It’s not that often you get the low business of journalism put into its proper social and spiritual context but that’s what happened courtesy of the Oxford Dominicans on Saturday. Its conference on 'Truth-telling and the Media' – yep, that well known oxymoron – included a contribution by the Goethe expert, Nicholas Boyle. Not a sausage about any current issues relating to the press, thank God. Just a context to put it all in.
And that context is that journalists turn the big society into the small society in the way we write; we make the individual reader feel they can relate to the big stuff. I suppose it’s a bit like those really boring case studies you get whenever there’s a Budget, which bring the abstract things down to the level of the family of four, the single parent or the pensioner.
Professor Boyle’s starting point is that humanly speaking, we normally can relate only to a small group, a tribe of no more than 150 people, known as Dunbar's number. But we actually inhabit nowadays a far larger society – the state and the economy, not to mention global society - made up of millions of people whom we can never know and with whom we’re linked to via the exchange of currency or the elections of governments.
But the thing about newspapers and other mass media is that they can make us feel at home in that big world. By calling the Prime Minister Dave and getting us all to have a view about President Hollande, or sexing up Justin Trudeau, or bigging up celebs whom we feel we know better than our own parents, we are, it seems, humanising the society in which we live and making it small enough for us to get our heads round. It’s actually rather a useful function. If we really do think that we’re just one person in a society of 60 million or a global population of seven billion, you can feel a bit small, a bit diminished. The media gives you a way of relating to it, though, as Prof Boyle points out, Twitter and social media can unhelpfully magnify your sense of self to the point where you fancy yourself at the heart of the universe. But at its best, the media can create that valuable commodity: a sense of community. Or as he put it:
'The mass-media are indeed a message, a message that is both a great truth and a great untruth. By enhancing the means of communication available to us, in Dunbar-limited society - seeing, hearing, speaking, gesturing - the media give our imaginations access to our collective economic and political life, the size and complexity of which is such that we can never know the truth of it directly. When that limitation is accepted, when the necessarily symbolic and representative nature of the truth that the media tell us about our mass-existence is admitted, then they can serve as an instrument to make that mass-existence humane: they can constitute a public square in which discussion can inform action, in which the virtues that originate in society and are confined to it, the virtues of care, affection, sociability, tolerance, propriety, respect, duty, and the passing on of wisdom, can be translated into political and economic terms, and in which we can affirm our collective identity, whatever it may be.'
That’s the most flattering account of the trade I’ve read for quite some time. The full lecture can be read here:
My own brief contribution a bit later was merely to lower the tone of the gathering drastically by talking wildly about the ways in which journalists, by which I really mean print journalists, aren’t able to tell the truth, chiefly because it's cheaper for papers to commission comment pieces than employ news reporters. But the other constraints include the self-imposed one of what is considered desirable and socially responsible to talk about. So, in the Blair years, many, perhaps most, of us never discussed immigration – and yet net foreign migration ran at 3.6 million over that time – except in terms of the vibrancy and dynamism that it brought to society. Which was true, just not the whole truth.
Right now, most of us decline, with the exception of Rod Liddle and Douglas Murray, to discuss Islamic terrorism in terms of Islam – which is not, obviously, to say that it’s anything like a mainstream view within the Muslim community. Indeed that squeamishness can be downright counterproductive, as when the BBC initially refused to report on the patent fact that the sex abuse cases in places like Rochdale were conducted by Muslim Asian men against vulnerable white girls. Which is not to say that they were anything but a tiny minority of an overwhelmingly law abiding group, but it did impede a truthful understanding of the causes of the problem. By contrast, we now talk about, for instance, the transgender phenomenon quite obsessively.
What I should have said, instead of all this, is that it’s true that journalists do bring big things – politics and the economy – to a human scale because that’s how we function ourselves, even if we write about macro-economics or foreign affairs. Most of us don’t have any notion of the number of readers or listeners who may have the misfortune to read or listen to our stuff; instead some of us have a few people – possibly a couple of dozen people, usually other journalists – in mind to whom we’re addressing ourselves in the first instance. Of course you also have some sense of a larger readership out there, which is why most of us write best when we have some notion whom we’re writing for – I can relate, for instance, to a Spectator reader in a way I probably couldn’t to one from the Economist because I think I have a vaguely similar take on the world, or at least common points of reference. I feel at home writing for the Evening Standard because I occupy the same living space and have many of the same preoccupations as the readers, or to a Catholic Herald or Tablet reader, because I’ve got the same identity as a Catholic, or at least, a Christian. Journalists, at least the ones I like best, do think small as well as big. That way, you’ve got your own sense of community to feel at home in.