Lessons from another age

03 Jan 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Lessons from another age

To stand any remote chance of appreciating the future you have to have a feeling for the past, writes Raymond Snoddy

Nothing is ever quite the same as before, and by any standards we are living through astonishing times, but the echoes and the insights are there all the same.

You can see them in a splendid play about the British newspaper industry, which is just about to end its run, and a film about the American industry which opens later this month.

With one set in 1969 and the other two years later they seem like stories from another age - but there again...

The play - Ink - tells the dramatic story of the launch of the tabloid Sun and how the disruptive Rupert Murdoch took an ailing broadsheet and turned it into something the world had never seen before - the Soaraway Sun.

In the course of the play The Sun overtakes what had been the world’s largest selling daily - the Daily Mirror - with the help of Page Three girls.

There was also a relentless focus on what Murdoch thought people wanted rather than what it had been decided from on high they would be given.

There was no technology - absolutely none - but it now looks like a newspaper precursor for the choose-what-you-like world of Facebook and social media where, for good or ill, consumers are finally free to like exactly what they want.

The ultimate irony is that Murdoch-the-disrupter, who overturned the complacency of Mirror owners IPC, was finally disrupted himself by forces he only dimly understood.

Roll on to 1971 and the new film The Post depicts how the Washington Post’s publisher Kay Graham risked the paper’s financial future by pursuing the leaking of the Pentagon papers.

They showed that the Johnson administration had systematically lied about the Vietnam war and led on to the Watergate scandal a year later.

Ancient history? Hardly - the parallels with the present are too obvious to mention, although there has never been anybody quite like Donald J. Trump.

The stars of The Post, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, got it instantly and this will be their statement against what is currently happening in Washington.

Just another newspaper history movie of which there are many, some better than others?

Unlikely, this sounds as if it will be high in political relevance with an importance that is right up to the minute.

It might even amount to a rededication to the cause of revealing uncomfortable facts to politicians with an unsteady grasp of truth.

The Post and Ink are testimony to the fact there have been other disruptive periods in the recent past and that without over-claiming, there could be some lessons to be learned.

Anyone who thinks they can predict the future should study the results of racing tipsters on the Today programme, but maybe trends can be identified and you can put your finger on things that are more likely to happen than not.

More honest to say on the whole what you would most like to occur rather than claiming any knowledge of what will actually happen.

Though the aftershocks will continue for a long time, the big current disruptions have already happened and we are into clearing up some of the debris caused by the communications earthquake.

It is not wildly visionary to predict - as with The Post - that there will be a greater respect in 2018 for verifiable facts from whatever source - a modern democracy, a modern society cannot function if that should not be so, and without it we are all in trouble.

If that premise is accepted then it ought to be possible to predict the next step - significant moves at the political and societal level to tackle the so-far inadequate attempts by the social media tech companies to clean up their act.

They are, and could continue to be, a huge, if disruptive force for good in the development of society, but only if they get better at taking down the sort of stuff that shames any civilised society.

They should not be allowed to hide behind their billionaire status any longer and ignore unintended consequences.

It would be best for all concerned if they do it voluntarily, but if not this will be the year when it could come to regulation or fines - serious fines.

As for the Murdoch of Ink it would now be best, and will probably happen, that the Competition and Markets Authority should be flexible enough to take a broad decision in the public interest.

That would be to allow the Murdoch takeover of all of Sky to go ahead in the sure and certain knowledge that Disney will be the ultimate, acceptable owner of the main Murdoch television interests.

Let’s hope, although it can’t have the status of a prediction, that Disney does the honourable thing and protects the status of Sky News. Its losses would hardly amount to a flea on the back of their balance sheet.

It is difficult to say whether the disruptive streamers have reached their high water mark, although it is unlikely that the current sums will continue to be invested in television drama.

The drama market has the smell of bitcoins about it and a correction could be just round the corner. There is only so much viewing time and so many stories to tell. You can have too much chocolate.

All established broadcasters can now do is stand firm, hold to public service purposes and hope this particular disruption has nearly run its course.

As for Government and the media, the concentration should be on tackling fake news and trying to minimise the impact of a messy Brexit on London as a creative stronghold and centre of ideas. Anything else should be surplus to requirements.

Plans to uproot Channel 4 because there was ultimately no will to privatise it, look positively Victorian - as good an idea as HS2.

It’s such a bad idea the Government should simply let it drift away along with Leveson 2 and enforced regulation of the press.

But alas all of that is a hope rather than a prediction.

In the meantime Happy New Year to Rupert Murdoch, The Sun, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

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