(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of
Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior
research fellow. The opinions expressed here are his own.)
Feb 3 Last March, three months before Britons
voted to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, then
Prime Minister David Cameron asked Daily Mail proprietor Lord
Rothermere to fire the newspaper's editor, Paul Dacre. The press
baron, descendant of the family which did more than any other to
create the British tabloid press, refused, and did not even tell
Dacre of the request until after the result of the referendum.
The incident, reported by the BBC, has not been denied by any of
the parties involved.
It was a grubby event on the road to Brexit. Unlike many of
their kind, the owners of the Mail do seem to have stuck to the
line that they may own, but Dacre may edit. Rothermere is in
favour of remaining in the EU; the Mail was and is the most
devoted Brexiteer in the land. And, without peer, still the most
powerful organ of the press: the "newspaper that rules Britain."
Dacre, now 68 and apparently still a tireless workaholic, is
the last of that line of Fleet Street editors who have the
confidence and talent to address the country like a revivalist
pastor does his flock - with heat, passion and a supreme sense
of being right. Dacre is right in the political sense of the
word too: a hater of the left, a scorner, above all, of the
liberals who, he believes, constitute the intellectual and
cultural establishment, and a profound believer in the primacy
of the British parliament.
No other editor commands in that way. Cameron's forlorn
quest for freedom from the Mail's daily sermons on the evils of
the EU was a tribute to Dacre's power, but a power that may not
be transferred to another if he ever he retires. This is not
just because Dacre is, in character and sense of rectitude, a
hard act to follow. It is also because the long running drama of
the newspaper business is coming to an end. The news media now
give way to the social media; the people, not the proprietors,
editors, commentators and reporters, speak for themselves.
American historian Jill Lepore believes that the dominant
medium of communication in any age is a large element in
determining the way politics are conducted. In fact, she has
claimed it can be the only element. "The American two-party
system is a creation of the press," she argues. "When the press
is in the throes of change, so is the party system It's
unlikely, but not impossible, that the accelerating and
atomizing forces of this latest communications revolution will
bring about the end of the party system and the beginning of a
new and wobblier political institution."
"At some point," she adds, "does each of us become a party
The political power of social media has been evident for
some time. Pictures of a fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi,
immolating himself in a Tunisian town after police confiscated
his unlicensed vegetable cart in 2010 helped spark a revolution
that became one of the first heralds of the Arab spring. In
countries like Iran, Turkey and Russia, texts on cell phones
have brought demonstrators onto the streets. In China,
information on Weibo and WeChat, the local equivalents of
(banned) Twitter, flash news of scandals, strikes and protests
across the country, prompting President Xi Jinping to thunder
that the media, including social media, must be disciplined.
Until a couple of decades ago, you had to be very rich to
acquire the technology to address the nation. Now, you have to
be very poor indeed not to have the technology to address the
For some years, though, it's been clear to some that popular
communications come with a sting in the tail. One of the loudest
voices in explaining that sting has been Evgeny Morozov, a young
Belarusian polymath who branded the utopian view of online
freedom - endorsed by both Bill and Hilary Clinton - as
"excessive optimism and empty McKinsey-speak," insisting that
the ability to identify dissidence would lead to the
strengthening, not the overthrow, of authoritarian power.
Morozov was referring to despotic states. More recently,
President Trump is one of those who have shown us how the power
of social media works in a great democracy. It works so that the
powerful, the very rich and the celebrated rule in that space -
not as they did in the mainstream media's high period, but in a
more interactive, yet at times more effective, way.
A politician or business leader or a celebrity speaking on
television usually addresses the masses through an interlocutor
- a presenter, a journalist. On social media, the same figure is
talking to you, on your cellphone, through your twitter feed.
You - we - are a party of one.
To be and remain the person who can so command our personal
channels of communication does, of course, take talent,
organization, and the rare ability to sense and shape a mood.
The rich and celebrated have the tools and the help to work in
that way. Social media do not democratize them in themselves.
As long as the powerful master the medium they increase, not
reduce their power.
The interlocutor in the studio, the editor in his office, is
almost gone. It's the celebrity and you. The famous figure can
say anything which is judged to please or rouse you: and if you
like it, why check whether it's true? Those who publish fake
news boosting Trump (as much of it did) and who live as far away
as Georgia (the one in the former Soviet Union, not the
American South) make a good living from churning it out, all the
while expressing amazement, and a little contempt, that so many
seem to believe it.
To the powerful, power has again been given. It isn't that
social media don't help sociability. But is it better for our
(Reporting by John Lloyd)