Karl Marx once wrote that for a 300% profit there is no crime a capitalist would not commit. Recent events surrounding The News of the World show that a similar sort of greed is also characteristic of journalists: they will readily break the law for the sake of information.
In the case of Murdoch’s paper, perhaps the literal meaning of Marx’s assertion could also be applied. Was the law broken to get at the story, or to get at the profit made by selling it? It is hard to know for sure.
Without wishing to condone the methods of NOTW, it should be recognised that this single-minded quest for information is what gives journalists their distinctive work ethic. A journalist works when others do not; a journalist says what others are afraid to; a journalist will strive at any price to uncover what is hidden from plain view – sometimes even by breaking the law.
The way a journalist works in Russia is a little different. If courage in a Western journalist is uncovering the unknown, in a Russian journalist it is publishing what everyone already knows. This is true not just of sensational stories and juicy gossip, especially if this is fraught with losing one’s job.
We are also waiting for serious journalism. There are no set rules. A publication and its readers are well aware of which are the risky topics. If some periodical or television broadcaster has the nerve to say something, which everyone knows, but which no one publicly acknowledges, that’s great journalism!
But this, of course, has more to do with personal courage than with information. The fact that it is through daring to publish (as opposed to working with) information that a Russian journalist shows his merit has always been intrinsic to the nature of Soviet and Russian journalism.
Whether self-imposed or enforced, this restraint is effectively a licensing requirement for the mass media – at least, for those members of the mass media who exist as organisations.
They have something to lose; they are vulnerable and afraid to make any bold moves. At the same time, free of such limitations, the internet mass media is growing. This framework for the unconstrained voicing of opinion gives rise to internet guerrilla journalism.
The state is unable, and even unwilling, to impose strict controls over the Internet because it does not yet consider that it poses a serious threat. The majority of the population’s views are shaped by what they see on television, so let them go ahead and write on the internet. Given this opening, bloggers are a great deal less cautious than their official mass media counterparts. Subsequently, it is the lay media sphere, which disregards the risks of publication and concerns itself instead with the search for meaningful information.
Truth will out: the lack of critical information is generously made up for by non-official sources. There are already several examples of how, drawn in by some hot topic, a blogger has gone on to carry out some high-class investigative work. This is not characteristic of the blogger; it is characteristic of the environment. The virus-like spread of interesting subject matter enables the collective opinion of the “viral editor”. To this collective opinion, perhaps by chance but nevertheless inevitably, contribute specialists with precisely the knowledge needed for the subject the bloggers are interested in. The viral editor links up the most competent, the cleverest, and the loudest. Even the loud ones are helpful, despite tending to produce nothing but noise: they boost the rate of the thematic infection, creating high interest in the topic.
Russian blogger Alexei Navalny is usually held up as the most striking example of this type of journalism. Paving himself a path into politics by fighting corruption, he takes the typical journalistic approach: he uncovers – with the help of co-operative experts and informers – secret information on suspicious deals, and publishes the gripping material in his blog, whose readership is comparable to that of the mass media.
Guerrilla journalism accommodates specialists of any level of competence, with any level of writing talent. Another example: blogger Evgenii Shestakov, together with an acquaintance, discovered that a report on the Bulava missile launch on the Russian Ministry of Defence website was illustrated with a photograph of an American Trident missile. Shestakov wrote a witheringly satirical commentary on the affair in his blog. British newspaper The Telegraph published the story on 31 August, describing Shestakov and his comrades as “eagle-eyed military bloggers”.
Could the everyday mass media have noticed this blatant error? Theoretically, they could – but they were beaten to it by a couple of lay partisans. And could the so-called mass media have poked fun at the mistake (and the authorities) with the same sharp satire? Highly unlikely.
Paradoxically, while professional journalism is fighting for its right to speak out, lay-journalism is busy digging up buried information. It can do this because it is everywhere, yet nowhere concrete; it is elusive, yet covers everything. Its circle of authors coincides with its circle of readers, which means a one hundred per cent loyalty to the interests of the audience, and not those of the politicians.
Media-futurist, Author of When Newspapers Die
Guest Editorial for RBCC Bulletin , November 2011