Monday, 3 December 2012

Why It Is No Longer Fashionable To Think For Oneself

OMG Attention WhoresTHERE ARE THOSE whom think for themselves; those whom believe whatever they are told by others; and those whom could not care less – and the former inhabit an ever decreasing minority.

I personally believe that the reason for the first group’s significant erosion throughout the last ten, maybe twenty, years is as a direct result of government interference in the education system. It began when the stringent requirement to spell correctly was abandoned, and students were no longer required to expand their vocabularies by memorizing the meaning of a half-dozen new words provided to them each day. As a result, each new generation developed slang of its own, in order to express peer ideas, and the English language was subsequently corrupted. Insurance salesmen became known as ‘financial advisors,’ dustmen were termed ‘waste disposal engineers’ and everyone, it seemed, invented new terms to describe themselves in ways that gave them additional kudos. Those, like me, whom had been brought-up in the fifties and sixties, increasingly found it difficult to understand what the younger generation was talking about.

There was a sudden explosion in ‘Professions,’ mainly in response to the ‘Cowboys,’ so labelled by the Press, to indicate an aberrant tradesman whom defrauded his clients. And, at the same time, we were compelled to use the invented term Ms, rather than Miss, to pander to feminists whom demanded a two-letter title like their male counterparts.

When I returned from abroad and was forced to take an overcrowded bus from the railway station, I committed the abominable sin of standing-up and offering my vacant seat to a twenty-something year-old woman, whom greeted me with derision. ‘I am perfectly capable of standing,’ was her retort – to which I fell instantly back into my comfortable upholstery. It seemed that I had been away too long, and would be forced to unlearn my manners.

English, of course, has long since lost the distinction between the second and third-person grammatical constructs. The term Miss had been the only word to truly survive, and thee and thou can only be heard now in places like Yorkshire (where young women still smile and thank you when you commit an abominable sin). Perhaps manners are still welcomed elsewhere in what was once this great Nation of ours; but I have long since avoided public transport, especially in London’s East End, where few now speak my native tongue.

Now, I have always considered myself a professional journalist; because, in the main, I get paid for what I do. Amateurs, I have always believed, are no different from myself, except that they undertake their journalism as a hobby and, maybe, do not have the skill needed to adopt different styles for their work to be published. Journalism is not a Profession in the modern sense of that word, because there is no ‘science’ in journalism. Doctors, nurses, builders, estate agents, insurance salesmen, lawyers: all can form professional bodies because the work that they do is based, to a large degree, upon rules discovered through science (a particular area of study or knowledge of the physical world – lest we forget).

But Journalism has nothing whatsoever to do with the physical world. Journalism is about truth, discussion, and separating fiction from fact. Authors, it might be said, have a professional body (The Society of Authors) but it does not exist to impose rules upon what can be written, or how manuscripts should be formed. It is simply a body to promote discussion of each genre and enable aspiring amateurs to become professionals in their craft.

The role of a journalist is to educate, inform, and entertain (exactly the same aspirations accorded to authors); but, unlike authors, they are required to learn specific skills. Shorthand to ensure that statements can be recorded verbatim, for example; but, more importantly, how to distinguish between fiction and fact. The problem arises when those basic skills are applied without question in order to meet deadlines or support a specific angle imposed by management or editorial staff.

Science never takes the result of one experiment as fact. It undertakes different experiments, subjects its results to peer review, and only when all the evidence ‘proves’ that their conclusion is fact do they publish.

And the same is basically true of the Press, except that any conclusions it draws cannot be based upon rigorous testing, or re-inventing similar conditions to repeat a previous outcome. It can only report independently corroborated facts and hope that what they identify is the truth.

Journalists are human, if three or more apparently unconnected sources repeat the same facts, then most intelligent people would agree that the likelihood of what they say is true. The deadline approaches, editors and the legal department sign-it-off – the piece is good to go. Job done and another likely story can be followed.

But there is a fundamental problem in the process, and that same problem is inherent in all human relationships, and, especially, in Law Enforcement. Very rarely is there time to do anything other than a quick check upon a source’s reliability.

We are not talking credibility here. It is comparatively easy for anyone to pass themselves off as credible if they have access to some proven facts. Reliability, on the other hand, really comes down to the mathematical probability of the source telling the truth – and their motive for doing so. All unreliable sources consciously embroider the facts.

I often wish that there was some kind of ‘reliability’ database that I could access whenever I encounter a new source. Some kind of database that all journalists could share to input details of those whom had tried to deceive them, or misled them, on the various articles they had produced; but the Data Protection Act has put paid to any such wistful idea.

Powerful advertising, which regulated broadcasters force us to watch whenever we switch on our TVs, encourage us to believe that whatever we hear or see is reliable, and fact. The BBC devotes much more air-time to those complaining about Press  misbehaviour (whom have been enormously enriched in the process) than it does to investigating the contents of the Leveson report and what its implications are for our society. They do so, of course, because that is the political angle of the day; but, as a result, the public associates with ‘victims’ (a particularly British trait) and looks no further than the screen at the end of their noses.

When was the last time you were moved to tears by something that you read? And when was the last time that a ‘charitable’ organisation pushed your emotional buttons and brought a tear to your eye – so that you might donate to ensure that their board and administrators could continue to enjoy such high salaries?

Personally, I find it strange that such TV commercials are permitted, when insurance representatives, an awfully long time ago, were prevented from conducting emotional sales.

