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Comment - Media

“Freedom of expression” is one thing; “freedom of anonymous publication” is another thing entirely

There is a current obsession in the Irish media with securing instant online reaction from readers and audiences. I am by no means convinced that online comment by readers of online newspapers adds anything at all to the quality of the journalism or to the enjoyment of the reader. Nor does it add revenue. But most newspapers feel compelled to pander to this dubious inter-action on line. Why?

Generally speaking, I find that instant online comment is of poor quality, poor understanding, and poor judgment. The tone of much of it is cynical, dismissive, unpleasant and unkind. People seem to be more vicious, more careless with the facts, and more unfeeling when afforded online anonymity. Just because anonymity disinhibits comment does not mean that it is thereby improved. Inhibition often serves truth, civility and rationality.

In contrast with published Readers’ Letters, on line comment is un-edited and lightly supervised. The online commentator seems so often to be angry, sour and ill-informed. Why afford parity of esteem to such comment and to good journalism and careful commentary?

Worse than all of that is the anonymity which distinguishes most online comment from old-fashioned published Readers’ Letters. If newspapers really do have self-esteem for the quality of their printed journalism, why, oh why, do they allow their online columns to become infested with anonymous or pseudonymous input?

If one of the problems of the Information Age is the proliferation of “post truth” disinformation to the detriment of reliable and accountable journalism, is there any logical reason why quality media outlets should themselves encourage such activity by affording them parity of esteem?

“Freedom of expression” is one thing; “freedom of anonymous publication” is another thing entirely. Most quality newspapers dropped the practice of allowing readers’ letters to be published using pseudonyms a long time ago. “Disgusted, Dublin” has long been denied access to most Letters Pages on the basis that he or she should stand over their opinions and assertions.

Take the local example of “”. As a political chatroom, it has, despite a promising start, degenerated into a worthless exchange of cynical backbiting and abuse by a small group of anonymous insider contributors whose bile is largely matched by their ignorance. It is become so juvenile and ill-informed that it is generally painful to read. It is the online equivalent of old-fashioned graffiti on the walls of toilet cubicles. A good forum in concept has become a fetid backwater in practice – the fruit of anonymity.

There is, of course, a deep vein of self-serving hypocrisy running through the mind-set of the social media world. The privacy of the user is sacrosanct. The idea that one’s online activity might be open to surveillance is anathema. But, at the same time, the “right” to anonymously propagate one’s views and assertions of fact to the world is equally sacrosanct. But is that right?

The Pirate Party movement is another case in point. Its origins lie in an asserted “right” to secretly steal copyright creative material with impunity. The mind-set of the Pirate movement is all to do with “rights” and nothing to do with “duties”. Online newspapers only pander to the Pirate mentality by making their content available free. Pay-walls of any kind are anathema to a generation brought up on a diet of taking things free.

Likewise, many radio programmes seem to crave instant listener feed-back like a drug. Sophisticated PR practice ensures that when a personality is interviewed on radio, there is instant arranged “spontaneous” positive commentary, sent in online to create the right overall impression of the interviewee. All anonymous, of course. Instant feed-back is so vulnerable to manipulation but it is presented as authentic.

But when you think about it, the best of radio programming on these islands has little or no instant listener feed-back. Broadcasters lack confidence when they beg for instant feed-back by way of affirmation. And the kind of person who gives them instant feed-back is by no means to be assumed as the typical listener. When the Late Late show featured instant on-screen ticker-tape type feed-back, it didn’t really add value to the programme.

When traditional newspapers are under such a threat from online competition in the social media (and they are), it is strange to see them becoming subject to a form of Stockholm Syndrome involving complete prostration before their competitors.

If you have confidence in your own editorial judgment, why spend time informing readers online that one article or another is “Most Read”? It is useful information to the editor but it is of doubtful value to the reader.

If we truly value our print media and our domestic broadcasters, there are things that we can do to help them deal with globalised online competition.

A zero-rate VAT, as distinct from exemption, should be considered for the Irish printed media. The EU Commission opposes such measures. But right across Europe the print media are under threat. The EU Commission’s ideological commitment to VAT harmonisation should simply not be permitted to assist in the annihilation of printed journalism.

Pretended concern about the emergence of the post-truth society and its implications for democracy does not sit easily with indifference to the fate of printed journalism.

Our constitution, in its Fundamental Rights chapter, recognises expressly the role of the press as educators of public opinion and as thereby playing a role of “grave import to the common good”. There is every reason to tilt the playing field in favour of the print media insofar as we can.

We simply cannot blithely assume that our print media will seamlessly migrate in good order from print to the internet. Online newspaper publishing is very, very difficult from an economic point of view.

But the Irish media have to face the challenge themselves.

One last comment. Is it really necessary for interviewers on current affairs radio and TV shows to show such disdain, characterised by badgering and interruption, for their local political interviewees but simpering, fawning softness to other journalists and to any representatives of NGOs and interest groups demanding more resources for “good causes”?

The statutory duty of impartiality suggests that scepticism should be more evenly and sparingly distributed. Listeners and viewers might prefer it too.

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