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December 18, 2017

RECENT research into British Library archives of my home town newspaper, the North Wales Chronicle, unearthed this item in 1911, the date of my paternal grandmother’s birth and one year before the Titanic sank.

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The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality of December 1, 1911, established in 1803, cost one penny and consisted of eight pages – Page 1 – all adverts, larger at the top and smaller at the bottom of the page; Page 2 – Sports news, mainly Bangor City football and adverts; Page 2 – Woman’s World and Bangor petty sessions; Page 4 – a leader column, social diary of the great and the good, obituaries and classified advertisements and snippets of news on items like the servant tax and Welsh disestablishment; Page 5 – Stop Press, latest news, BMDs and some national and international news; Page 6 – Sport, not football; Page 7 – letters and local stories; Page 8 – City news in briefs, district news, parish notes and Sunday church services.

Out of Print, a boo0k by journalism professor George Brock (Kogan Page, London, £19.99) chronicles the slow and gradual death of print products as we speed ever faster into a digital new world and invites us to engage in a debate about what should replace newspapers.

“Because journalism lives on the frontier between democratic purposes and the commercial market, it is constantly being reorganized and renegotiated. But for all the fluctuations, something of enduring worth is captured by the term “journalism”. That value now has to be made visible again by a new generation,” he concludes at a time when we read in UK Press Gazette of new newspaper closures and sackings every day.

Journalists, or perhaps, more accurately, staff on newspapers who covered community events and affairs generations before the young people who aspire to be journalists now appear, to me, to have been holding up a mirror to the privileged, entitled classes – probably because they could afford to pay subscriptions for their products – rather than even attempting to expose and prevent their wrongdoing and corruption.

In order to do that, of course, the journalists had to be either members of the local educated and prosperous elite themselves with meaningful and close connections to the movers and shakers (many of whom appear in reports to be pompous and self important idiots) or must have been aspirant social climbers with more to lose by offending these bigwigs than to gain by exposing them.

This revelation is hugely significant to me as academics ponder the implications for society and for democracy, both local and national, in a future without mainstream press where citizens now regularly have their own uncensored and unrestrained voice with no professional standards and rules on social media and in blogs like mine.

Scans of the newspaper from 1911, for instance, show that Bangor society seemed to very clearly and unambiguously, almost enthusiastically, in fact, separate into A, the great and the good – land owners, civic servants on the local council, freemasons, the gentry living in permanent luxury, military officers and prominent trade and retail magnates – and B, the low and the bad – imbeciles, lunatics and the feeble minded housed in asylums, poor people in workhouses or paying rent in slum dwellings, petty criminals and deviants and the morally sinful, who were shunned and avoided.

Staff on the North Wales Chronicle who wrote up reports of Bangor City Council in 1911, for instance, were taking copious shorthand notes at meetings in an attempt to faithfully and accurately give an almost verbatim report of what was said, when and by whom and they were doing so completely without irony or criticism of any kind (perish the thought).

Some of it reminded me of an erstwhile colleague of mine who insisted on quoting people he had interviewed exactly as they had spoken (rustic types often with no coherent rhythm or formal command of language) and objected when I tried to re-write their utterances to make them seem less rustic and obviously untutored as an act of kindness to these poor people.

Comment or speculation was completely off the agenda and all staff, who were never named themselves as there appeared to be no bylines or staff names, appeared, to me, to accept totally and without question the concept of a two-tier society and invested wholeheartedly in the concept of a hierarchical structure with God and the King and Queen and the Prime Minister  at the head leading down to local drunkards and ne’er-do-wells in the town gutter.

Brock’s book starts with this quote from Google’s director of news Richard Gingras: “The time is gone when one side of the (news) organisation can practise determined ignorance of the other.”

Brock rightly criticises mainstream media companies for arrogance and contempt for their readers and a ridiculous inability to accurately predict the future and then change their working practices and worldview to keep themselves relevant and valuable but fails to offer any solutions or alternatives which would safeguard journalistic jobs.

Google, of course, is both the newspaper and the shop now and no money changes hands at all. The educated, prosperous elite no longer pay for wholehearted, official weekly, daily or monthly confirmation of their prejudices and worldviews.

The local bigwigs in 1911 were never challenged, confronted or in any way held accountable as society was structured specifically to enrich and enoble them.

Does this reflect the fact that modern society is not as socially divided and more readily enables and empowers more people to challenge and confront established norms and deferential structures in society? I’m not so sure.

“News hungry consumers have spotted that established media have managed for a long time to hide their drift into a high degree of sameness, duplication and oversupply. This slow convergence happened because of pressures on reporting resources, laziness and the common herd instinct to imitate success. But most of all it happened because it could; readers didn’t know or care,” writes Brock.

But why would readers – many of whom must have been gradually rising to dangerous boiling points of anger over decades at the deferential indulgences of the mainstream press – care about the future of a product they never really had a stake in at all?

The question, of course, revolves around authority and who should have the authority to write, comment and report and who should read or receive it.

