Given our strange and uncertain current political and cultural landscape, it is probably inevitable, but it is still a strange inversion. News itself continues to make news and be the news. And it’s not good news.
In the anglophone world too much of mainstream media is in the doghouse. That is the only term you can use to describe the place where some formerly proud institutions with an important part to play in our democracies now find themselves.
The anti-social mobs on social media are certainly part of this story, taking at will whatever scalps they see crossing their woke horizons. But they are not the only problem. Real mobs are now on the march.
Not content with the news organizations they have already intimidated and infiltrated they are now opening new fronts. Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists have this weekend disrupted the production and distribution of several national newspapers in Britain, after blocking access to three printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch. Printing presses across England and Scotland were successfully targeted. Eighty people were arrested. On Thursday, more than 300 people were arrested during protests in central London.
XR has accused the newspapers and their owners of “failure to report on the climate and ecological emergency” and “polluting national debate” on dozens of social issues. Ten more days of action are planned to put pressure on the government “to do more to act on climate change”. The irony of all this is that they already have much of the media on their side.
But, we might say, mobs will be mobs. Let us just grin and bear it until the storm passes – as these storms invariably do.
The more worrying phenomenon now is that the news organizations themselves are being unduly influenced by the new pseudo-morality which is driving all this. Powerful cliques within some major news outlets, in thrall to the same mobs, are stabbing with their steely knives any of their own who seem to stray from the paths set for them by the pre-determined historical forces which, as neo-Marxists, they see carrying them relentlessly to our future.
In Britain earlier this year Alastair Stewart, the urbane anchor of one of the main evening news programmes, rolled off the block on the pretext of an ambiguous remark on Twitter, duly deemed to be racist. Several months later his wounds are again the subject of examination in a full-page profile in a weekend broadsheet.
In the US we are having instances almost on a weekly basis. James Bennet, editorial page editor at The New York Times fell on his sword in June for allowing the publication of an unacceptable opinion. Then, not long after, Bari Weiss, an acolyte of Bennet’s, also an editor and writer for the paper’s opinion section, resigned, citing what she said was unchecked bullying from colleagues. In an open letter to the paper she depicted the news organization as a place where the free exchange of ideas was no longer welcome.
The Wall Street Journal was also in the news-about-the-news because of rumblings from the shop floor complaining about what was essentially the paper’s disregard for the principles pf the “new morality.” The NYT reported on a letter from a group of Journal staff calling for “more muscular reporting about race and social inequities,” as well as skepticism toward business and government leaders.
In another context one would not fault a group of staff expressing opinions and even disapproval of aspects of the standards of a news organisation. That is a right. This all becomes a worry when it is put in the context of the current readiness of the new moralists to suspend the freedom of those who do not just differ from them but who are deemed in any way not to be singing from the approved hymn-sheet of the New Church of Critical Theory.
What happened to Alastair Stewart?
In January he was obliged to admit to “errors of judgment” in the wake of a Twitter exchange with a black man in which he quoted a Shakespeare passage including the phrase “angry ape”. Reaction of colleagues across the industry who defended him was not enough to save his career with the broadcaster. “I would never use the word ‘racist’ and his name in the same sentence,” said Ranvir Singh, political editor of ITV’s Good Morning Britain. ITV news anchor Julie Etchingham added: “Al is a trusted friend and guide to many of us.”
Despite that and much more, ITN cut ties with Stewart, 68, claiming he had breached editorial guidelines by quoting the line from Measure to Measure. Why? Because if they had not done it, the mob would be after them, threatening their already fragile advertising revenue.
Stewart has been quiet since that traumatic event. But last week he spoke to the Daily Telegraph in a long interview. He talked, not about himself, but about the state of media today.
In 1976, prior to his first job with ITV, he spoke to Frank Copplestone, then managing director. Copplestone asked: “So you’re broad left?” “I said, ‘Yes’. And he said: ‘Right, if we give you a job, all of that stays at the door. You come in here and you leave all of it behind you’. It was almost a throwaway line and was the most profound and influential observation in my entire professional life. I’ve clung to it, not only because it’s right but it helps.”
But he sees how social media has now distorted the whole picture. Partly to blame is a belief “that you can say what you want online. Broadcasters think they can be someone else online, that they can be chameleon-like but they can’t.” He remembers the late ITV News At Ten host and former editor of The Economist, Alastair Burnet: “He always used to say: ‘Never ever forget, it’s the news that’s the star. It’s not you – you’re just lucky enough to impart it’.”
Then there is the salutory little horror story of Andrew Sullivan’s recent profile in the New York Times. Sullivan had been forced to leave New York magazine last month because, according to the NYT, he had not publicly recanted editing an issue of the New Republic published… in 1994. The issue at the time was a symposium on The Bell Curve, a book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein that explored the connection between IQ, class, social mobility and race.
“My crime,” he explained in a Spectator article last week, “was to arrange a symposium around an extract, with 13 often stinging critiques published alongside it. The fact I had not recanted that decision did not, mind you, prevent Time, the Atlantic, Newsweek, the NYT, and New York magazine from publishing me in the following years. But suddenly, a decision I made a quarter of a century ago required my being cancelled. The NYT reporter generously gave me a chance to apologise and recant, and when I replied that I thought the role of genetics in intelligence among different human populations was still an open question, he had his headline: ‘I won’t stop reading Andrew Sullivan, but I can’t defend him.’
“In other words, the media reporter in America’s paper of record said he could not defend a writer because I refused to say something I don’t believe. He said this while arguing that I was ‘one of the most influential journalists of the last three decades’. To be fair to him, he would have had no future at the NYT if he had not called me an indefensible racist. His silence on that would have been as unacceptable to his woke bosses as my refusal to recant. But this is where we now are. A reporter is in fear of being cancelled if he doesn’t cancel someone else. This is America returning to its roots. As in Salem.”
These instances of wokeness as it continues to poison our public life – politics and media – are but the tip of an iceberg. We are in big trouble. One hopes that the “Second Law” – no, not that of thermodynamics – often quoted by James Ehrendorf, a character in The Singapore Grip, J.G. Farrell’s novel about the last days of that British outpost as the Japanese descended on it in 1941, doesn’t spell out the future for our public square.
It runs: “In human affairs, things tend inevitably to go wrong. Things are slightly worse at any given moment than at any preceding moment.”