Piggy, and the death of journalism

Abstract: Look to Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the tragic future of journalism…

You should keep this magazine; and one day in the not-too-distant future show it to your grandchildren or great-grandchildren and explain to them how in the old days you used to pay money to read something written by people called ‘journalists’. They’ll be amazed and surprised, even laugh at how bizarre such a notion should be.

I’ll be long gone by then, my final days spent as a dejected pauper, strapped to a gurney, thrashing around and frothing at the mouth, shouting between the spittle about how democracy killed a discipline and an art form, and steered humanity towards idiocy.

If you have a sneaking suspicion where I’m going with this, I’d hazard a guess you’ve read William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. Like Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, it endures as one of English literature’s most sobering allegorical works. It also holds a clue to the future of journalism.

It describes the events following the marooning of a class of young boys on an uninhabited island. Devoid of any guardianship or direction, the boys celebrate their freedom before settling down to a modicum of democracy that soon fractures into polarisation, discrimination, hedonism, tyranny and savagery.

The central theme in Golding’s novel is the conflict between two competing impulses that are characteristic of human nature, namely the desire to follow established disciplined moral codes for the benefit of all; versus the instinct to gratify one’s immediate impulses, without accountability, even if it’s at the expense of the rights and welfare of others.

If you’re looking for an example of it unfolding, you need to look no further than the media, and those entrusted with its morality.

Journalists are like guardians. As the so-called ‘fourth estate’, their role is to act as a watchdog collective, to sift through the wall of clutter thrown up by politicians and various other powers that be, then identify the grit and share it. They also have a role to inform and educate; and because what they produce is documented and published, the pressure is continually on them to investigate wider and deeper, and in the process contribute to an ever-expanding public knowledge.

This takes a corps of disciplined, skilled and dedicated investigators, committed to presenting a balanced perspective. Because journalism, like science, is self-regulating and relies on integrity, it is quick to publicly excommunicate those who bring its name into disrepute.

Social media has changed all that. It eschews authority and skilled guidance, and in its absence uses popular opinion as its directive. Imagine if education within a school was dictated solely by the learners: opinions would be shared purely on matters of common interest, with one or two learners eventually emerging as populist spokespersons; but in the process the integrity of content would become blurred and intellectual advancement would be retarded.

In this so-called democratisation of the media, where specialisation is rejected in favour of popular appeal and the barriers to entry in the dissemination of opinion have been stripped away, consumers feel they have the right not to pay for content. After all, why pay for something when you can create your own or simply take from others willing to share for nothing more than the thrill of being heard? As a result, in the remaining chase for consumer attention the discipline of journalism has become diluted, and mediocrity has moved in.

For a cautionary tale in ‘Lord of the Flies’, we should look to the character cruelly nicknamed Piggy. If there’s a nerd in the story, it is he. His insistence in the face of perceived liberation is to retain some semblance of intellectual pursuit, discipline and moral governance. This is rejected by the rest of the boys, who feel empowered by their freedom and lack of accountability. Their antagonism towards Piggy quickly spreads and becomes rampant. The resultant anarchy and savagery begets a tragic outcome.

The evidence that we’re witnessing a ‘Lord of the Flies’ in the media is everywhere. Newspapers are closing down, journalists are laid off, and where there’s still evidence of professional journalism, it is less investigative of authority and more intrusive of celebrity, catering to the salacious whims of an emboldened consumer rebelling against moral principles.

Witness the explosion of voyeuristic reality TV programmes in the place of research-driven documentaries, and the burgeoning tabloid tone of the gossip-based news sites that keep popping up online. Notice too how social media sends conjecture and hearsay viral in the guise of reporting, and how mainstream media has been caught unprepared and ill advised in its rush to beat tweeters in the coverage of major news stories.

So when one day you show this magazine to your descendants, point to the top right hand corner of the cover and whisper wistfully of the days you paid for the product of good journalism. And tell them of ‘Lord of the Flies’; and when they ask after Piggy, tell them he dies, bludgeoned by those who would have benefitted from his counsel

Originally published in the February 2013 edition of Leadership magazine