The impact of the internet on news has the potential
to transform the interaction between politics, media and the public,
beyond recognition, argues the BBC’s Director of Global News, Richard
Picture a world where rumour is rife, where
established media are focusing on unfair and unsubstantiated
allegations, where government has to dedicate its efforts to fighting
off and correcting slanders and trying to control the press.
No, I’m not talking about bloggers, or the world of the
internet. This was England in 1695, when the licensing of pamphlets and
newspapers came to an end and for hundreds of years afterwards a
partisan press was the norm.
Tensions between the establishment and news
organizations are not new. There has never been a time when politics
and the press were in perfect balance.
From those early political pamphlets we have had a
vigorous and opinionated press. Strong debate and challenge are deeply
embedded in British culture and are a source of strength.
One has only to travel to parts of the developing world to appreciate the benefits of an open, free and muscular press.
Having said that, there, of course, are problems
associated with what many see as a dysfunctional relationship between
British politicians and the press.
They live side by side in what is known as the
"Westminster bubble", mutually dependant, but eyeing each other with
Many believe that distrust contaminates the public
discussion of policy and legislation, and prevents people getting the
information they need to make informed decisions about their lives.
It may be that the explosion in sources of information
in a multi-channel digital age, and the insularity of some of the
political-media classes means that the influence of the press has
information revolution is in its earliest stages. But it has the
potential to alter the dynamics of public debate, and the interaction
between politics, media and the public, beyond recognition
Some people suggest regulation might be a way to restore trust and
raise standards. The regulation of British broadcasting requiring
editorial impartiality has, in most people’s view, kept the standards
of broadcast journalism high.
However to regulate the British press would almost certainly undermine those aspects of it which the public love.
The unpalatable truth for those who are concerned is
that the tabloid newspapers most often complained about are the most
successful in the country.
They understand their readership intimately and market
themselves skilfully and relentlessly. As a result, they are profitable
However, in many ways these are the problems of the old
world of news and information. What is fast coming upon us is the new
information revolution which, in the long term, may transform the
relationships between press, public and politics.
News is free
Just as the printing press and later the end of
licensing produced a seismic shift in public debate 300 years ago, the
internet is having a similar impact now. Information, knowledge and
public access are being redistributed, with consequences we have only
just begun to feel.
Tabloid newspapers are popular the world over
The news business has been based on a model of limited information
gathered by select organisations with the resources to do so, and then
distributed in ways controlled by the media or the regulators.
That world has gone. We now have unlimited information
available – it has been commoditised and democratised. Thanks to the
internet, the role of media gatekeeper has gone.
Information has broken free and top-down control is slipping inexorably away.
For 70 years the BBC World Service has broadcast
programmes around the world using studios, lines and huge transmitters.
Today the same thing can be done with just a laptop and an internet
Google News uses an algorithm to do what it used to take a newsroom of dozens of people to do.
News organisations do not own the news any more. They
can validate information, analyse it, explain it, and they can help the
public find what they need to know.
But they no longer control or decide what the public
know. It is a major restructuring of the relationship between public
and media. But it will affect politics and policy as well.
People can now address politicians directly, and
politicians can reach the public without going through the media any
more. Public discourse is becoming unmediated.
As a consequence the roles of all professionals are
changing and if journalists are becoming people who help manage
information, perhaps NHS Direct is an example of health professionals
becoming people who help individual manage their own health.
The availability of information and the pressure for
transparency is raising new political issues which we have not had to
The recent debate about the resettling of sex offenders
in the UK is one example. Ten years ago the same issue existed, but
no-one had the information to confront it.
The information revolution is in its earliest stages.
But it has the potential to alter the dynamics of public debate, and
the interaction between politics, media and the public, beyond
Richard Sambrook took part in a panel discussion on
the relationship between the British press and politicians, and the
changes that new technology and citizen journalism might bring to the
news industry at the Oxford Media Convention on Thursday