As 2011 draws to a close, we find it easier to imagine the world ending than to imagine a seismic change of the sort that seems likely in 2012. Apocalypse cults herald the Rapture and the Mayan prophecies of doom, but critics of capitalism stop short of imagining a revolution in America or a new political order in the UK.
The stories we tell about the future are no longer hopeful, excited tales of technology and human spirit revealing new vistas of experience and exploration. Toby Barnes talked about this in his excellent post wrapping up Playful 2011: “Our visions now seem to be so close to home.” Not just in science fiction, in the stories we write and the movies we see, but in other areas of culture too, we go around in circles exploring the past. The New Boring aesthetic is everywhere, in our television, our clothes, our music, our interior decoration. Even cupcakes and cake stands are back.
It’s a little like the UK has collectively mislaid the cultural ability to imagine beyond the horizon, and started looking backwards over its shoulder instead. Not lost, because that implies it won’t come back, when the world stops changing so fast and people have jobs and can afford to eat and pay bills comfortably again (assuming that happens). But we have shifted our focus away from the shiny bright realm of limitless possibility to the scary possibilities of the present. While in some parts of the world 2011 has been about imagining revolution and embracing hope, in others the realm of the future has become a place where ends are easier to envisage than evolutions.
The same is true of the news industry. In a year when a British newspaper was unceremoniously killed by its owners, the end of a national newspaper suddenly changed from something hard to picture into something easy to recall. It’s much easier to envisage the end of the newsprint business than to conceive of its evolution. It’s harder to imagine what the news business in general will look like in 2031 than it is to imagine that there simply won’t be one. The apocalypse is a much easier story than the sci-fi future, these days.
I hope, in 2012, that changes. I hope we get our hopeful visions back.
Today the final edition of the 168-year-old News of the World hit the stands, and 200 people woke up without jobs, thanks to the decision by News International on Thursday to close the paper.
Killing the News of the World, along with its many other possible benefits for Rupert Murdoch, is an attempt to grab control of the story back – or at least to dilute it. Suddenly, instead of dissecting past issues of the paper to look for more evidence of illegal (or at least immoral) behaviour, journalists are dissecting the final issue. Instead of the possible guilt of former editors, the result is to introduce a discussion about the relative innocence of Colin Myler and his current staff. [Edit: see also Roy Greenslade’s look at the final edition.]
The gesture also attempts to make martyrs of the newspaper and of its existing journalists. Suddenly it’s almost churlish to write furious diatribes about the past, when 200 forlorn journalist faces are staring out at you from the last ever newsroom photograph. The urge now is to eulogise, to sum up the 168-year life of the paper – and that means the narrative turns from exposing the illegal and immoral activities that have taken place over the years to a gentler summation of the paper’s life – lauding the good as well as discussing the bad.
It’s a hugely expensive and risky smokescreen to throw in front of a hungry set of journalists, but the result is still to change the terms of the narrative. The focus has shifted.
The political implications of this scandal are immensely complicated and far-reaching, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that the Murdoch empire had an interest in keeping politicians corrupt. If your power rests in part on your ability to unmask corruption – in selectively dishing dirt on those politicians who don’t do what you want – then in fact you have an incentive to ensure that there is a skeleton in everyone’s closet, and that you have the ability to expose it. You have a vested interest in building up the careers of celebrities whose secrets you can use to sell papers. The more corrupt the people at the top – the more dirty secrets you have on the most powerful politicians and policemen – the more control and power you wield.
Thanks to its 2.7m circulation and an estimated readership of about 8m, the News of the World was a kingmaker and a kingbreaker. But those readers won’t just disappear into the ether. The media landscape in the UK is undergoing seismic change not just because of the newspaper closure and the potential damage to other News International titles, but also because we don’t know where those loyal tabloid readers will end up. Presumably a Sunday edition of the Sun would snap them up immediately – so long as it wasn’t dead in the water from the News of the World fallout. But it will be very interesting to see whether the other Sunday papers see a circulation bump in the wake of the death of the Screws – or where the paper’s online readers will migrate to other mainstream titles, or disappear off to celebrity blogs or fragmented new media.
If the mass audience fragments, that could permanently reshape the hierarchy of power in this country in ways that are impossible to predict. We have already seen the power of the network in driving the story forwards. We have already seen a massive shift in power, with politicians openly attacking Rupert Murdoch, a man who seemed untouchable this time last week.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, I start at the Guardian tomorrow as SEO Subeditor. I don’t know what next week holds but I’m immensely excited to be part of it – sad to leave Citywire, hugely so, but so excited.