rupert Murdoch.

Responding to questions from the floor during a packed lecture on the future of media at the University of Edinburgh, he said the amount of access the Murdoch news empire enjoys to the coalition left him uneasy. IMG_0377

He said the Murdochs were among the first invited “over the threshold” to Number 10 when the Conservatives secured power in a deal with the Lib Dems at the last General Election.

The Tories had received considerable backing from Murdoch’s News International organisation during the Election campaign, including the UKs best selling newspapers The Sun and News of the World.

Sky News was also criticised for bias in some quarters.

Mr Snow, while not making direct reference to the Election campaign itself, questioned the media mogul’s right to be able to wield such apparently access to the Government in its wake, coming as it does when cross ownership rules are under such scrutiny.

Pointing to recent visits by the Murdochs to Chequers and Downing Street, where former News of the World editor Andy Coulson is currently communications director, he said: “These things are in the public domain.

“But they [Murdochs] do have a very, very strong hold right now.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I feel very strongly that if people do want to exert influence on this country they should pay taxes.”

Murdoch was born in Australia and now has US citizenship.

Mr Snow, giving a talk at the Enlightenment series of lectures organised by the university, entitled A Changing Media In A Changing World, also said he thought News International’s decision to charge for content online was the wrong strategy.

However, predicting the end of printed newspapers as we know them in 25 years, he was full of praise for technology advances that will allow news itself to evolve online.

He said: “Who’s read the printed word on iPads?

“Fantastic, better than the printed word in fact. A newspaper on an iPad is absolutely fantastic.

“I think the printed word will survive, the issue is whether it will survive on paper, but I don’t see how it possibly can.

“Books can, they have an added dimension, this three dimensional and precious thing that you want to own forever.

“But the newspaper I think is in trouble, I have to say.

“It’s a very expensive thing to produce one newspaper for one person.”

“I would give the paper 25 years?”

He went on: “I don’t think the Times Online is the way to go to be honest.

“The readership has plummeted despite the great amount of spin they have put on it.”

“I have decided pay for the FT online.

“I pay for the FT online because I am a complete economic ignoramus – we’re living in economically really challenging times, and the FT is good for that.

“But I will not pay for the Times Online, simply because there are other offerings for free which are as good, or which we can get by with.”

Mr Snow accepted his view could be seen as hypocritical in that while he wanted to access news for free as an individual, he expected new media companies to be forced to pay for the right to use content generated by journalism organisations, such as Channel 4 News.

He cited the departure of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister as a classic example, as viewers watched while he was live on air the end of the premiership unfolding, of how others benefit from TV work.

Mr Snow, for years a foreign correspondent, said: “Who put those helicopters up, who provided 27 different camera positions on the route?

“Was it Google? Was it Yahoo? Was it Twitter? Was it Facebook?

“It was good old conventional old fashioned television, that brought you Idi Amin on film; the Iranian Revolution; the Iran Iraq war; the Freeing of Mandela.

IMG_0378 “This was content, this was the viewer finding out with you in real time what was actually happening.

“We were just about to experience something that nobody in this group had ever experienced before, the birth of a majority Government for the first time in our lives.

“It had never happened before in our lives.

“We were in completely new territory.

“This moment was not brought to you by new media.

“Well, it may have been by a conduit, but it was generated by old fashioned media.

“New media was never going to put a helicopter up.

“New media was never going to provide a camera anywhere, unless it was spying on street corners for Google maps.”

 “This is an interesting situation.

“Putting those helicopters up cost us a lot of money, putting those cameras there cost us a lot of money.

“Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, whatever … they of course had a field day when all those pictures pitched up on all those platforms.

“But did we get a penny?

“Not a single penny, not even for the jet fuel. Nothing.

“So we are in an absolutely fascinating situation.

“We [broadcast news] are generating content. We’ve still got quite a lot of people watching in the way they always have.

“But there are at least as many people constantly visiting and revisiting this material, not even in the United Kingdom, on other platforms for which not a penny has been paid.”

He cited a famous documentary, Man on Wire, about Frenchman Philippe Petit who in 1974 achieved the seemingly impossible act of crossing between the Twin Towers in New York on a high wire as an allegory to the issue of how to overcome the seemingly insurmountable problems.

Mr Snow said: “In one tower there is all the Google, there is the Yahoo, there is the Facebook,  there is the Twitter,  there is all the new technology, there is al the new media

“And in the other tower, is us, we content providers, we hacks, we producers, we people of great excellence, we people who go out and hunt for information, and who hone it into a product that is consumable.

“We don’t for a minute have a tightrope.

“But we are in the tower and we are well up it. And we know how to get out onto the roof.

“And we know a person or two who may be able to pull a tightrope together and we know a person who may be able to throw it across.

“They need us, those guys in the other tower, they need us as much as we need them.

“They can’t really sustain new media without some quality content.

“When the Internet was first invented the word which defined whatever we said would be the test was content, content, content.

“It’s all very well reading a Tweet which says have got up feeling rough, we all know people who get up feeling rough.

“There is plenty of that. For family for friends following, it can be fun. But that isn’t going to sustain the world.

“People want to know more than that.

“They want to know what’s going around them.

“If something happens like a vast flood in their neighbourhood, they want to know why and they want to know what’s being done about it.

“Twitter isn’t going to put a helicopter up.”

“We are needed and we will prevail.”

