This was a debate held at the Watershed in Bristol tonight as part of the Festival of Ideas and an NUJ/MediaAct/Media Wise joint project to look at the future of journalism and the impact of the blogosphere. It was a lively event with a well chosen panel (actually two panels) and the whole thing was streamed, tweeted and no doubt heavily blogged so I won’t summarise everything here but I will give my reaction.
The internet is full of a lot of stuff and of course it’s not all of a high ethical and moral standard with diligently checked sources and open, honest debate, but then neither is the mainstream media. Some of tonight’s speakers mentioned the continuous lies and disinformation printed by certain widely read newspapers and, to be honest, it’s amazing that there is still such widespread trust in the printed word. An intelligent, interested person can easily find the facts (or lies) behind most, if not all, news stories with a little bit of digging around on the internet. In most cases you’ll likely find a number of blogs have done the hard work for you, providing links to verify the information.
There was a lot of talk about regulation, whether it’s necessary or helpful, and whether it could or should be applied to blogs. The PCC came in for a lot of criticism but of course any code will have its restrictions, both in what it can cover and how it can be applied. A lot of panel-members felt this was covered by self-policing, which is in some ways laughable if we’re just talking about the Fleet Street old boys club, but when you take the internet into account it does begin to make sense. There are lots of people out there ready to point out your mistakes and this actually makes it a little scary publishing anything at all on the internet. Once it’s out there it’s out there, even if there wasn’t a general rule that you shouldn’t remove your mistakes but instead add an update explaining them, or that you shouldn’t delete the comments that point them out. Both rules, by the way, that I don’t think are as widely known and acted on as some of tonight’s speakers seemed to think.
And that, I suppose, would be the point of having some kind of code of conduct that bloggers could sign up to. Yes, it’s only those who would have followed the rules anyway who would sign up, but not every reader is internet-savvy enough to know the rules of netiquette and I think it would help some of those people to sift through the endless words on the internet to find ones that have some semblance of trustworthiness.
Unsurprisingly I think the internet is a wonderful thing, a gigantic leap forward for humankind, and it saddens me that there are people who think of it as a means of opting out from “real” interaction and action. I doubt I have to persuade anyone reading this, but that opinion was voiced tonight and I have to rebut. How many campaigns, marches, demonstrations, petitions and meetings are organised on the internet, using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc? How many local events have been revitalised since they gained the tool that is the internet to communicate, research and publicise? How many genuine, true, life-changing friendships are forged on its pages, or kept alive by it? I could go on and on. I won’t.
It was a privilege to hear Iqbal Tamimi speak about her work since having to leave her home in Palestine, how she has used the internet to get information out and voices heard. This matter of getting news from behind closed doors, getting deep into human rights issues, raised the question (again) of anonymity and whether it should be a right, covered in law or at least some journalism code of conduct. The ever eloquent Brooke Magnanti reminded us how near impossible it is to maintain anonymity, whether in the face of hungry tabloids or extreme governments there will be someone who has the ability to track down and identify you. Here in the privileged West it’s easy to say that anyone who has something to say should be willing to put their name to it and that may or may not be true, but it’s a very different story when simply speaking the truth about your daily life, your government, your country can land you in jail or have you killed. That people are brave enough to write in the face of horrific punishments, simply because they want the world to know what’s happening, that is true journalism.
A huge thank you to all who those behind tonight’s event. It was fantastically interesting and I think by the end everyone was nodding along in agreement to all the very reasonable things being said.