Meejit 2007-03-01

Lost for words

The absence of Village from newsagents for a full month, and its less-frequent publication from now on, is a loss for its loyal readers, a still-greater loss for many of the small group of people who have been earning a living while tirelessly producing it, and a serious (albeit relatively trivial) source of disorientation for your previously weekly, now monthly Meejit columnist.


A month is not a terribly long time, yet for me it represents the second-longest interval I've had without writing something for imminent publication in at least 16 years. The longest interval was only a bit longer, and came in 2003 just after the Irish Times axed me from its “Radio Review” column: on that occasion the disorientation was the sort you feel after getting kicked in the head by a thug, stumbling wooziness swirling with righteous victimhood as you grope for dignity.

I sincerely hope Eddie Holt (pictured) has not felt the same way since he got the same treatment in January, and that residual lefties Vincent Browne and newly elevated Fintan O'Toole realise they can rest easy: at this stately rate of kicking its way in from the political Left, the Irish Times will surely leave the two of them safe from the boot until retirement age.

In any case, this last month's Meejit-y disorientation is of an entirely different sort, with an intriguing ecology. Far from bursting with weekly ideas that are frustrated for lack of an outlet, I've wondered at what has suddenly seemed the extraordinary, bizarre fact that I have spent most of my adult life bursting with (or at least emitting) weekly ideas. No outlet, no ideas. Moreover, even the idea that I thought I had thoughts worth spouting to the general public seems an unmitigated cheek, a pundit's disease that badly needs curing. Efforts at longer term, less pontifical writing have been fitful, despite the extra time now available for them. Only a taste of spring in the air has revived me this far.Association of Newspapers (WAN) pretends otherwise. In February it issued a press release declaring: “Newspapers are booming worldwide.” It snidely described prophecies of “terminal decline” as “conventional wisdom” and “fashion” without a solid basis. But a closer look at the confusing WAN statistics indicates that much of the global growth in titles and circulation is based fundamentally upon the explosion of low-journalism freesheets. Clearly, too, high-population pockets of rapid “modernisation” (India and China notably) are seeing bursts of newspaper development that buck the Western trend of decline, but don't necessarily bear much resemblance to the highest values of the profession – rarely much resembled anywhere at the best of times.


A matter of marketing
In most of the global discussion, and all of the Irish variant on it, it is assumed that the marketplace is the best venue to determine what sort of journalism survives and what goes to the wall. Indeed, much of the mainstream outrage against the late and only occasionally lamented Centre for Public Inquiry, especially from Independent hacks, was based on the fact that it aimed to do journalist-like work without submitting itself to the whims of the capitalist “free” market.

Broadcasting punches holes in that assumption. Even most right-wingers, whatever their own beliefs, are rarely prepared to come out and say that RTÉ – where Prime Time is doing Ireland's best investigative journalism – and the BBC should be privatised. But the primacy of the market as arbiter of journalism stands largely unchallenged, even at an ideological level, in the print sector.

As a fine article (‘Newspapers... and after?') by John Nichols in the US journal The Nation makes clear, there is no universal reason why this should be the case.

In Norway, Nichols observes, a public authority “uses public subsidies to encourage the development of local newspapers that compete with bigger, established papers. The program... helps sustain publications that may have an ideological following but are not necessarily popular with advertisers. The system is strictly controlled to avoid government censorship or pressures on publishers – in fact, the joke goes that the best way to get government assistance is to start an opposition newspaper.”


The Norwegian subsidies for journalism, by no means unique, help keep journalism honest even among the papers that don't get them, and they don't enrich the O'Reillys of the world because the key ones “are not available to newspapers owned by companies that pay stock dividends”, Nichols explains.

God forbid this column turns into yet-another largely-ignorant Scandinavia-praiser. At this distance it is hard to know how well this works in practice, or if it is importable. What is clear, however, is that by hewing to a definition of “independence” that really means dependence on the market, we risk losing what remains of our genuine journalism, as media companies keep chasing profits.