Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Fortune-telling and Fact

Posted by alicocksworth on February 27, 2009

fortune-cookie2

Last week I went to a debate at LSE entitled: ‘Why Did Nobody Tell Us? Reporting the Global Crash of 08’. The event set out to explore why the media had failed to forecast the banking crisis and the gravity of its impact around the world. In spite of an all-star line up (Vince Cable MP, Evan Davis of Radio 4, Gillian Tett from the FT among others) I left disappointed. The problem wasn’t the speakers – the majority confirmed themselves first-class thinkers – but the limitations of the topic.

At this stage of proceedings it seems not only counter-productive but pretty uninteresting to delve back into the whys and wherefores of who should have clocked the magnitude of the problem and whose fault it was that they didn’t.

Two much more engaging questions emerged out of the evening: firstly, is it the media’s job to forecast world events?

Willem Buiter (FT contributor and academic) held not:

‘I don’t blame the media – they’re not supposed to see it coming. Prophets, scientists – they’re supposed to see things coming’.

I quite agree with him.

All this criticism of the media for failing to see through the fragmented intricacies of the banking system or at least failing to report it feels a lot like a blame game that is not only ridiculous but indicative of a misplaced frustration. Journalists are meant to report and report rigorously. They cannot prophesy and nor should they be expected to. Yes, opinion and prediction are important elements of the media landscape but they cannot be allowed to infiltrate the reporting of fact – isn’t that the kind of irresponsibility we so often castigate the tabloids for? Surely Mr Peston’s ‘warning’ about NorthernRock and the consequences should stand as a lesson that the media must report, not only with clarity but with impartiality.

The second more interesting and I think more pressing issue was raised by Gillian Tett – one of the few journalists who actually understood and attempted to report the fragility of the system – and disputed by Evan Davis when he said this:

‘It’s not the media’s job to bang a drum when no-one else is’

Forgive me Evan but I think that is exactly what the media’s job is.

Some of the most brutal problems the world faces are spoken of only in blushing whispers: suffering up-close tends to inspire awkward embarrassment or a channel change to perpetuate a sense of plausible deniability.

The media wields the awesome power of being able to drag these things out of the shadows and it is the only means by which social silence can be broken and allow education – education that is desperately needed around issues like sexual violence and STIs – to begin.

I do not expect the media to champion causes or issue warnings and I certainly don’t blame them for not producing an accurate horoscope for the financial world. But keeping quiet because it’s what everyone else is doing? That is criminal.

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