The modern media as it exists today is a fusion of two polar opposites. Like the twin snakes of the DNA double helix they dance as an uneasy coupling waiting to divide at some point in the future. One half was born ahead of the other. We call it propaganda but it's more accurately heard as the sound of a victor crowing over the defeated. The triumphant holler of a cave man that has beaten the tribe’s alpha male in empty handed, physical combat. The shouting of a knight on horseback who has decapitated a local elder and told terrified peasants he's collecting something called “taxes” from now on. What is his message if not propaganda? The army to which that hypothetical knight belonged may visit that town again in the future to one day to hang an advertisement on the local village hall: “wanted, fine men to defend the honour of King and country”. What is this, if not the media propaganda of yore?
However, to think of the media we have today only in such terms is to sell the rainbow short of its colour. The truth is, there exists a second contrary streak to this double headed beast. The second strand is the bitter supressed snarl of the fallen. It’s sound the snake in the grass which hisses as it leaves the garden whispering thoughts of revenge. It’s the rumble of dissent, ever present when the biggest caveman on the block isn’t there. The questioning voice of the shaman figure who debates a King’s entitlement to “taxes”. The sound of a mother who begs her son not to join the army and be killed in foreign lands. It’s a sound more popular than anyone can ever dare admit.
Our modern Western media is a fusion of both these forms of expression but it doesn’t like to admit it. The panacea of Government patronage guarantees a place at the head of the table but a veneer of consent is demanded in return. The closer to the top of the table you get the more you must hold your tongue to keep your place. However, it serves everyone well to remember that side which is born from the darkness.
The most obvious expression of this comes with “the pamphleteers”. They were a collection of 18th Century rascals, demagogues and religious hotheads who used a new invention called “the printing press” to write some of the most offensive and scandalous pages ever composed by the literate. These characters are frequently seen as creating the right environment for revolution! They didn’t do that by worrying if someone was offended or if their Government grant might be cut next year. The most famous of them was called Jean-Paul Marat. He at one point, almost symbolically, lived in the sewers, so hated was he by the people he attacked in his pamphlet editorials. For good reason, he would frequently publish lists of people who he thought should be put to death.
The legacy of these people comes to us through the ages via their offspring the tabloid newspapers or ‘the gutter press,’ as it is commonly known. "Outrageous" headlines and open political bias are just some of the trappings this heritage leaves.
I personally believe that the comparison between the printing press and the internet is incredibly worthwhile. “What gunpowder did for war, the printing press did for the mind” I would update to “what the bomber plane did for warfare, the internet will do to your mind”. The point is that the intellectual period which is described by the first quote, The Enlightenment, was relevant to a small group of persuasive intellectuals who mostly lived in Europe. This time round it’s an alteration of consciousness that will, in theory, touch most of the minds on the planet.
For better or for worse we’re about to see the kind of change that Europe saw in the wake of the enlightenment and without question the neo-pamphleteers are here. They write blogs, do online radio shows, youtube, tweet, facebook and wordpress. There are thousands of them and collectively they have a huge global audience. If the so called mainstream media is to compete it needs to embrace the less “respectable” side of its heritage. I suggest it claims the legacy of the pamphleteers, the gutter press and the sound of articulate dissent.
It's for this reason that I'm still watching The Leveson Inquiry with interest. It's a real boring media story but it's vitally important because there's a constant subtext to it: that the media by law should have a code of ethics that is written out and agreed upon by politicians. No matter what, this should be resisted at all costs by both those who work in the media as it would ultimately leave our profession barren and irellevant in comparison with the internet where the sharp tongued underbelly of the pamphleteers is more than welcome.