A Spotlight on Editorial Power

The movie Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe‘s investigation into the Catholic Church’s protection of paedophile priests. A film that casts a former Batman and the current Incredible Hulk as journalists was always going to have a bit of a head start with newspaper reviewers but it’s a film that tells us a good deal about how the media operate.

First off, Spotlight shows how the investigation did not present itself in the form of a tipoff from a trusted source or a journalist’s hunch. It began when the Globe‘s new editor, Martin Baron, pushed the paper’s Spotlight team to dig deeper into a story the paper was already covering. Baron, a Jew from Florida, hadn’t internalised any local understandings in Boston about what was and wasn’t a suitable subject for public discussion. His centre of gravity was outside the social world he was working in.

(While much is made of the Spotlight team’s independence, it is clear that the signals a determined editor sends can be extremely influential in the minds of those who work for him or her. Journalists are not puppets but they have jobs, which they want to keep. An editor, especially an editor like Baron with a reputation for cost-cutting, isn’t someone you want to antagonise.)

Second, stories do not speak for themselves. They are shaped by the assumptions of those working on them, as well as by the resources and the time available. Baron insists that the story isn’t about any number of abusive priests. It is about the systemic response of the Church. The institution covered up the crimes of individuals and made it possible for them to offend repeatedly. One of the Spotlight team says that that means they are going after Cardinal Bernard Law, a powerful individual in the city’s establishment. (Law, by the way, was on good terms with the politician Billy Bulger, the brother of one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters, Whitey Bulger). No, Baron explains, they are going after the system.

An editor or journalist can look, if he or she chooses, at patterns, at cultures, at the spoken and unspoken laws that govern behaviour as well as at the workings of personality. This ability to intercut the close ups of an investigation with the panning shots of social survey begins to get at the nature of editorial power. It is the power to shape how we, the audience, make sense of the facts presented. An editor can make the narrative about a few (or many) bad apples or about the  structural properties of power in a particular context.

We know that the abuse of relatively powerless people is widespread. Collusion by those adjacent to this abuse is also widespread. But for the most part we have only a vague sense that an entire structure of power might somehow be involved. Editorial power is not usually used to place individual acts of abuse in their wider enabling context. Spotlight describes the exception, rather than the rule.

The film is also illuminating about the ways that the media interact with other institutions in society. Senior journalists move in the same circles as other professionals. They have a shared sense that society works, more or less. They are part of why it works. To call into question the commanding heights of that society is to call into question their own life narrative. Why are they successful journalists, after all, and not suicidal alcoholics? Is it just luck, as Michael Keaton’s character Robby Robinson wonders out loud, that he didn’t meet a predatory priest at school? And what if career progression depends not on fearless iconoclasm but on acceptance of prevailing social norms about what constitute acceptable lines of inquiry, about who should be listened to, about what a story is?

Getting at the way society really works works requires listening to people who are outside the circuits of polite speech. Victims, of course, but also whistleblowers and maverick lawyers. These people are normally excluded for a reason. They say things that other people – people of consequence – don’t want to hear. And so editorial power is exercised in the service of a kind of analgesia. The wrongdoers have been dealt with, lessons have been learned, senior managers didn’t know. The headache goes away.

Editorial power does not only belong to editors and journalists. Media owners have, to a greater or lesser extent, the means to make their preferences clear to those who work for them, quite obviously. But the authors of official inquiries also have considerable opportunity to interpret their briefs. The public relations industry is increasingly influential in the contest to establish the meaning of events. Individual politicians as well as parties have some power to reframe private problems as public issues or to substitute hallucination for analysis.

The Spotlight team broke the silence about abuse and coverup in the Catholic church because someone who approached the issue from outside prompted them to do so. It is possible to approach the politics of a medium-sized city from outside, and from above. But how do we treat the political and economic directorate from outside? The answer is obvious and yet somehow repellent. We can only do so by democratising decisions about how investigative journalists are employed and how their work is interpreted. Instead of relying on elite-run and opaque institutions we rely instead on ourselves. We take part in the editorial process of deciding which events matter in the first place, and what they mean. This requires accepting the possibility of error and the discomfort of being corrected. We are no longer granted the luxury of outraged innocence. But that seems like a reasonable price to pay for becoming the co-authors of public speech.

With that in mind I am setting up a Democratic Media Fund, which will pay for me (and hopefully others) to look at ways to make the media safe for democracy. The first project this Spring will look at emerging funding models for journalism and how they relate to the output. It will be based around a trip to meet the Bristol Cable people and learn more about their work.

If you want to contribute to what I am grandiosely calling the DMF, you can buy a copy of Common Sense on pdf. I’ll send everyone who kicks in 99 pence a note in April about the Bristol trip, and about the DMF’s plans for the rest of the year. Together we can change story about the media, as a prelude to changing the world.

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