What role for journalists in holding the powerful to account?

Laurie Penny, corporate-crime-fighting superhero journo, has a corker of an essay on Warren Ellis's website, about the uneasy role of muckraking journalism in the late days of crony-capitalism:

I thought I got into journalism to tell truths and right wrongs and occasionally get into parties I wouldn’t normally be cool enough to go to. Right now though, with a few exceptions, professional journalism is rarely seen as an exercise in holding power to account. Justly or unjustly, the media, especially but not exclusively the mainstream, corporate-controlled press, has come to be seen as the enemy of the voiceless rather than their champion. Justly or unjustly, few people believe what they read in the papers or watch on the news anymore, because belief has long ceased to be quite as important as complicity when it comes to the Daily Mail, the Daily Post or News International. On the streets of Athens and Madrid as well as during the London riots of August 2011, journalists have been threatened and attacked by desperate young people making havoc in the streets. Why? Not because these young people don’t want to be seen, but because they don’t want to be seen through the half-closed eyes of privilege.

Journalists are losing any case we ever had for special pleading. For the younger generation of digital natives, there is no particular reason to be deferential towards anyone who happens to be at a protest with a phone that can get the internet and an audience of thousands: it’ll be you and a hundred others, and unless the police have given you special privileges to write precisely what they want and nothing else, your press pass is less and less likely to keep you safe from arrest. As more and more ordinary men, women and children without degrees in journalism acquire the skills and technology to broadcast text and video, the media has become another cultural territory which is gradually being re-occupied. Those on the ground do not have to wait for the BBC and MSNBC to turn up with cameras: they make the news and the reporters follow. They have grown up in a world of branding and they know how to create a craze and set the agenda. They occupy the media. And the media is starting to worry.

GUEST INFORMANT: Laurie Penny (Thanks, Laurie!)


  1. Comparing the BBC and the Daily Mail is quite a jump; I’d argue that the biggest trend in modern journalism is the split between outlets that do traditional news reporting that aims to be unbiased and outlets that inject editorial into all stories.

    So, yeah, yellow journalism done by hacks never got much respect.

    1. Man, it’s weird that this post pops up. Just last night I was up from 3-5am, trying to get back to sleep while listening to the BBC news that is on NPR in the middle of the night. It was maddening, and I should have turned it off after I realized what was going on. Every 10 minutes was the exact same “Anders Breivik(sp?) is pleading not guilty.” Over and over, for hours.

  2. This is exactly what I have been thinking lately – so good to see a journalist saying it like it is.

  3. What was true then is true now.  “Journalists” produce history’s first draft.

    It’s just the case that in our contemporary experience of a shift in power, there are two distinct and irreconcilable drafts being produced.  Can our culture pass Fitzgerald’s test of a first-rate intelligence – living with both, reconciling neither and remain sane.

    To say that I have my doubts is to understate doubts and the saying of them.

    The question is, who (singular or plural) will be the “Zinn” of ‘zines and blogs, writing not just a “people’s” history but a peoples’ history that puncture the artifice that cleaves people from people?

    1. I like it, but it doesn’t play well when I consider intrusive celebrity gossip.

      Maybe just:
      If someone, somewhere, doesn’t want to suppress it, it’s just advertising.

      No wait, I fucking hate advertising and would happily suppress 95% of it.


  4. i know i don’t give a fuck about most news because their no way i can do anything about anything bad that’s going on, write my Representative? my senator? They don’t give a shit about my problems or anyone else’s problems until there has been sizable campaign contribution (Read: bribe) put forward and even then they might not do shit.

    My father tried to unionize the fishing industry he works in, which the state runs and only allows so much to sold/harvested per year, got together a whole group to support it wages went up for workers, they made campaign contribution and even then the legislation they were pushing did not get passed because it’s interest of purchasers for the prices to be low.

    TL:DR who has the most money always wins, but people with money don’t need help, the system is broken beyond repair.

    1. Oh, you mean the other golden rule: those with the gold, rule.

      Yeah, that one’s a myth of advertising. Get back to the doing unto others as you would have them do, and the world is a nicer place to be.

      You still lose, but at least you’re not so jealous.

  5. Is that a shot of the Foundry ?

    I loved that place when I worked round the corner, makes me sad to see it in its closed down state :(

    Where do all the couriers go now?

    1. yeah – i miss the foundry. there was nowhere else like it in central london. shitfaced on tequila, letting off navy-issue flash bombs in the concrete bank vault down stairs.. good times.

    1. I was just thinking that pretty soon, all of the characters that appear in the US Constitution will be anachronisms.  People like the free press, slaves, citizens, Electoral Colleges, etc etc.  Like a note from caveman days that we are trying to adhere to, but we have no idea what it means.

