2020: The time for Satyagraha
After years of media disruption, it's time to set wrongs right with the power of truth, writes Raymond Snoddy
You may not be intimately acquainted with Satyagraha, a rather obscure opera by American composer Philip Glass.
Yet Satyagraha could end up being a useful watchword for journalism, the media and the advertising industry in the exquisitely numbered year, 2020 and the decade to follow.
Roughly translated from the Sanskrit the word means “truth force,” or perhaps we can call it the more familiar “force of truth.”
The best of opera often involves a symbolic battle between the forces of good and evil with the outcome in the balance until the end of the final act. 2020 looks set to stage a fight to the death between those who value the force of truth and those who would undermine it in their own selfish interests.
It is a battle that has been coming and growing in strength in response to 10 years of disruption.
The decade that has just ended, has for media and communications, seen the unbridled march of technology and the internet and subsequent rise and rise of everything from social media to endless streams of video and the decline of traditional media.
The current decade will involve trying to grapple with the consequences of such endless bounty, and somewhere at the heart of the issue will have to be the force of truth.
Luckily we have already had a few years' experience with unusual levels of fake news, alternative facts and barefaced lies and have already started to fight back.
It will still be a challenge. While operatic struggles can so easily be parodied as hopelessly theoretical, fanciful and unrealistic, the force of truth will somehow have to be deployed to deal with the daily detail and practicalities of current communications, now unfolding before our eyes.
The small, apparently harmless skirmishes will, unless we are very careful, lead to the permanent loss of a succession of freedoms.
The threats include advertisers who have too little care where their ads appear if they are cheap enough and seem to work well in the short term.
At the same time, too many journalists seem to be entangled comfortably, in what can only be called systems of propaganda, unlikely to serve their readers' interests: licenced to mislead.
Broadcasting, and the BBC in particular, has to decide what to do about blatant attempts at bullying by governments that are markedly right wing by recent standards. Such governments appear intent on casting themselves adrift from conventional norms of behaviour in civic society, and even demonstrate a loose grasp on fundamental concepts such as the rule of law.
It can be done and the optimists include Daniel Finkelstein the political columnist of The Times who believes that “haltingly and with all the fallibility we have” the struggle towards the light has been renewed.
This year we can predict that finally action will be taken against some of the abuses that originate from the tech giants of California from Facebook to Google.
Ministers now seem determined to impose a “duty of care” on the tech companies backed up by fines and the threat of criminal prosecutions against social media executives who fail to protect their users.
The plan is to require Ofcom to draw up legally enforceable codes of practice covering everything from terrorism and illegal weapons and drug sales to cyberbullying, self-harm and harassment.
While the detail of such proposed legislation will be vital, and will have to be scrutinised for threats to freedom of expression, it is part of the struggle towards the light.
The time for action is long overdue.
With predictions that advertising revenue will rise by as much as 6 per cent this year it is a benign time for the industry to put its house in order.
The cue could obviously come from a legally enforceable Ofcom code on unacceptable forms of social media communication.
Either voluntarily – or by other means – advertisers should accept that they too have a duty of care and have no place associating themselves, even inadvertently, with harmful media. Too many have been turning a blind eye for too long.
The search for truth, and decency, must be particularly sought in the pages and websites of the majority of national newspapers which so enthusiastically campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union.
It is entirely possible that a Boris Johnson government with the large majority behind it can indeed complete an acceptable trade deal with the EU by the end of this year and that Britain will then head off to new sunny uplands.
It is not the majority view of economists or trade specialists and somehow the force of truth must be deployed to deal in facts - however unpalatable – should the more optimistic scenarios of the Brexit enthusiasts turn out to be not necessarily so.
An obvious lack of truth could quickly lead to a lack of trust with business consequences.
The greatest challenge to the force or truth is likely to be faced by broadcasters, particularly the BBC.
There have already been crude threats over free licence fees for the over 75s which could cost the BBC £750 million a year, on decriminalising the licence fee which could mean a further £200 million a year hit – and even to the licence fee itself.
So far as journalism is concerned the greatest threat from a cavalier government is the decision to ban ministers from appearing on the Today programme on Radio 4, which has around 7 million listeners a week.
There are even reports that the ban could be extended to Newsnight because the government dislikes a particular journalist hired to appear on the programme.
At the same time there are plans to move political lobby briefings from the House of Commons to Number 9 Downing Street where, in a possible echo of Trumpism, access could be controlled.
This appears part of a rather squalid pattern to manipulate information in a crude way and pump out pap to the social media just like Donald Trump.
The outgoing editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, has warned the media, quoting Benjamin Franklin – “we must all hang together or, most assuredly we will hang separately.”
The force of truth does, however, work in mysterious ways. The absence of ministers on the Today programme has scarcely been missed.
The slack has been taken up by former ministers, such as Jeremy Hunt or Rory Stewart. They are are usually of much higher calibre than their often unknown successors, and are more likely to give honest opinions.
A final word should go to Finkelstein who greeted 2020, and the struggle towards the light, with optimism.
“Here’s to a new decade of truth,” he insisted.
Or as they say in Sanskrit - Satyagraha.