Apologies if this post is a bit long-winded, but I think it's worth putting today's events in an historical context, and pausing to think about where we are going...
ONCE upon a time, a long time ago, a caveman looked at a cavewoman and said "Nnggh!" The cavewoman didn't really know what "nnggh" meant, but she knew exactly what the caveman was trying to say.
Maybe he was saying that he was hungry, or maybe he was just hoping for a bit of the old huzza-matuzza. Either way, the sound "nnggh" became imbued with meaning, it was repeated regularly thereafter, and others took up the trend. The world's first language was on its way to being constructed.
Many more sounds followed, becoming words, and eventually someone had the clever idea of creating a symbol for each of them. These symbols were scratched in sand, or painted on the walls of caves. Sometimes only a select few understood what they meant, so it became a secret language.
Soon the written word became not only a highly-valued means of communication, but also a critical tool of power. And so it remained for many, many years.
Then one day someone invented the printing press. The power of those who could transcribe words was suddenly multiplied exponentially. The writers' powers were exceeded only by the power of those who owned the printing presses, which were rapidly being constructed all over the globe. The world's first media barons were born.
A clear heirarchy of power was soon established - publishers, writers, readers, and the unwashed, illiterate masses (in that order). Publishers wielded the power of veto over writers, deciding what to publish and what not to publish. But who wielded power over the mighty publishers?
Well, of course, the written word often posed a considerable threat to those in power. Kings, czars and emperors routinely sent their soldiers to destroy printing presses that were used against them. Books were burned, publishers and authors were hanged or imprisoned.
The top echelon of power in the printed word heirarchy was clearly established. Publishers were harnessed, and the Powers That Be generally reigned supreme. Winners could write history, while losers could read it and bemoan their inability to change it.
But as people began communicating instantly around the world by telephone, newspapers became increasinly commonplace, and the whole thing began to get a bit out of hand. A man on the streets of Beijing could know what happened just hours earlier in Botswana. Suppressing the truth was not quite so easy any more.
Even as governments tried to plant spies in every newspaper, Media barons gained a new edge over the Powers That Be. A false allegation, widely published, could create all kinds of mischief. A true allegation could do even more damage. Slowly the Powers That Be learned to treat media moguls with increasingly obsequious caution. It reached a stage where governments stood back silently while print unions were smashed, and media monopolies were created.
This was a time when Rupert Murdoch routinely picked the UK's next Prime Minister on the front page of his tabloid newspapers. Power-hungry media men like Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black went a step too far, and ended up dead or in jail, leaving others to fight for control of their broken empires. It was indeed a new world order: major publishers like Murdoch had gained an equal footing with the Powers That Be. Their interests became substantially the same.
Consider for example how US, UK and Australian media outlets promoted the lies that lead to the War In Iraq. And then consider how little public criticism the media's key role in that war has ever received. Under pressure, political elites allow toothless enquiries to chew over discussion of their own "honest mistakes", but they do not subject their friends in the media to the same indignity. The press bleat that they were deceived by government spokesmen, and then move on quickly to the next sensational headline.
Meanwhile, without much fanfare, the Internet has come along. The great unwashed masses are now publishing their own news, thoughts and feelings. Newspaper print sales have been falling steadily for years. Attempts to generate online advertising revenue, or impose payment deals on readers, have been dismal failures. The newspaper industry is in a global death spiral, and there is panic in the air. Manfacturing consent has suddenly become that much harder.
Nevertheless, and despite all this nonsense, the profession of journalism is still widely considered a noble craft. There is still a widespread fantasy that journalists are good people, who are always and everywhere bound by a special code of ethics. In fact, truly ethical journalists are hard to find.
It's even harder for an ethical editor, if there is such a thing any more. One bad call and you are out the door. Media moguls always insist that they don't tell their editors what to publish, but it's no coincidence that newspaper editors have the shortest job tenures on the planet. You are either on the same page as your boss, or your desk is on the sidewalk.
In this long historical context, the UK Leveson enquiry is unprecedented. It clearly marks a turning point (the beginning of the end?) for the Murdoch empire, and sends a stark warning to his rivals. But it has also emboldened governments to push back against the media barons.
The key thing here is the Internet. Without the Internet, Murdoch's power would not have been weakened enough for Leveson to happen. Now, with media barons on the wane, governments are intent on gaining control of information passed over the Internet. If this happens, power will swing back to the top echelons of society, and our heirarchical, feudal structures will survive intact.
But if people can keep control of the Internet, and find ways to keep sharing trusted information, there are now mind-blowing possibilities for creating new, more equitable social structures. Our governments can assume a less regal, more administrative role, with online tools allowing greater decision-making input from citizens (the Global Square is an excellent showcase for these possibilities).
Finally, it's worth noting the role of state-owned media like the BBC, Russia Today and Al Jazeera. Governments fund these organisations to ensure some degree of information control, but that control will always remain limited as long as the Internet allows citizens to compare one outlet with another.