If there are no longer deliverers or messengers and receivers and acceptors are we now just throwing rubbish masquerading as information around in the air with no strategic destination or system of ordering or tailoring it?

I read blogs rather than mainstream media because of the fact that they are deliciously authentic in a way that mainstream media never was. They also offer genuine interaction in a way which newspapers never did

Newspaper journalism was always a cunning conceit that prevented and protected far more than it ever exposed and illuminated. The absence of authenticity was due to the fact that we were working for wages, reporting to bosses and offering value for money so we were writing what we were paid to write rather than what we really wanted to write.

But, of course, the requirement to verify the accuracy of the information published online is casual and haphazard as I know only too well.

“How strange that technology has brought us into a world where there are no fixed places any more. You speak out of nowhere, you can be anywhere and because nothing can be checked, anything you choose to imagine is, at bottom, true.” writes Daniel Kehlman in his novel Fame.

And there is the requirement to persist in producing words and pictures when there is no guarantee of payment or of anyone who expresses interest in what you write and photograph.

This raises questions about the true purpose and role of a journalist in society and it brings us back to the North Wales Chronicle of 1911 when no attempt was made to offer balance, challenge and impartiality at all.

Rules on objectivity and impartiality, factual accuracy and fairness “did not take hold until journalism was being bought by mass readerships composed of many varieties and belief.” Indeed, one wonders if the concept of being “impartial” “balanced” and “unbiased” really hampered rather than helped?

I can allow you to read for yourself other articles, books and photographs simply by placing their addresses on this blog. You don’t have to go to the library any more, the library is in your mobile phone.

No such service was available to me or to you when I was reporting for newspapers. I wrote it because I had been told it and you read it because you were a consumer and not a producer.

Brock poses two key questions:

1, Are journalists prepared to be judged by a standard of truth? and

2, Is journalism doing something of public value?

The fact that I can access the North Wales Chronicle in 1911 and read about what life was like in my home town then, even if from a bizarrely weird standpoint, shows that it is and always will be of public value. Family history researchers have made massive discoveries – many unpleasant and shocking when they find that great, great granddad was a mass murderer – by scouring archive material in newspapers from centuries ago.

Truth, however, is becoming far more problematic and notoriously difficult to pin down and classify without offending minority groups. We are now moving into a transgendered world where established norms and categories routinely employed in mainstream journalism of old are being aggressively challenged and rejected by liberal feminist pressure groups and this means that the rules are fluid and non-existent and it is difficult to write anything anymore which does not offend or degrade. The next Census will not ask you to state your gender.

I am liberal in many ways and happy to observe and be enlightened by some modern trends but simply refuse point-blank to re-adjust my thinking and expression so as not to offend a small group of other more passive aggressive people. I am comfortable, largely, with Mr Man and Miss or Mrs Woman because it is a remarkably efficient and wonderfully speedy way to establish life’s fundamentals.

The credibility of journalism is also crucial. I heard Watergate veteran reporter Carl Bernstein address a group of journalism students at Cardiff University on declining journalistic standards but he neglected to tell them that he had obtained phone and credit records illegally, deceived sources and outed one of their FBI sources.

It amuses me greatly when I hear of the faux sanctimony of older journalists concerning the activities of phone hacking journos who more recently accessed private voicemail messages on mobile phones. Some of them speak as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.

The public, of course, are not stupid and usually read between the lines of the “illimitable prurience of British newspapers and their ruthless, sanctimonious targeting of public figures”.

Bright, energetic new journalists are “people who throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks” Brock concludes.

They will be spending most of their time investigating perceived slights and offences perpetrated on members of the LGBTQ+ community if the journalists at Cardiff University student rag Gair Rhydd are anything to go by (this week’s “scoop” is about a student who went to Revolution nightclub in Cardiff and was turned away by security staff allegedly because the person refuses to be classified by gender and wishes to dress somewhat ambiguously).

But what is missing is a structured, well resourced and authoritative, secure and solid  system of training young people in fact capturing, fact checking and fact presenting.

Old newsroom whisky-soaked trusties who had seen and done almost all would pore over my copy and point out horrendous mistakes I made when I set out in journalism in 1981 to save me from embarrassment and degradation. It was a discipline I benefitted from over many years in many different settings, professional and academic, and it served me well and still does.

Today’s and tomorrow’s journalists, however, will have to make their mistakes online in front of the rest of the world totally without the guiding and disciplining hand of older parental authority figures huddled around warm fires in busy newsrooms who used to warn and guide them against falling on the wrong side of society by offending, abusing or misreporting on the activities of the rich and powerful.

I hope that they will learn, like I have, from the unacknowledged and unrecognised mistakes and mishaps and the offensive conceit of hopelessly compromised mainstream media of the past which made themselves and their masters rich.

The lion kings and queens have all gone home to lick their wounds and live off their pensions or sold out to public relations to confirm all my worst fears. Now let loose the little snarling cubs to wreak havoc.

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