Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Friday, 20 January 2006

How the net is transforming news

The impact of the internet on news has the potential to transform the interaction between politics, media and the public, beyond recognition, argues the BBC's Director of Global News, Richard Sambrook.

Mobiles, laptops and PSP
News is now available on many different devices
Picture a world where rumour is rife, where established media are focusing on unfair and unsubstantiated allegations, where government has to dedicate its efforts to fighting off and correcting slanders and trying to control the press.

No, I'm not talking about bloggers, or the world of the internet. This was England in 1695, when the licensing of pamphlets and newspapers came to an end and for hundreds of years afterwards a partisan press was the norm.

Tensions between the establishment and news organizations are not new. There has never been a time when politics and the press were in perfect balance.

From those early political pamphlets we have had a vigorous and opinionated press. Strong debate and challenge are deeply embedded in British culture and are a source of strength.

One has only to travel to parts of the developing world to appreciate the benefits of an open, free and muscular press.

Having said that, there, of course, are problems associated with what many see as a dysfunctional relationship between British politicians and the press.

They live side by side in what is known as the "Westminster bubble", mutually dependant, but eyeing each other with deep-rooted distrust.

Many believe that distrust contaminates the public discussion of policy and legislation, and prevents people getting the information they need to make informed decisions about their lives.

Pressing issues

It may be that the explosion in sources of information in a multi-channel digital age, and the insularity of some of the political-media classes means that the influence of the press has become over-inflated.

Richard Sambrook
The information revolution is in its earliest stages. But it has the potential to alter the dynamics of public debate, and the interaction between politics, media and the public, beyond recognition
Some people suggest regulation might be a way to restore trust and raise standards. The regulation of British broadcasting requiring editorial impartiality has, in most people's view, kept the standards of broadcast journalism high.

However to regulate the British press would almost certainly undermine those aspects of it which the public love.

The unpalatable truth for those who are concerned is that the tabloid newspapers most often complained about are the most successful in the country.

They understand their readership intimately and market themselves skilfully and relentlessly. As a result, they are profitable and popular.

However, in many ways these are the problems of the old world of news and information. What is fast coming upon us is the new information revolution which, in the long term, may transform the relationships between press, public and politics.

News is free

Just as the printing press and later the end of licensing produced a seismic shift in public debate 300 years ago, the internet is having a similar impact now. Information, knowledge and public access are being redistributed, with consequences we have only just begun to feel.

US tabloid reader
Tabloid newspapers are popular the world over
The news business has been based on a model of limited information gathered by select organisations with the resources to do so, and then distributed in ways controlled by the media or the regulators.

That world has gone. We now have unlimited information available - it has been commoditised and democratised. Thanks to the internet, the role of media gatekeeper has gone.

Information has broken free and top-down control is slipping inexorably away.

For 70 years the BBC World Service has broadcast programmes around the world using studios, lines and huge transmitters. Today the same thing can be done with just a laptop and an internet connection.

Google News uses an algorithm to do what it used to take a newsroom of dozens of people to do.

New roles

News organisations do not own the news any more. They can validate information, analyse it, explain it, and they can help the public find what they need to know.

But they no longer control or decide what the public know. It is a major restructuring of the relationship between public and media. But it will affect politics and policy as well.

People can now address politicians directly, and politicians can reach the public without going through the media any more. Public discourse is becoming unmediated.

As a consequence the roles of all professionals are changing and if journalists are becoming people who help manage information, perhaps NHS Direct is an example of health professionals becoming people who help individual manage their own health.

The availability of information and the pressure for transparency is raising new political issues which we have not had to confront before.

The recent debate about the resettling of sex offenders in the UK is one example. Ten years ago the same issue existed, but no-one had the information to confront it.

The information revolution is in its earliest stages. But it has the potential to alter the dynamics of public debate, and the interaction between politics, media and the public, beyond recognition.

Richard Sambrook took part in a panel discussion on the relationship between the British press and politicians, and the changes that new technology and citizen journalism might bring to the news industry at the Oxford Media Convention on Thursday

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