  6. Honestly, someone needs to split the Genus of “Journalist” into several subspecies, because that title today, no longer represents a set of principles based on integrity, a trust trickled slowly into the hearts and minds of the American public over the last century.

    Today, any reputed institution is suspect, even names rich with history of iterating fact as.. fact, that is sadly no longer the case. Those credentials are now sculpted by the hands of greed into a meaningless incarnation of their former self. We now live in an age where information is often more wholesome when composed from a kitchen table in contrast to the more deceptive alternative conjured in a cubical 10 floors below a board of directors governed by the “Whos who” of Washington demigods-gone-lobbyists.

    Its truly incredible that more than a hundred years of organized Western Journalism have been trumped by a consortium of young adults with laptops. These individuals cupping the fluttering flame of truth deserve more than to be called “Journalists”.

  7. It seems the middle classes do not like the idea that people might write/tell their own histories/stories. They are fucking scared of not being in control of history. It seems to me the concept of history itself is highly suspect – a middle class plot founded on a particular view of progress (and all (hi)stories have a plot). Stories are popular and democratic not history. Journalists could get a proper job.

  8. Journalism stopped being a noble calling once they began taking an active role in the events that they were reporting on. And this I believe coincided with the accretion of the various media outlets and agencies into a small group of world encompassing multi-national corporations with limited (effective) ownership.

    I doubt if any gatherer and dispenser of events would bare to tolerate being called a “journalist” these days. It’s akin to being called a politician or a lawyer.

    1.  It’s more that journalism stopped being a noble calling once news departments were put under the control of entertainment divisions. Once news had to answer to ratings and ad revenue, it was all over.

      1.  Has that not always been the case? Newspapers survive on ads, so when some big ad spender threatens to pull out the paper change its tune. Hell, it may be more of a threat these days to call the companies that run ads for products and state that your no longer going to buy their products because of the association with some statement or other.

        1.  No. Actually it’s only relatively recently that news gathering and reportage was so blatantly beholden to ad revenue. This is especially true in the case of network news, where there once was an explicit firewall between the news division and the rest of the corporation.

          Granted, the wall began coming down before a lot of BB readers were born, so many of you have probably not known a time when journalists had only the facts of the story to worry about, but I’m certainly old enough to remember a time where news reporting could, for the most part, be trusted.

          It’s easy to be jaundiced and cynical about the death of journalism, but some of us still remember a time when it really was an honorable career and the ones doing the job honestly cared about accuracy and their craft, rather than their ratings.

    2.  The age of supposedly “objective” news was actually pretty brief, prior to the consolidation of news outlets in the ’40s and ’50s the reader knew what side on an issue the paper was on, including reporting as well as editorials.

      That sort of environment doesn’t bother me one bit.  I strongly believe I get a better grasp of an issue by reading and comparing what The Nation and The American Spectator have to say, than I do from reading the Washington Post or watching NBC/CBS/ABC.

  9. Wow, an article concerning Laurie Penny has been up for almost 24 hours and still none of the usual stalker-army of hateful trolls that seem to follow her everywhere attacking her in the comments section…I am truly amazed! 

    Also, Laurie Penny + Warren Ellis = win. :)

    1. I apologise for the slow response, I’m on holiday.  “corporate-crime-fighting superhero journo” must be the most overblown moniker I’ve run across for a long time.

      Journalism has lost a lot of its credibility in the UK simply because of the actions of journalists.  When instead of investigating public interest stories they spend all their time and effort prying into the private lives of C-list “celebrities”, they can’t expect much respect.

      That said, people do of course get the newspapers they deserve – or rather, the newspapers they buy.  So the outrage by the general public is simply disingenuous.

  10.  Notwithstanding the occasional stalwart, I bemoan the almost total loss of integrity, honesty and ethics in the profession… political or editorial bias, sensationalism and plain old-fashioned BS seem to be the norm rather than the exception. 

  11. I was just confused as to why Warren Ellis getting guests to write about the downfall of journalism on his blog. It just seemed so far removed from the works of the Dirty Three and the Bad Seeds I couldn’t see the connection…

      1. Yes. Hence the confusion. Warren Ellis is also a famous musician (see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three, Grinderman). There was a level of sarcasm in my other comment. It’s been painfully explained now.

  12. When the internet gets more popular, maybe there will be a rise of something I like to call the Citizen Journalist.

    Perhaps they could write in “news blogs” or “nblogs”.

    It could change the world.

  13. Sadly the days of the Fourth Estate where the Newspapers reported the news and kept the politicians honest is long gone. Now they are simply bought and sold propaganda machines touting a party line, smearing the opposition and stopping to any means to get a sensational headline as they try to cling on to revenue and relevance.

    Change is coming – one hopes – but not until the tools available for discovery and dissemination of objective truth improves… how does one find the nuggets of truth in the flotsam of the internet… at least with the Media Empires you know where you need to turn for your fix

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