Sunday, 15 August 2010

F*** Dacre!

Nick Davies in Flat Earth News gives a new name to our modern day media: churnalism. The production line manufacture of news, that is often lacking content, is sometimes pure fiction, and is always open to the manipulations of the PR industry, that increasingly supplies many of the stories.

In Pile It On I suggested that the office had now been turned into a factory, with all the usual effects – both on the product and the employee. In Neal Ascherson’s review of a Hugh Trevor-Roper biography we get another glimpse into this new industrial world:

…he did not grasp how hysterical and dishonest West German media bosses and journalists could be…

…He had no idea of the frantic haste, secrecy and pressure of a big exclusive, in which there is no room for second thoughts. His first glance at the diaries suggested to him that they could be real, but a first glance was all he got. His instinct was not to authenticate them until he had taken more time to reflect, to examine, to wait for the ink and paper tests to be confirmed. But that was not on offer. As Sisman writes, ‘his mistake was to have allowed himself to be hustled’ into stating that the diaries were genuine. When he did change his mind, the Sunday Times presses were already rolling. Murdoch said: ‘Fuck Dacre. Publish.’ Within a week, Hugh Trevor-Roper became the butt of the world’s reading public. (my emphasis)

Think of your own experiences, in companies where costs and jobs are cut, and the workload increases; and all exacerbated by the email culture – there is little time for second thoughts.

Then we have the increasing use of quantitative measures to assess performance, both in the wider culture and within individual institutions. However, the quality of an object is often difficult to gauge by universal rules and measurements – how do you compare an 18th century Chippendale chair with one from British Home Stores? Experience and taste will tell you, but will its size, weight and proportions alone give you any indication? If you decide to make chairs using only this universal standard, how much quality, beyond the level of mere functionality, can you achieve?

There is also something in the process of quantitative measurement itself that changes the product. Davies’ churnalism: with more news outlets the pressure to produce more stories increases, though this is not reflected in a proportionate rise in journalists – in fact their numbers have been cut. The result? The quality of the individual story counts less than the overall number of stories. Under pressure of time facts and events are not investigated; but rather a selection of “facts”, often opinion or outright fabrication, are collated to produce a story. That is, a certain depth and critical insight, the very things that often make a column or article interesting, are missing. In the wider world this pressure of time and heavy workload can either lead to heavy backlogs of work, or to skimming or frantic haste, with no room for second thoughts. This trend is reinforced by monitoring and measurement, which, because of its very nature, will tend to look at the quantitative aspects of work only. And of course, the larger the firm the greater the distance from office floor to head office; thus staff become mere numbers, cells on a spreadsheet, and thus the messy reality of daily work is turned into the purity of statistical analysis. In an environment of costing savings the temptation is always to reduce the amount of time a task can be achieved – the numbers tell us so!

Life is increasingly governed by these rational processes – in the large companies there are staff paid just to do statistical analysis, which in turn will modify the workflows and labour force -; while entertainment and our social life are increasing industrialised, with products and trends manufactured to produce the maximum profit and target audience. At the same time high technology has allowed vast improvements in the automation of the work process; often simplifying it, making it more instinctive – you no longer need to think to use a cash register. Reviewing these trends Ernest Gellner suggested that as the economy is run along more rational lines, the wider culture will become more irrational – both in work and in our leisure time. He wondered if this would lead to a crisis; where irrationality and instinct would crowd out the rational behaviours (what he calls our instrumental rationality) needed to operate the economic machinery…. One answer to his question is that more and more parts of our economy are being made simpler; requiring less thought and reflection. And thus the numbers required to be well educated are reduced. Are we returning the older model of education, before the rise of industry and the modern state, where only a few of the population were literate? And does explain recent trends in education – its content not important, for most will not need it?

There are other irrational effects produced by testing and targets. Take the recent scandal in New York, where the rises in educational performance have been shown to be a scam:

In just one year, average scores for all New York City elementary pupils zoomed by an unheard of 11%.

Even more astonishing, fifth graders recorded a 20% increase.

All across the state, scores rose by an average of 9%, and even beleaguered Buffalo's schools matched the jump our city students registered. (Juan Gonzalez May 2009)

After the fantasy, the free-fall into reality:

Now, state officials have revealed a startling nosedive in test scores. Admitting that results from previous years had been inflated, the state announced tougher standards this year - resulting in the lower scores. Thousands of parents who had been told their children were at grade level are suddenly learning they aren't. (Juan Gonzalez July 2010)

What is supposed to improve education actually impoverishes it; because the profession itself ceases to be important. For the main driver on policy is what education represents – success, high profile politics, media celebrity and power. Thus for the government and the education establishment it is the numbers themselves that become the most important factor– not the actual content of the pupil’s education.

"After seven years of these improved test scores, how come the children we're getting in high school aren't reading any better and don't show any greater love of literature?" said a veteran secondary school principal who scoffed when she heard the results. (Juan Gonzalez May 2009)

Often these manoeuvres are linked to baser motives. In the May 2009 article Juan Gonzalez is sceptical of the figures, linking their rise to the mid-term elections. In Flat Earth NewsDavies shows how the new journalism is governed by the profit motive; and subject to the interests of the corporate state. Which has changed over the years; with a new elite in charge since the 1980s. Ascherson captures something of this in his review:

He [Trevor-Roper] had no illusions about Murdoch: ‘He aims to moronise and Americanise the population … wants to destroy our institutions, to rot them with a daily corrosive acid.’ Yet he did almost nothing as Murdoch tore up his agreements with the directors, threatened to sack 600 staff members and imposed his own standards of journalism. Instead, he stayed on the board for another six years. Perhaps he felt that, as an ‘independent’ director, he was a superior being who should not descend to the squabbles of tycoons and journalists. If so, it’s hard to forgive – much harder than his behaviour over the diaries. 

The judgement is so right! It may give some clues to why the British establishment were so easily rolled over in the 1980s by the new money, and their political representative: Margaret Thatcher. Though of course, they are merely actors in wider trends of modernisation and industrialisation… Will it make human units of us all?

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