Friday, August 12, 2011

Mythology of Media - reforming news and intelligence

BBC Reportage from david dunkley gyimah on Vimeo.

By the evening the level of unprecedented violence using knives and baseball bats had yielded a level of shock that was unfathomable to Television viewers and the police and the people of Brighton.

Geoffrey Cox, the News editor of one of the UK's foremost news outlets received information from the authorities that challenged the very ethos of his ambitions of getting stuck in there and showing the viewers what's going on.

This is what defined his approach to news: "Just remember, its better to be rocketed for something you've done than something you haven't done."

But Cox had now been made aware of something strange, that his broadcasts were being used by warring factions to determine their next strategy, where they would all gather and  fight.

The police asked whether Cox could suppress his coverage of these violent clashes, which might help restore calm. It must not have been an easy decision, but Cox writing in his semi-autobiography: Pioneering Television News considered it and did what he could and indeed the violence subsided.

Of course you might argue there must have been other reasons, but this is how Cox more or less relays it in his book.

Media Replay
That was the 1960s. Fast forward to the events of a couple of days ago - the riots in the England cities - and a seemingly causal link seems obvious.

There was a peaceful demonstration in Tottenham for the shooting of Mark Duggan [ a full enquiry has yet to ascertain the full facts].  It was followed later by anger against the police. On TV the police looked either powerless or out of sorts. The next day through copy cat or an escalation, matters took a turn into  the darkest side of human behaviour.

Twitter, Facebook - all manner of Social Networks have garnered their attributional share to how the rioters functioned, but now what about television?

As a hypothesis, no more powerful an image of the police seemingly looking on idly can act as window of opportunity for impressionable misguided minds of the young or disaffected. Seemingly, because perceptions, rather than what actually happens, is a powerful message.

Or consider the point where news reported London was drafting in extra police from other forces. It did not say where they were from. But that night when riots happened in Manchester there were reports Manchester indeed was one of the forces that had gone to the aid of London - and perhaps now caught short.

So, just as the rockers had used television, Britain's unruly mob had found television's alterity.  To paraphrase the Sun newspapers headline - it was television wot won helped it. You might even look back to the cause-effect of the Rodney King beating - LA Police acquittal - riots. This from the BBC's website:

 In March 1991, the beating of black motorist Rodney King caused outrage around the world and set off a chain of events which culminated in LA riots ...

This raises an important spectre and a qualification I believe in as much as anyone interested in news, but it deserves to be talked about nonetheless.

The spectre that television news played a role, in merely doing what it does. The qualification that  in today's liberalised, capitalist  society, no one would dare ask any network editor to tone down their coverage or would they? Not unless it constitituted a matter of national security (needs defining). And just how can you blame television? I'm not I'm drawing threads between what mobs do watching television, as they television people go about doing their jobs with the highest of integrity.

I believe I'm not being naive, neither should you hopefully think I'm trying to intellectualise this, but a couple of things become evident.

The Rhetoric of the video image ( courtesy Roland Barthe)
It's highly unlikely with any scenes of last week a news editor would relent from showing pictures when their neighbour and competitor and the thousand of social networkers or citizen journalist will search for the dramatic, sometimes with little thought to the consequences.

So there has to be fresh thinking into media-affectivity. How what you're seeing can be used as intelligence, not just news ( an impartial semi-scientific recording of events).   This entails the need to:

a) Understand the power of "video journalism" - the image's message, both obvious and hidden. If the police or politicians hadn't seen it, thousands of media professionals did. Like many I said as much last Saturday when news broadcast showed the peaceful march of  Mark Dugan, fatally shot by police. The family standing outside the station being ignored said something. The clash with the police later communicated something else - as the police looked on seemingly helpless. Semiotics!

b) Authorities need to sufficiently boost their inhouse levels of knowledge to include methodologies and social behaviour (the code) to the dissemination of information, both in a classical and modern sense. This is not about knowing how to set up twitter, but to understand from people on the ground and those in the know how mobs behave with these tools. It's akin to how militarists study wars. It's simply not enough- even after their non-apology for the executive branch of the police to say we did not expect what happened.

c) How coincidental was it that mobs attacked brands. Is there a new social governance and visibility that such brands should be expending to the social provenance and not just balance the sheets of their share holders. And if believe they are doing that already, then something, somewhere is wrong.

d) Greater use of media as social understanding. I know this isn't news remit, but this happens to be one of the failings of a new post modernism media. That it still reacts, as you might claim it should, to events, before it falls of the screen without trace and something else occupies it.

e) An understanding that they haven't solved the problem. It's just gone underground and could manifest itself in other ways, where vunerabilities are shown.

 The video showing above is from 1992 - one of the BBC's seminal youth programmes that I worked on called Reportage. Then as now, youth were running amok. Perhaps, one of the failings of "videojournalism" as a new model has been its inability at a network level to redefine how TV traditionally addresses issues, as news.

The above can either be construed as impracticable based on semiotics of what we expect, or a chance as so many other innovators are looking for, enact Thomas Kuhn moments to reshape news ways of understanding and contextualising media.