LONDON (Bywire News) - The media, today, stands at a crossroads. New technology is opening things up to a new wave of publishers, ideas and opinions. The establishment is coming under threat. The rise of alternative media sites threatens their monopoly on the conversation and gives new voices a platform. Unsurprisingly, they are not happy about it and are fighting back.
While many people look at the arrival of these new players as something new, independent media has a long and very proud history that goes right the way back to the invention of the printing press.
Back in the 15th century, we found ourselves in a very similar position. Once again, new technology (this time in the form of the printing press) was giving people a platform to challenge the establishment.
Martin Luther became a best-selling author and his ideas spread across Europe. William Tyndale gave people the chance to read the Bible in their own language. Marginalised voices were able to spread their messages loud and clear through pamphlets and papers.
It was a revolution of information and helped push us out of the medieval world and into the Renaissance.
The establishment reacted with horror and more than a little violence. They sought to clamp down on these new radicals and, where possible, set them on fire, chop their heads off or hang them from bridges.
Some Telegraph writers would probably like a similar approach today.
Unfortunately for them, cracking down on free speech wasn’t quite as easy in the era of the printing press. In the good old days, all you had to do was kill a heretic and destroy his notebooks. Now people would just keep on printing his words and distributing them.
Words spread, ideas evolved and the world moved forward. The Enlightenment with all sorts of good stuff such as science, art, philosophy, and, eventually, democracy followed. All that would have been much more difficult without a few crazy people, with some far-out ideas and access to a printing press.
The modern age
Scroll forward a few hundred years and we have a very similar situation. Once again, the media restricts the range of voices which receive a platform and, once again, people are hankering for change and once again new technology is making it happen.
Throughout the 20th century, the world’s media came increasingly under the control of a few people. When the Independent Newspaper launched in 1987 it was the first new face on the British newspaper scene in over a hundred years.
If you wanted to make a name for yourself in the media, you needed to do what Rupert Murdoch did and inherit a newspaper from your father. From there he built up his media empire into one which dominates the world.
In the UK he bought up the Sun, the News of the World, and the Times. In the US he gobbled up the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. In the 90s he started taking over the world of television with SKY and Fox News.
Very quickly, billionaires dominated the media. Today just three companies control 90% of UK newspapers. It’s a similar story in the US where six corporations have 90% of the media under lock and key. Those corporate owners dominate what is seen and heard.
During the Leveson Inquiry, the former editor of the Sunday Times recalled the toxic influence Murdoch had on the paper’s output. If the owner saw a story he didn’t like, the editor could expect an angry call the next day.
For the Murdoch’s of this world, media dominance is all about power. From Thatcher through Blair, Brown, Cameron, May and Johnson, Murdoch has had a seat at the table. Politicians have come to fear the prospect of losing his favour.
The media, born out of the printing press which had kick-started the Enlightenment had now become the mouthpiece for the establishment. They set the rules, they determined the tone of the debate and which voices get heard.
Almost half of leading columnists and senior figures in newspapers went to public school compared to just 7% of the general population. The news was being written by people who had no connection to the lived experience of the people who read them. They did not experience the challenges of ordinary people or share their concerns.
Independent media did exist and, if you knew where to look, there was some remarkable journalism to be found, especially with the likes of New Internationalist which launched back in 1973. Private Eye mixed satire with hard-hitting journalism and continues to do so to this day.
As a result, when the 2010s rolled by media commentators became increasingly unable to predict the direction of travel. From the 2008 crash to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn the media and political establishment increasingly found themselves scratching their heads trying to figure out what was going on.
The digital generation
At the same time, the internet was challenging their dominance. Readers switched online and media owners found it increasingly difficult to monetise their content. They found themselves assailed on all sides by a new wave of digitally savvy independent news producers and they didn’t like it.
In 2000 Open Democracy launched, created by Anthony Barnett, David Hayes, Susan Richards, and Paul Hilder it set out with an aim to “challenge power and encourage democratic debate”. It launched just in time for the World Trade Centre attack. Its journalism provided an alternative voice for those dissatisfied with the myopic coverage from a media intent on an indiscriminate and ultimately illegal war.
Over time it has grown to be an independent voice on crucial topics, such as climate change, corruption, abuse of power and equality. Stories that for one reason or another go ignored by the mainstream.
A new golden age
Digital technology quickly transformed the way journalism was done. It allowed for greater collaboration among journalists across borders. It injected new life into investigative journalism, which organisations such as the Bureau of Investigative journalism sought to support.
