Eamon Delaney : ... but we must regulate the Net
The internet is a cacophony of noise, but at the lowest common denominator, writes Eamon Delaney
'TO find a Minister in office expressing concerns for the welfare of the media is unusual," wrote former Irish Times editor Conor Brady last week. "But when two of them do so within a week, we are into white blackbird territory."
But in fact there is a flock of these rarities converging on this field: is there anyone out there now who doesn't think that the internet needs proper regulation?
Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has described the internet as "a playground for anonymous backstabbers". Make that semi-anonymous, Ruairi, since some of them go by fearless nicknames like 'Gladiator 5' and 'Bosco.'
Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte has expressed similar concerns about the challenge to the traditional media from an unregulated internet and content piracy.
Alan Crosbie, the chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings, was more dramatic. The Government should "address the threat to humanity posed by the tsunami of unverifiable data, opinion, libel and vulgar abuse in new media".
A little apocalyptic maybe, but it would be hard to disagree. Speaking at a conference on media diversity, Mr Crosbie said the Government was walking away from the regulation of new media, "because they're afraid of appearing to be repressive". And this is the nub: the authorities are fearful of appearing killjoy and authoritarian, of not being cool with the latest trend, man, and down with the kids. But this is paralysis. One regular boast of internet users, for example, is that it takes the politicians to account in a way that the newspapers are restrained from doing. Well, yes, it's precisely that: exercising some sense of restraint. In fact, it would be hard to find more critical coverage of politicians now than you get in the Star or the Evening Herald, or this newspaper. Unless, of course, it is outright abuse and false accusations, which is what a lot of these online pundits want to be able to engage in.
Crosbie also tackled the issue of piracy of content from the established media, and how this creates even less of a sense of responsibility.
"The fact is that to generate good information carries a cost," said Crosbie. "It requires money. Unless you steal it like most new media companies do." As well as "being a tool of freedom and democracy", the internet "has the capacity to destroy civil society and cause unimaginable suffering", he added.
In the beginning, it was all going to be different. The internet was going to open up news and comment to everybody. And yes, it has -- and that's the problem. It's a cacophony of noise, but at the lowest common denominator. The 'market' of the internet has found its level, precisely because there is no market. Comment is free, proclaims the UK Guardian and yes, it certainly is -- a free for all. And yet why do such early advocates hold such blind faith in new and allegedly democratic developments such as the internet? Why don't they subscribe instead to the wise maxim of the writer Kingsley Amis -- "in the future, more means worse".
For it is not just the potentially libellous nature of the internet. There is also the related issue of quality which is so often consistently poor. In his own article, Conor Brady praised the Irish site politics.ie, but this is really a hit-or-miss discussion board, with an often low standard of analysis, and childish name-calling among political opponents. Indeed, it has been said of such sites that they are the cyber equivalent of the toilet door. It is to the credit of politics.ie founder David Cochrane that he moderates such exchanges and has also hosted some fast-moving and reassuringly frank exchanges about many topics, but in among this is much content which is incredibly abusive, false, cynical and just plain tedious.
The backpackers' suspicion that, hey man, big media only reflects the establishment and the corporate system may be true. But wouldn't you sooner trust the big media outlets, open and established, even with their acknowledged bias, than trust some quirky independent website about which we know little? The big outlets, regardless of their angles, have a sense of responsibility -- to their advertisers, their customers and their regulators.
One of the most banal boasts is that the internet is quicker for news. But does it matter, if it's not going to be definitely correct? And even if it is quicker, so what? Does it really matter to you, regular Joe Citizen, that you discover, via Twitter, two minutes before a newspaper does, that six people were killed in a bomb in Egypt? What kind of news junkies have we become?
Besides, the quickest means of getting hard information remains, and will remain, the TV, as in the 24-hour news channels of which there are now many. And personally I'd rather trust the BBC, or Euronews or Sky, than some bloke tweeting about it from Dorset, or even from Cairo. All due respect to Mark Little and his Storyful website, but many of his entries just refer back to the TV channels. Plus, the TV channels have the continuous images -- and this is crucial. And they have the reputation and the resources, which is why we trust them. But we also trust them because, unlike so much of the internet, they are constrained by the libel laws and other standards of information gathering. Which is why the Government should bring in internet regulation without delay.