By John Lloyd
NEW YORK, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Last month, Mark Thompson, the new chief executive of the New York Times Co. and former director-general of the BBC, gave a short series of lectures in Oxford. In between jobs, he warned that words were losing their democratic heft. The lectures were little noticed because they largely did not touch on the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which had just been revealed. Thompson denied all knowledge of the scandal, so no articles - as far as I have seen - were written.
Yet Thompson’s remarks are crucial to our understanding of modern politics everywhere, and the journalism that reports on it. They were wholly concerned with the use of language, the bedrock of all media. They expressed a deep worry - at times, a real pessimism - about the health of the democratic debate because of the abuse of words.
Part of Thompson’s theme was that much of the news put out by the media is, to many who watch or listen or read, unintelligible - “might as well be in Sanskrit.” That is especially the case of news that attempts to describe what is happening in the economy, a subject replete with acronyms, concepts and mysterious institutions.
Deeper than that, though, is another concern: that the rhetoric employed by politicians, commentators and other public figures is destructive of trust and of real engagement. “The public language that most people actually hear and are influenced by,” Thompson said, “is changing in ways that make it more effective as an instrument of political persuasion but less effective as a medium of explanation and deliberation” (his emphasis).
The main example he gave was the phrase “death panel,” used by the former governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, to describe the - wholly voluntary - medical interview that, under Obamacare, would have been offered to senior citizens about their present and likely future health. Her Facebook post, a model of its kind, read in part:
“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents, or my baby with Down’s syndrome, will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so the bureaucrats can decide whether they are worthy of health care.”
The claim was immensely powerful, and was probably, for most people, the most memorable thing about the complex legislation. In that case, Thompson said, “explanatory power has been wholly sacrificed in the interests of rhetorical impact.” Because this kind of language works so well, it eats away at the more cautious, often ambiguous and provisional language that surrounds the crafting of compromise. Public language, says the man who commanded the broadcaster that carried most of it in the U.K., “is entering a decadent phase - less able to explain, less able to engage except in the purely political, more prone to exaggeration and paranoia.”
Thompson’s lectures constitute an important pointer to the nature of the modern public sphere in the West, where intelligible and truthful speech is supposed to stimulate understanding. At the close of his eight-year tutelage of the broadcaster, Thompson chose to issue a veiled, but harshly pessimistic, warning that the changing nature and intent of public language is alienating men and women from politics and the public sphere. In doing so, he cast doubt on the ability of the media - even of the BBC, which is charged to act in the public interest - to stop a crucial civic rot. The creeping decadence of public language is threatening the mutual comprehension and ability to compromise in pursuit of agreement.
There was another backdrop to Thompson’s lectures, beyond the Savile scandal. That was the imminent publication of the report by Justice Sir Brian Leveson on the behavior of the British tabloids, following the discovery of phone hacking at the News of the World. Leveson has since issued his report and has called for a statutory-backed regulatory system aimed at raising standards.
The government has welcomed tougher regulation but does not want it to be legislated, citing worries about press freedom. The Labour opposition has no such fears, and cites the victims of hacking as justification for a statutory body, backed by state sanctions if regulation fails. The general secretary of Liberty, a leading civil liberties organization, says that Leveson’s recommended system may be illegal. Article 19, a free-speech advocate, calls for its implementation. The debate will be long and fierce (and confusing).
My Reuters colleague Jack Shafer, in his column last week, argued that the fault lies above all with the British readers.
“That the excesses of filth and fury thrive in Britain but falter in the United States tells you a lot about how publishers differ, but it tells you more about the difference in readers. Perhaps the biggest problem in the U.K. is not unethical publishers and unethical reporters but contemptible readers who sanction criminality and privacy invasion every other time they buy a disreputable copy at the newsstand maybe they don’t deserve a free press.”
In spite of the sweeping dismissal of the taste and morals of my fellow Britons, I think Shafer has a point, one I took all the more after I had digested Thompson’s lectures. If we do not think through the consequences of the purchase of illegally acquired stories; if we do not exert ourselves to seek to understand the nature of our society and politics; if we cap that by dismissing politics and politicians whom we have not taken the trouble to understand as “all the same out for themselves,” we may soon not deserve a free society, let alone a free press. Thomson’s parting gift to Britain is a bitter one.
( John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine. )