This not-for-profit worked with all sorts of organisations including the mainstream to support major investigations. It worked closely with Wikileaks on leaked files detailing torture, summary executions and war crimes committed by US forces during the Iraq war. It helped expose the epidemic of deaths from anti-biotic resistance and, more recently, reported on the 2017 US raid on a village in Yemen which killed nine children. They debunked US claims that the raid did not cause civilian casualties.
The web provided new avenues for journalism. Elliot Higgins’ site Bellingcat, for example, managed to demonstrate that by using photographs from reports and social media you can piece together the real story of major events.
Among Bellingcat's major successes was exposing the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria and Russian involvement in the downing of flight MH17. Using video and images found online they have shown how the internet can be a rich source of investigative journalism. Very often the evidence is out there on social media occasionally, as is the case with their recent report on a cliff-top massacre in Ethiopia, taken by the perpetrators themselves.
The rise of Corbyn
In 2015, the media was once again caught napping as Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party. Both politicians and the press had assumed the British left had disappeared into obscurity. As crowds grew, it became clear that Corbyn, to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s, had tapped into a much wider movement, one which most politicians and news outlets had been telling themselves did not exist.
At the same time, a number of unashamedly left-wing news outlets burst onto the scene. Novara Media had already been going since 2010, but it was joined by The Canary, started by Kerry Anne Mendoza and Evolve Politics, created by Tom Rogers and Jessica Miller. They provided daring left-wing voices to counter the increasingly shrill right-wing cacophony from the mainstream, and they have proved to be incredibly popular.
In 2018 Byline Times was launched by Peter Jukes and quickly established a reputation for covering those stories the mainstream ignored.
These new media organisations proved incredibly effective at bringing marginalised voices back into the mainstream. They capitalised on a world in which people were increasingly getting their news sources from social media and sources other than the mainstream press.
Their success shook the mainstream to its core. No longer did they have a stranglehold on public debate. Ideas that had once been confined to the far left were moving into the mainstream such as universal income, climate action, anti-austerity and nationalisation. To their horror, opinion polls showed that the ‘radical’ policies coming forth from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders simply reflected the mainstream.
Just as it did hundreds of years ago, the establishment lashed out against these new insurgents. Attempts have been made to cut off the oxygen of social media. Left-leaning US site Mother Jones, for example, claimed it had lost millions in revenue after it emerged that Facebook had been throttling traffic to left-wing news sites.
Zuckerberg’s fear was that algorithms which removed false content disproportionately impacted right-wing sites. In other words, facts were now being accused of bias.
The backlash has been savage and sinister as the racist rants of Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill against Novara Media’s Ash Sakar demonstrated.
At a time when they are closer to the mainstream than ever, the independents face an uphill battle against the combined power of government and the corporate media giants.
It’s a David versus Goliath struggle and to help them a number of new organisations are springing up to provide support. In 2017, the Media Fund, now the Independent Media Association, launched to support independent media outlets. It was created as a reaction against falling standards within the mainstream. All signatories have to sign up to the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct, making a clear commitment to unbiased independent journalism.
Its work is being continued by Bywire which creates a single place to find content from leading independent sites such as Open Democracy, Byline Times, the Canary and Evolve Politics. By coming together they can pool resources to give them a fighting chance against the better funded and supported corporations of the mainstream.
Once again, they are capitalising on new technology. The blockchain is already threatening to disrupt the world of finance and can do the same for the media. In a world where people need content they can trust, journalists need to collaborate and organisations need content to make money, the blockchain offers a template for the future.
Content can be contained securely on the blockchain, its provenance can be demonstrated and readers can see how information is gathered. The blockchain can store ad impressions so that organisations don’t overpay for adverts.
Tokenomics offers a new way for people to get paid. It can reward writers every time someone reads their content and can even reward people for sharing and reading. People will be able to use tokens and cryptocurrencies to reward those journalists they like and want to hear more of. A reader-funded model bypasses the traditional paywall and advertising-funded model and brings journalism right back to the people who consume it.
This will be the future of the media as it moves ahead into the digital world. It’s more open, transparent and democratic. It gives readers a direct investment in journalism. A model which is funded by readers rather than advertisers can be more accountable and representative of the people it serves. This will be the platform that can help independent media have a bigger impact than ever before on the media landscape.
(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)