Every now and again a news story breaks whose connotations are so obvious to those working in the media that we forget our duty to explain them to other people. The News International scandal, which today saw the demise of 168 year old newspaper The News Of The World, is such a story. It has flooded television news and slowed down the internet, bewildering those who think of it, ultimately, as just an unfortunate tale of privacy intrusion.
I have talked with a number of people who have been upset that this story is getting so much coverage when other important matters aren't. I quite agree with them that issues such as the mass rapes and murders in Sudan, the catastrophic violence against women in Nicaragua and the pogroms against LGBT people in Iraq are more shocking, more disturbing. I agree that such matters deserve extensive coverage. But that is precisely why I consider it vital that the News International story stay in the headlines now.
As this scandal has encouraged opportunistic politicians to talk about state regulation of the press (as if regulation by a neutral independent body were not even a possibility), it has set up the false dichotomy of a state controlled press (certainly an unpleasant prospect) versus a 'free press'. The truth is that there can be no such thing as a free press if our major newspapers and broadcasting companies are owned by a tiny handful of people. Corporate influence is no more bound to be politically neutral than government influence. The vast majority of journalists (assuming they want to be paid) don't get to write about what they want. Even section editors have limited control where powerful editors-in-chief and owners are involved. They are told what to cover. They are told what constitutes the news.
This situation no longer represents the fait accompli that it once did. The internet means that people now have access to many more sources of news. Yet the fact is that only a small proportion of them actually take advantage of this. Many millions more still depend on red top newspapers as one of their principal sources of news. Research suggests that they are increasingly cynical about this news , yet it still shapes their world view - and, perhaps most importantly of all, it delineates what they are unaware of.
Without a balanced picture of what is going on around the world, it is difficult for people to understand major political issues like how we get involved in wars, why terrorist threats occur (and how seriously we should take them), and why people seek asylum here. But it's not only in their filtering of world news that the red tops routinely distort the political landscape. Heavily biased social and sometimes party political agendas distort their coverage of what goes on in the UK. They can bring down governments - witness their unrelenting attacks on Gordon Brown - or they can connive with governments they like to keep challenging ideas off the agenda.
Why would they do this? There are two reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, they have a self-perpetuating agenda. In order to get away with behaviour like that we have seen from the news of the World, they have to minimise government interference. In order to maximise profits, they have to keep their tax situations comfortable. And so forth. When a political party depends on you to stay in power, this is relatively easy to arrange. Secondly, there is power for its own sake. Many people crave it. When they have it, they want to use it, to shape society as they see fit. See, for example, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who has a moral agenda that includes the denigration of LGBT people. This is the reason why we saw yesterday's peculiar attack on soap operas by Brian Sewell, clearly out of step with how the majority of the paper's readers actually feel.
Of course, we all like to feel that we are not influenced by this sort of thing. If we are good liberal types we may like to believe that other people are more sophisticated that we give them credit for, too. That's fair enough, but there are complicating factors. Most people outside media related professions don't really have much time to consult a variety of news sources, nor even to research particular stories they distrust. Furthermore, people are influenced in all sorts of subtle ways by the views of those around them, and if those views have been shaped by politically biased newspapers, those papers will still be able to advance their agenda.
If you ask people who actually work in journalism, you'll find that most - including those who work for red tops - agree that there are really important stories that don't get the coverage they deserve. Many will also agree that those stories can be written so as to interest the public, even if they are about places that are far away or with which those readers have no personal connection. Part of the art of writing news, after all, is to make readers feel they have a personal connection. So it would be perfectly possible to run a news organisation that carried stories like this. The reason it doesn't happen is that it simply doesn't interest those with established financial and political power bases.
To change the media is to change society. There is no more profound cultural influence, and cultural change lies at the base of every major political and economic change. The media, more than anything else, is where power lies in the modern world. This is why we cannot tolerate corruption and abuse within it; why we cannot risk letting monopolies form; why we must promote the representation of a diverse range of viewpoints. This is why the battle for justice at News International must go on. If we fail, most of us will never hear about the other things that matter in the first place.