Truth or Fair? 

8 April 2008 tbs.pm/2180

The media and its audience – why one always believes the other knows best

There has recently been controversy upon controversy surrounding TV phone-in polls and competitions, which appeared to whip up a frenzy and to suggest that broadcasting had descended from a once-mighty and innately trustworthy industry into a desperate bunch of frauds. New initiatives and guidelines were created to supposedly allay perceived public fears that without more rules things would only get worse. Who was really the corporate culprit though? Was anyone to blame?

You can tell we’re living in fickle times. Popular and not-so-popular culture has striven through the decades to reflect the attitudes of the times, merrily underpinning a slowly increasing attentiveness and opinionatedness of its audience with parallel developments in technology and delivery.

Throughout the decades until recently, a certain quality once seen as a virtue, named ‘authoritativeness’ was embodied by almost all press, radio and television output with even a tabloid press keen to extol the virtues of speaking for the right-thinking common man.

Even today The Sun, hardly the most high-brow organ of news, strongly and self-confidently points the finger at any authority or celebrity figure who in their opinion has let down the expectations of the said common man and so by implication common decency.

It is this framework that has evaporated over the past two decades to a point where there is no ‘common’ decency any more. Some people’s ideas of what is what is right or proper and what is common sense are different to others.

When the press, broadcasting or government commits a faux pas there are a number of questions that arise. First, who is it who has decided there has been a mistake? Secondly, does this person or organisation decide deliberately to make it their policy to change everybody’s opinion to agreement with theirs?; and third, has the body concerned the wherewithall to be able to be sure that, should anybody throw stones back, their own glasshouse won’t shatter in equally earth-shaking proportions?

When it became public knowledge that people were phoning quiz lines, getting charged but not being entered into the draw, the press reported it as outrage – as if this couldn’t possibly have been expected. The papers spoke as if many people had not realised that each telephone call was not answered, logged and checked by a human operator and that somehow, thousands of phone lines could be cut off by a single computer sitting in a phone services office, the same computer from which a winner would be chosen and the result emailed.

What passed most people by is that, if they were to examine the way they conduct their business at work, they would have to admit that the way they file their emails and documents and communicate what they need to communicate is most often not done in the best way possible.

Most outraged members of the public would argue that they didn’t always have to use computers and not everyone is an I.T. guru, so they can’t be blamed for not realising what ought to be involved in getting themselves trained to handle data and information in a way that wouldn’t cause inefficiencies, make people out of pocket or in government cases not leak millions of peoples’ confidential data to a black hole waiting to be plundered.

The great British public who might be the first to jump with relish onto any bandwagon which seeks to make a broadcaster or government into a fall guy for a hitch like this, will suddenly jump on their collective high horse claiming that all large organisations are there to serve them and should behave in a whiter-than-white manner.

This assumption is automatic for government, broadcasters, banks, insurance companies and indeed any person or body that the public believes has some kind of authoritative power.

At the same time the public at large, over the past couple of decades, has developed a strong dislike of anything authoritative, confusing this with authoritarianism.

Let’s imagine, for example, that a member of the public appeared on Question Time jumping on a minister responsible for putting forward a new policy on redeployment of resources in the Fire Service. That person may hit on facts and figures from that morning’s copy of The Sun, The Metro, The Daily Telegraph or a TV news channel and enjoy making themselves look so well informed by quoting some example about how someone they know, whose house burned down to the ground because a fire engine took twenty minutes to turn up instead of five.

However this same person may be just as likely to be someone who parks their car in a space marked ‘FIRE ACCESS KEEP CLEAR’, their justification being that ‘they’re never going to need it anyway’, despite the fact that one day, a fire appliance may be stuck because of the car left there.

The truth is that the public at large expect far more integrity and honesty from the press and broadcasting than they do of themselves. The public as an organic mass always seeks to put on its best face when going into battle with the high-and-mightiest.

Conversely the press and broadcasting always endeavour to play up to this and try to second-guess what reaction the public would have to finding out about the latest crime, petty or serious.

Two questions are worth asking. Why should anybody be surprised that researchers on television programmes are bullied into short-cut procedures, don’t think twice about faking competition results or even fabricating contestants, and don’t risk their jobs by standing up to their line managers?

Why does anyone think that what goes on in production company offices or studios doesn’t reflect the attitudes of the society from which these workers are drawn?

At one time most people believed that if they simply got themselves a good education, always did their best at what they did, and tried to get everyone else around them to do the same, they’d do well.

These days most people believe that all you need is “do as you’re told even against your better judgment”, otherwise you may find yourself out of a job.

The once-accepted norm of one partner of a couple staying home while another worked (regardless of gender) was financially viable and fairly comfortable but it isn’t now. People have more money to spend but they have more to spend it on, and allied with advances in online shopping and an extended array of media outlets people have become more demanding. They work harder, get more stressed and want more. Often they’re stressed because they can’t use their better judgment at work.

Oddly, however, they still expect those who work for television, radio or newspapers to be immune to these forces. They forget the increasingly competitive and cut-throat commercial pressures they face and expect the media to create output with the honesty and integrity of the Almighty.

The media could try to draw their consumers up to a more highbrow grade of thinking, but unless the viewers, listeners and readers were to appreciate this and demonstrate it through impressively increased audience ratings, there would be said to be ‘no justification’.

Perhaps society should take a long hard look at itself, and ask whether the media operation should reflect reality and give what people supposedly want without question, or should it return to the days where it was aloof, authoritative and by so extension trustworthy?

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