Monday, 26 July 2010

Handing over the baton?

Today's one of those occasions on which the new media/old media divide is up for examination. I'm watching BBC News 24, which is leading on two stories which originated on the web, one of them weeks ago. The first is the Wikileaks release of 90,000 US military documents relating to the war in Afghanistan; the other is a story about a bear which got trapped in a car.

The Wikileaks story has been floating around for a long time. It's the kind of event an anonymous, locationless organisation can do: the BBC or another established, regulated media organisation would have avoided the legal ramifications, would have spent too long considering the national or security implications, and would probably have been penetrated by the security services in any case (there's a long history of news media aiding the secret services).

On the other hand, it's interesting that Julian Assange is now giving a press conference for the offline media, and three chosen newspapers have been given full and early access to the material- clearly the 'old' sources are still important, for informing the wider public, and because they have greater journalistic resources when it comes to investigating stories. Strikingly, however, Assange's conference displays his awareness of the limitations and responsibilities of classic journalism: research, fact-checking, skepticism. He's also engaged in some weeding of material which would, he says, cost lives or damage security, which is a major assumption of authority. His nomadic, independent approach gives him the freedom to subvert the cultural and legal boundaries which hamper established media, but it makes him immune to the checks and balances too (though Fox News behaves in exactly the same way, as its disgusting behaviour over the Shirley Sherrod story shows (rightwing blogger edits a black Department of Agriculture official's speech to make her look racist - she gets the sack by a cowardly employer but is reinstated when the true story emerges, Fox refuses to apologise or alter its position - as does the blogger: original, unqualified and uncorrected story here).

 Either way, we're into a new era when the power of major news organisations fail to uncover major scoops - they're sclerotic, timid and too dependent on their relationships with authority.

The bear-trapped-in-a-car story is the other side of the new/old media coin. Ten years ago, it's the kind of thing which would take up page 3 of a local newspaper. Now it's a light-hearted bit of fluff which fits in with 90% of what's on the internet. What's shameful is that it's now a story for the global news media: rolling news has very obviously led to dumbing down, simply to fill space. IT'S NOT NEWS, PEOPLE!

What's still unclear is the implication for Wikileaks and similar sites. No doubt the security services are chasing it through legal and illegal means - cyberwar resources will engage in DOS attacks and more, but it'll be like nailing down a jelly. I'm hugely positive about this. Wikileaks claim they're politically neutral, but a commitment to the free exchange of information is clearly a libertarian/anarchist position which will hopefully challenge authorities which act with impunity by keeping us in the dark.

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