Decoding the Guardian’s Open Journalism advert
By Majid Salim
In this reading I will attempt to decode the Guardian newspaper’s latest advert, on the subject of its latest marketing ploy, an open journalism platform. The Guardian’s argument is that open journalism is a platform for collaborative, consensual journalism with citizen journalists to create a journalism platform that is partly in the public domain, in much the same way that open source software is in the public domain. However this essay finds that the Guardian’s advert can be deconstructed to reveal an entirely different subtext. It is argued that the Guardian’s advert highlights the public as uninformed and reactionary, and incapable of journalism, and also that it highlights that the Guardian ultimately retain control over public debate, the media and public opinion.
The advert, first shown on television on 29th February 2012, takes the form of media coverage of the Three Little Pigs story. It begins with the Big Bad Wolf having been boiled alive by the Three Little Pigs, and footage is shown of a crack SWAT team closing in and arresting one of the Little Pigs at gunpoint. The media reportage of this event goes as follows: “The third little pig is taken into custody, so the spotlight is now shone on homeowners rights to protect their property.” The first half of this sentence is a statement of fact, but describing the spotlight as being shone on homeowners rights to protect their property is a highly biased, loaded analysis which frames the debate. It is interesting that the spotlight is not being shone on whether homeowners have the right to protect their property, which shows the way media bias in reporting the facts of the case colour all subsequent opinion and comment on the debate. Public contributors to the debate are shown as reacting in an entirely Pavlovian way to the debate, sounding back to the media the range of opinion the media have already programmed into them via the bias of their original reportage. Evidence for this is given in the kinds of comments people leave on the website, about how they would do the same under the same circumstances.
Having framed the debate, the Guardian in this advert beg the question with the straw poll about whether it is right to kill to defend you property, which gets a resounding Yes vote. The advert ends this section by highlighting a comment from a member of the public saying that he would do the same as the Little Pigs if his property was under threat. The public can be seen to have agreed on a consensus opinion which they had little control over arriving at, as their conceptual understanding of the facts of the case was kinked and loaded by the media to start with through their use of bias in the reporting and (doubtless) leading the public by the nose through arcs of cognition.
In the next part of the advert it transpires that the Big Bad Wolf had asthma, and so would have been incapable of blowing down the Little Pigs houses. This leads to the revelation that the Little Pigs were insurance fraudsters who were trying to get money because they were behind on mortgage repayments. They are taken into custody.
This sparks another bubble of comment from citizen journalists, all of whom completely sympathise with the Little Pigs position, as they themselves have problems meeting ends meet. The consensus opinion of the public is that the Little Pigs are to be sympathised with as many people have financial problems and are in the same boat as them. But this misses an important point – the Little Pigs are criminals, and they murdered the Wolf by boiling him alive. So why are the public showing sympathy for the plight of convicted murdering criminals? This point gets to the nub of the way the public and by extension citizen journalists are portrayed in this advert. The public are portrayed as unintelligent, reactionary, capricious, arbitrary, and uninformed. Journalism cannot be trusted to them. The next sequence confirms this beyond question, as public ire over the issue of mortgage arrears boiled over into riotous civil disobedience. The public, as portrayed in this advert, are completely incapable of anything resembling journalism and are portrayed as a reactionary, uninformed mob who will riot at the drop of a hat.
The next headline shown in the Guardian is “Riots spark reform debate”. The concept of “sparking a debate” is a lot like the concept of “shining a spotlight” on something, a device the media use to control how we read reality, framing the debate that both the public and the Government will have about these riots a certain way. If this advert is an advert for open journalism, it fails to sell the concept on at least two points. The public are seen as incapable of the vocation of journalism, and the media are seen as unwilling to share journalism with them, preferring as they do to frame the debate in its entirety and retain all control for themselves.
The advert ends with the words “the whole picture” against the backdrop of people reading the Guardian across several different formats – print, web, iPad, etc. The whole picture in question does not appear to be the benefit of some perceived form of collaborative citizen journalism, but rather the whole picture appears to be the practice of swallowing Guardian editorial lines and accept Guardian shaping of your opinion across as many different media formats as are available to you.
On 29th February 2012 the Guardian website carried an exposition of what open journalism is by Alan Rusbridger. This article was a remarkable woolly, vague article with nothing resembling a real intellectual presentation of a business or journalism concept being present. Also, on 1st March 2012, Comment Is Free editor Becky Gardiner explained how the Guardian’s readers are at the heart of a vibrant culture of debate and discussion. This article was met with derision by its own commenters, who uniformly argue the Guardian controls debate on its website and only allows online posts that fit into its editorial lines. We have to look at the evidence from the advert to see there is nothing really resembling a vibrant culture of debate and discussion involved in the Guardian’s open news platform. If we read the TV advert again we can surmise that the public’s comments tend towards the uninformed and reactionary, and entirely without merit. As the Guardian says itself, comment is free.
By presenting the appearance of an open news platform that doesn’t exist beyond its status as a marketing ploy, under the guise of giving consumers the ‘whole picture better’, the Guardian can be seen to be attempting to offer its consumers better access to objective reality when in fact all they are doing is subliminally cementing the authority of Guardian editorial opinion, however arbitrary, in the minds of people as being in fact inescapable reality itself.
Perhaps the Guardian realise that in human psychology, news is now a constant like gravity or an oxygen rich atmosphere, something normal people no longer have the apparatus to have meta-thoughts about and so are completely incapable of forming a critique. Perhaps the Guardian are now simply in the business of marketing an aesthetic for news consumption. There is a known demographic group, the “Guardianista”, people who are sold on the brand’s power and who view reading the Guardian as a lifestyle choice. It takes quite a lot of intellectual effort to read brand Guardian, but if you have to buy a newspaper every day to convince yourself you are the kind of person you want to like you only have a passing relationship with strength of character anyway, and the likelihood is that you are one of the many that make up the reactionary mob of media consumers.
In conclusion, the concept of the open journalism platform can be seen as truly lacking. More attention can and should be given to it, if an open source form of journalism is what the Guardian actually want at all.