“The advertising industry has picked up so, for the moment, television another breath of life.

“But we will have to find a deal somehow that enables us to get across the tightrope somehow, to enter the other tower and make music together.”

Despite his very real concerns over the way new media benefits from old for free, he admitted to being a huge convert, particularly to Twitter.

He said: “Blogs, Citizen journalism, Facebook, Twitter. IMG_0375

“Even if you asked me to give this lecture a year ago, I would have said that I felt enormously threatened by new media and the cyber revolution.

“I thought they would bleed television. But actually now I understand how they feed television.

“If you go to the Channel 4 News website, you will see a cascade of pictorial hints at the stories that have been transmitted on that day.

“There will be two or three things you want to see, and you will hit them and you will watch, and that’s courtesy of the worldwide web without a doubt and that performs a function.

“But I am a complete devotee of Twitter. I believe Twitter is … we have arrived somewhere.

“Because of our capacity to shrink web addresses by going and processing them through bit.ly so easily, shrinking them down to eight or so characters, suddenly within our 140 characters we have on Twitter, we have the capacity to send a link people can hit and see whatever it is you want them to look at.

“You can lead people to water, it’s a fantastic thing.”

But the biggest strength, he said, was in the relationships it builds between media and consumer.

He said: “I’ve only been on Twitter five months and I have more than 28,000 followers. You can build relationships.

“When I first started transmitting reports, there was fundamentally no relationship with the viewer.”

“Now there is the most sensational relationship.”

“This is why I believe we are going into a golden age, because suddenly the media is becoming democratised.

“Whatever Murdoch or anyone else wants to do, the fact is there is a people force at play, and the people force is one that responds, which is constantly feeding back.

“People have the right at last to say, I think what you’ve just said is absolute rubbish. And this is why x, y, z .. which leads you to a link.

“People are feeding us endless information, we’ve never had it before.

“People are prepared to come down from the mountains and share their tablets of stone, using these devices which now exist, which never existed before.

“This is the joy of what we are up to. The quality of the information we are getting is better than it’s ever been.

He revealed when Channel 4 News airs at 7pm on a weekday, he expects an audience of around 900,000 to a million to tune in, largely at the expense of Sky News.

He said:  “The interesting thing about 24 hour news is that very, very few people actually watch it.

“When we’re on at 7pm, Sky figures drop to almost immeasurably low 27,000 or something like that and we will have something like 900,000 or a million.

“The problem is it’s a very creamy audience.

“There are MPs, Ministers, people from the City,  opinion makers and worst of all – other hacks.”

“You’ll be sitting at your desk and have the BBC on or Sky all day, you can get to 7pm and think that’s been on all day.

“But there’s people who get in at 7pm who haven’t seen any of it.

"It does affect the agenda.”

Snow regaled the audience with tales from his career that began in 1976 with ITV.

He talked of the access then to Prime Ministers and politicians being easier because of far more relaxed security, of meeting tyrant Idi Amin and in making broadcast history securing a live interview with US President Carter.

Also of how TV journalism involved transferring huge spools of two inch tape or having it couriered by strangers from abroad, shipping film, weeks on end, shooting 26 stories a time.

And he hankered after those days, saying that broadcast news quality had suffered in part because of technological advances.

He said: “You had virtually no relationship with your newsdesk at all other than a telex.”

“Contrast that with today, we are in a sort of sausage machine era in which television news has become much more formulaic.

“What has happened is that the centre that we were out of control of has taken control and is now describing what we have to do.”

“[Before] We just cast off as reporters. We just had to go and find out what was going on.

“That is the essence in the end of retrieving information.”

He added: “The pace of change in the world I operate in and the world we all consume has been absolutely unbelievable.

“To have had a working lifespan that bridges silent film right up to the completely digital age with the likes of Twitter and the rest is shocking and uplifting and concerning and a challenge.

“The thing about being a Foreign Correspondent, because there was no live transmission, you had much greater freedom to try and get at the truth of what was going on.

“And to spend time doing it.”

He went on: “The vast majority of journalists at the centre of television who do these things, they are constantly besieged by the requirement to be live, in an instant, to prove that it’s possible.

“It’s something a lot of people in television thinks is important, I don’t believe it’s very important.”

“We reported the Iranian Revolution maybe two days after it had actually happened and people were happy with that because they got a reasonably full account of what actually happened, and they were a bit wiser about the nature of what had happened.

“We were in a better position to tell people what was going on.”

However he said that journalism could benefit with those same areas of advancement, if it adopts the correct strategies, because an interest in quality news will always remain.

He said: “I’ve always worried we will become very myopic, that people will only want to read about football or the X Factor.

“But actually human beings are more inquisitive than that.

“Things happen, they appear in words somehow, and I just refuse to believe that human beings are just going to shut down their inquisitiveness.”

He added: “I am an optimist and I’ve absolutely certain that if we get it right, we are on the threshold of a golden age of journalism, of information sharing, of democracy.”

His lecture took place on Friday evening at Edinburgh University's McEwan Hall in Bristo Square.



Categories: Blogs, Media philosophy & trends

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1 reply

  1. Jon’s lecture was delivered as part of the University’s Our Changing World series which examined the global challenges facing society, and the role of academia in meeting these challenges.
    You can find out more here: http://www.ed.ac.uk/about/video/lecture-series/changing-world/introduction

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