Tuesday, March 23, 2010

API invokes Godwin's Law

The EU foreign correspondents in Brussels has come up with an interesting notion: Open government and free information access leads to despotism. Yes, we're in "1984" land, apparently, where war is peace, freedom is slavery and openness is repression. You think I'm joking? Here's a quote from the article:

"This is a totalitarian dream," [Mr. Consoli of the API] told EUobserver. "Every dictator who has ever lived has dreamed of communicating directly with the public without questions from a troublesome press."


They seem to believe their own readers are so utterly stupid, so dull, so dumb, so completely bereft of anything resembling analytical thought that they can not see a press release for what it is, and can not be trusted to form an actual informed opinion on their own. Some in the EU press corps wanted to restrict access to press releases only to accredited journalists, forcing all information flow to go through them only; instead they are calling for a mandatory embargo, giving them information ahead of everyone else.

What a heaping pile of dung.

The real reason for this over the top reaction has nothing to do with freedom of information, but with the shrinking number of EU correspondents. They want a monopoly on EU information in order to safeguard their own jobs. Why are their numbers decreasing? After all, if the press corps are doing a lot of valuable legwork and analysis, why would their editors ax their jobs? Partly it's the recession of course. But part of the answer may come from a Australian study showing more than half of all news reports are based on PR - on press releases, prepared media packets and so on.

Of course, taking a press release as a starting point for investigating a piece is fine. But basing your work entirely on competing press material from different interests is not. And that, unfortunately, happens far too often. So perhaps one reason the EU press corps is shrinking is that too many of those people never did enough of that independent reporting and legwork they keep talking about, and instead just repackaged the press material in their own words. When a cash-strapped editor realizes he can get the same material right over the web he'd have a hard time to motivate keeping an expensive foreign correspondent around.

Do I believe journalists in general are lazy or unskilled? No, of course not. Nor do I believe that journalism isn't important, or that it can be completely replaced by hobbyists writing blogs. But while journalists in the abstract do work that is both important and professional, the work done by specific journalists is all too frequently neither. I like newspapers - we take two at home - and I really want to continue liking them. But they're really making it difficult, with distasteful self-serving propaganda like this.

The way for quality journalism to survive is to produce journalism of good enough quality that people want access to it. But this attempt to scare people with a coming dictatorship unless you get privileged access or first dibs on evaluating information is not quality journalism or professional conduct. In fact, this transparent attempt at intimidation smells of exactly the same kind of partisan gutter journalism that is putting me off the paid-for media to begin with.

3 comments:

sigma1 said...

Perhaps some of the paranoia over the EU's institutional reach is not so strange after all - I see with a recent vote in Ireland that did not go the EU's way some bureaucrats' comments on "too much free speech" in Ireland were outed. That is a little more than elitist!

Janne Morén said...

Um, sigma, this is about EU institutions giving out more and more information freely - and EU journalists coming out against that.

sigma1 said...

Apologies - the key word "correspondents" being in the first sentence! Lazy reading.

Unfortunately past experiences have conditioned me to see the word Brussels, immediately think "bureaucrats" and react irrationally!