Katharine Viner, the first woman to run The Guardian in its 195-year history, came back to her alma mater to advocate old-fashioned, research-heavy articles over clickbait “junk food journalism”. She believes that most of us feel under-nourished by the flood of stories that we read on our phones, and long for something more substantial.
Katharine Viner speaking at Oxford about her fears for robust, well-researched journalism in the digital age
By Olivia Gordon
We are facing a ‘dark age’ in journalism, Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, warned at Oxford's second Women of Achievement lecture.
Viner (Pembroke, 1989), The Guardian's first-ever female editor-in-chief, shared her concerns that: ‘In the digital age it’s easier than ever to spread false information…Does the truth even matter anymore?’
She used as her example how #PigGate, the story of David Cameron allegedly putting a private part of his anatomy into a dead pig’s mouth, cascaded through mainstream and social media last year: ‘it was gross; a great opportunity to humiliate an elitist prime minister.’ Viner replaced Alan Rusbridger, the current principal of Lady Margaret Hall, last year
In fact, explained Viner, the allegations, made anonymously to a biographer who had not checked their veracity, remain totally unsubstantiated. Whether or not the story was true did not seem to matter to publishers or readers. In our digital age, ‘we are in tumult’, lost ‘in battles between rumour and fact, shaming and decency, hierarchies and the masses, connection and alienation’.
In this era, ‘a fact is just a view we feel to be true – we must be alert to the consequences of this and the media has a part to play.’
Viner is particularly worried about ‘keyboard warriors’ paid to spread propaganda on sites like Facebook, and the ‘misguided mob’ who seem unable to distinguish between carefully-researched journalism and malicious rumours that anyone can publish.
She believes that across the board news publishing is in serious trouble. Most advertising that used to go to newspapers is now in the pockets of Google and Facebook. The New York Times recently posted falling profits, while Facebook’s income tripled in the same period.
Journalists are losing jobs across their industry, including 100 Guardian journalists this year. It is clear to Viner that the business model of funding journalism needs to evolve, but she does not feel that a pay wall is the simple answer. After all, 'you then have the challenge of persuading people to pay'.On top of the snappy stories that we read on our phones, we also need to invest in quality, labour-intensive journalism, Viner argued
Instead she pondered a tax on advertising with profits to go towards quality journalism, or a new way of distributing news without relying on Google and Facebook – 'we also need to get big tech companies to pay their taxes', she added pointedly.
Two companies, Facebook and Google, control almost everything we read about the world. Facebook, which has 1.6 billion users worldwide, is ‘now the dominant way for people to find news on the Internet,’ she said. ‘The future of publishing is being put into the hands of the few…social media companies have become overwhelmingly powerful'. These digital platforms 'used to be groovy little start-ups; now they are the new establishment.’ It is, she reflected, ‘a deep betrayal of the diversity the world wide web originally envisioned.’
Viner spoke of the need for careful editorial curation of the mass of information and views published online. People are becoming more and more ‘like simple consumers’ of information, she said, and ‘there’s very little to guide us.' Meanwhile, our personal data held by tech companies is a ‘honeypot’ for sale, and these companies give police free access to journalists’ data, which ‘for democracy and our liberty is chilling,’ said Viner.
The future of the Internet may see users moving away from the public web and its epidemic of harassment and cruelty in the near future. Already, Viner noted, young people are turning to private chat apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to ‘retreat’ from the web ‘to a safer space’.
Pembroke, where Viner read English in 1989 after attending Ripon Grammar School
She mentioned the ‘vitriol’ and death threats which women and people from ethnic minorities especially face online, and said the anonymity of the web is a factor in the detachment trolls feel from their real-life selves. In real life, decency is expected, but online, anything goes.
It’s time to take back some control and establish a code of humane behaviour, Viner urged. She has made tackling online brutality a priority in her editorship of The Guardian; the paper recently launched its ‘Web We Want’ initiative in which it calls for an end to online abuse.
The Guardian is trying to lead the way, Viner said, but ‘where are the rest? We need to take responsibility.’
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Images © Olivia Gordon, Oxford University Images, Shutterstock, The Guardian