The media provides the resources we all need for the conduct of everyday life.
Roger Silverstone

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Speech to Silverstone memorial panel

Old Theatre, LSE, 16 October 2006

Thank you Robin. Good Evening everyone, I’m honoured to open the contributions tonight. As Robin said, six months ago I was at Channel 4 News – it’s been an exciting change but it’s still a big jump from the newsroom to the lecture hall.

It was Roger who made the transition seem logical and right. Before I took the job I spent two hours talking through the potential of the post with him – or rather we spent two hours in his study talking through the fascinating world of journalism and international politics.

Roger told me his favourite story – which is also in the book, about the Afghani blacksmith interviewed on the BBC world service at the height of the previous war in Afghanistan. When asked by a reporter why the Americans were bombing his country he tells the world that in his opinion “Al Qaeda must have killed many Americans and their donkeys and destroyed their castles”.
Obviously, he was a perceptive political commentator who, no doubt, already has his own blog. Roger’s point is that we need to hear this other voice if we are to understand our world.
Now for me you can replace that tribesman with a youth on a Manchester housing estate, an illegal immigrant who might clean buildings like these, or even a Bush supporting, evangelical Christian in Kansas. They are all connected. They are all significant. They all have a bearing on the ideologies and the facts that make up the real stories of this 21st century.
But how to connect? How to represent them? How to hear what they say?

Well this is what Roger says in the book:
“Our relation to the other, to the stranger, is the principal determinant of our moral worth and our status as human beings…. our media provide the most pervasive and
persuasive perceptual frameworks, in an increasingly global society, for the way in which meanings, representations and relationships to the other are offered and defined” (Pause)
(Silverstone 101)

I share his sense that the media – and for me – especially the news media – has this role.

One of Roger’s many insights was that the conversation between media and society should not be simply bilateral negotiations. So the POLIS discourse is centred on a moral core. I believe that journalism matters and that it is possible to identify and foster what I call ‘good’ journalism. But ‘good journalism’ is a creation of society as much as the individual journalist or media organisation.
This is how Roger puts it:

Communication of any kind is, of course, impossible without a commitment to truthfulness….Truthfulness in the mediapolis is therefore a matter both for institutions and their regulation, and a matter for the individual who speaks, and has to take responsibility for, his or her words, click. But it is also a matter of interrogation and critique, the reflexivity of the professional and the critical skills of the readers and listeners, those who might or might not be, or become, one day, society’s citizens.

At one level what Roger is arguing for here is greater media literacy. I suppose you could expect no less of someone who was the convenor of a Media and Communications department – however, I share his view.

So how do you get to this Cosmopolitan Mediapolis?
Well here are some guiding principles of my own.
Firstly, you really have to understand that the future of news is utterly in doubt. I think that demand for news information is growing but also that all the people who currently provide it are in crisis of one sort or another. If you talk to editorial leaders then the most honest of them will admit that they have a gut feeling that they are effectively about to walk around the corner of media history and that they are not sure what they will walk in to.
And that’s not ten years off – or even five. It’s happening right now as newspaper sales collapse, advertising revenue desert mainstream news media, the blogs blossom, platform technologies proliferate like digital mushrooms, and user generated content sweeps in on a tide of interactivity. It’s all very confusing and puts at risk the current system for delivering journalism.

So we are at a unique moment for journalism.

Some people choose this moment to despair of us ever recapturing some golden age when the nation huddled around the nine o’clock news or devoured lengthy Times editorials. Well, I reject that myth. I think we can argue that we have more good journalism now than ever before.
Others point out that the digital revolution could leave the palaces of good journalism in ruins – all journalists will become multi-skilled sausage-makers, all truth becomes relative to the ravings of the blogosphere. I also reject that counsel of despair. I see radical change ahead – but there is no reason why it should not be for the better.
The opportunities offered by new technologies at this historic moment are extraordinary. Thanks to the mobile phone, to the internet, to digitalisation and other new technologies, even the humblest hack on a local paper has more potential powers of information-gathering and transmission than the BBC news room might have had ten years ago.

Of course, the decisions we make about public service broadcasting, regulation and so on will have a lot to do with making the technology work for the good of good journalism. And internationally there has to be a political revolution in many parts of the world before people can truly deliver and receive this potential explosion of journalism. I think new factors like Aljazeera are significant pluses in that equation, too.
But whatever the challenges to journalism in the near future, the demand is there and the ability to deliver it efficiently and imaginatively has never been greater.

But here’s another paradigm that you have to factor in which again, I think will offer the potential – at least – for journalism to live up to the ambitions Roger sets out in the book.
By its very nature the new technologies will force journalists to be more networked; to be more diverse; to offer great variety and to add greater value to their reporting. The consumer will become part of the story-telling and the story-telling itself will become a process as much as a product. Instead of being handed down from on high, news will be society talking to itself about the factual information that is in the public domain.

There are all sorts of things that sustain good journalism but in this increasingly complex communications world we are all going to have to become much more reflexive and reflective about the news media. Much of this will be instinctive, drawn from our lived experience and our attitudes and ideologies. But for a healthy mediapolis I think that in the future the journalists and the citizen will have to be much more informed, equipped and thoughtful about their news media.
<you can lose this quote if needed>
This how Roger describes that mediacentrism:

The pursuit of political life, the management (or mismanagement) of markets, the conduct of diplomacy and the fighting of wars, as well as the construction of lifestyles and the capacity to get through the day, significant each in their own terms and perfectly capable in principle (once upon a time) of being conducted in exclusively unmedi¬ated or private contexts, are no longer free to be so.
If this is media-centrism, then so be it. (162) (PAUSE)

And with Media centrism comes media literacy – and for media literacy we need more spaces for thinking, teaching, debate and research. Again Roger puts it well:

(he writes)…there has to be a way to consider the issues: to till the ground perhaps, so that it becomes more fertile and so that the seeds of political action and profes¬sional judgement have greater likelihood of germinating. (PAUSE)

I know that the Media and Communications Department that Roger was part of here at the LSE and my partners at the London College of Communication has been tilling the ground for some time now. I hope that POLIS and the Fellowship set up in Roger’s name will be fertile seedbeds as well.