‘Why do you not wish to insure your life, Mr Smith? Is your family not important to you? What do you think would happen to your wife and children if anything happened to you? Have you saved so much that they would be financially independent? Or would your wife be forced to work and your children forced into poverty? What are you going to buy your children this Christmas? How much will you spend? Well, don’t you think that just £* each month…’

Speech and images are the most powerful means of controlling what we think, whom we trust, and what we repeat as fact. That is why all public broadcasters are regulated. But that regulation is manipulated by politicians who know that, if they can control the broadcasters, they can control the public whom have no option but to listen and watch. Fortunately, we have Freeview these days; but I am sure it will not be long before all those party political broadcasts command the same time slot – on every UK soil based station.

Subliminal advertising was once quite common in the US, before the authorities caught on; but all moving images are hypnotic to some extent, and regular repetition reinforces the messages they convey. Of course, a good book can also transport the reader; but what we read in novels is classified into fiction and fact, so that we can each choose what we read – just as we can choose which newspaper we buy, or to decide to buy none at all. Also, advertising is present in all newspapers and magazines; but it is by no means so invasive, because all good journals present it in such a manner that it is obvious what it is. You will not hear the manufactured sound of your mobile phone going off, or what might be interpreted as a knock on your door, when you begin to turn away from the advertising section and the company wants your attention back.

But, there is something about the written word that no other form of communication allows. It permits the reader to re-examine what was written to ensure they have understood what they read. If you miss the start of a TV news item, or switch over before the end, there is no guarantee that you have either understood, or been given access to all the pertinent facts. (Which is why so few station-hoppers have any real understanding of the world outside their familiar circle, and, it might be argued, why we end-up with news-bite, career politicians with a similar attention span).

I could continue to ramble on at leisure about how we are encouraged to submit to the will of others and how the written word sets us free; but it all comes back to education and the fact that we no longer train our children to think for themselves. In my day, we learned to play chess in the last year of primary school and plebs read a single newspaper, normally the Sun or the Mirror, whereas anyone whom wished to know what was really going on would buy four (or borrow others lent to them in the pub). I admit I no longer do, because I do not generally have the time to read them all. But I always ensure I subscribe to the latest RSS feeds that my preferred titles now provide on the Internet: The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Mail, and The Mirror; because whenever I am left wondering about a piece in one Newspaper, I can always be sure that the others will fill me in. For me, the internet has been spectacular; because I can now stay regularly informed without carrying around all that bulk.

You see, what separates a journalist from anyone else is that they ache to know the truth, no matter what the cost to themselves. Most of them fall into that first group – those whom think for themselves – and the readers they serve largely fall into that group too. Newspaper sales, I believe, are not only threatened by the internet as the second group chooses only to read those blogs that reflect their social isolation, they are threatened by that dying group whom were keen to get at all the facts. My evidence for that statement is those online newspaper comment sections, which are so untypical of what an editor’s post bag used to contain. In the main, they do not discuss what has been published or attempt to add a new take on the thread, they simply choose to agree with the angle the author has taken – or not!

‘That’s not what I think, so what you say is rubbish!’ is a paraphrased standard retort to be found; but they are reading an article penned by a qualified journalist, that has been checked by a sub editor, that has been checked by an editor, that has been checked by the legal department – and their reaction to all that painstaking work is to simply dismiss it as b*****ks, because the facts are not threaded into a narrative that reflects their own entrenched view.

Mr and Ms Public have been encouraged to form themselves into individual, ‘Professional,’ groups that have subsequently been duplicated on Facebook and similar sites on the World Wide Web – so that each may exist in their own virtual reality where any truth is simply their angle upon a limited set of facts. And together they reinforce each other’s boundaries and build stronger defences against anyone that dares to express any view that might shed doubt on their own beliefs.

One is reminded of the military adage: ‘divide and conquer!’.

Professions have much more in common with religions than they have with social gatherings or clubs, and to think that any enforce reputable standards is to deny all the Press reports that prove the contrary to be the case. The most horrendous frauds and miscarriages of justice have been perpetrated by ‘qualified’ members of the very ‘Professional’ bodies that were created to ensure such abuses could not occur. And when questioned over their failings, it is always the same reply: ‘We must learn the lessons that are exposed by this case and make sure it never happens again.’

A Free Press is the only bastion to Democracy, providing a forum for open discussion and permitting anyone to have their say. In the US, the Press is completely unregulated. In fact, it is illegal to impose any form of state control over what journalists might write or say; because whenever an individual has exhausted every other means of obtaining justice, there has to be someone to whom they can turn and have their story told. Every day, throughout this country, the Press is the Professional body to which everyone belongs, and every day it prints stories of incompetence and downright criminality to ensure the public is aware of the problem – and poses the same question: ‘why do we not learn the lessons from this and similar cases so that this can never happen again?’

In a Democracy: the Press presents the facts; the public consider their options; the public elects the politicians; and the politicians introduce just laws that strengthen society.

Laws are for individuals, and no journalist is above the law. All journalists are citizens, and it is governments that are tasked with the job of imposing laws to protect minorities so that justice benefits all. In a true Democracy, they are not tasked with the job of gagging anyone’s views (no matter how unpalatable those views might be).

The British public and I seem to be living upon entirely different planets. In my opinion, we should not even be considering the creation of another Press ‘governing body.’ We should be actively campaigning for the absence of any such body or controls, and altering the civil libel laws so that those claiming they have been injured must prove that the allegations are false, rather than having the defendant prove they are true. And the justice system must be forced to ensure that anyone can bring a civil libel action, irrespective of their financial standing.

British society, as I and my peers once knew it, has been successfully fragmented and corrupted by an elitist set of the famous and powerful so they might exercise their will over all those less powerful than themselves.

Which is why it is no longer fashionable to think for oneself, and why it is a bloody good time to retire…

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