Media and ethics - challenges in the 21st century
Friday 4 March 2022
Following is the text of a Baron's Briefing delivered today. It was organised jointly by The Reuter Society and The Baron.
It is a pleasure to address the members of The Reuter Society today. I will aim to make this address relevant to the time in which we live and work, as the contemporary challenges for professional news media and its ethical underpinnings have probably never been greater.
Today I offer personal observations on some elements of that challenge. I emphasise these are personal reflections and do not reflect the views of fellow directors of the Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company.
DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY EVOLUTION
Digital technology is now central to media and society at large. It provides challenge and opportunity in equal measure to news media, as much as it does in political leadership and policy formulation and across wide societal domains, in what is often a quite wildly unpredictable time.
The velocity of contemporary change has delivered thoroughly altered behaviours and expectations across our community - much of which follows from this pervasive impact of digital technologies.
People often say the world is changing. This, I suggest, wholly misses the point. The world is not changing - it has changed. Forever.
I call this era ‘the great levelling’ - a levelling of power once enjoyed by a few privileged all-powerful producers, to one which is now very much more widely dispersed.
The world is not changing - it has changed. Forever.
We have all witnessed the largest power transfer in human history. I refer to the unprecedented transfer from producers and traditional authorities on the one hand to consumers, or as I prefer to say, citizens.
On the other, we have seen the rise of myriad, for want of a better term ‘dark forces’, accountable to hidden controllers or operating as an almost autonomous autarchy in a way which is empowered uniquely by digital communication and information management systems.
The significance of such shifts is difficult to exaggerate, impossible to stop. Those who ignore the essential elements of change, where non-traditional authorities and massively distributed influencers are now increasingly in charge, are destined to fail.
Others who enter this new environment openly, with a determination to understand, adjust and adapt, have the best opportunity to survive and possibly prosper.
Meeting these potent forces which demand reconfiguration is not easy. Relevant responses, however, are essential to driving sustainable futures. The impact in the public and private sectors is equally massive.
All strands of human endeavour are seeing unprecedented turbulence. The effect on politics and direction of governments is presently unclear, although it is often disconcerting and, in many instances, results in diminished strength and confidence in traditional methodologies.
Dramatic change is everywhere, reflected in wholly different commercial and social operating models and in people’s behavioural responses. The game has changed.
INTERNET 1.0, 2.0 AND 3.0
We are now in the third iteration of digitally driven technology evolution.
The first iteration described a process of ‘convergence’ - where through the newfound wonder of the internet or ‘Internet 1.0’ as it has been described, we saw the intersection of the great information, entertainment and communication technologies of print, publishing, and broadcasting; with computing and telecommunications.
Since the early 1990s, the economic, editorial, creative and consumption consequences derived from the internet have been overwhelmingly transformative of society. It represents an unprecedented technology and information revolution in human history. For the first time we are all, potentially connected.
The second stage of digital evolution was described as ‘Internet 2.0’. It referred to the advent of user generated content and the allied emergence of so called ‘social media’. Social media and UGC are now core to our information landscape with myriad descriptive clichés well known to all, describing such potent platforms for expression and connection as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, Tik-Tok and so forth.
The future is for many a scary place
‘Internet 3.0’ refers to AI or artificial intelligence and also includes such technologies as blockchain. Whilst the temptation to describe AI as an oxymoron is high, its impact over time I would venture to say, will be more profound than the internet itself. Internet 3.0 is in many ways, a newfound alchemists’ forcefield. The impact of AI is already apparent. However, I’d suggest that blockchain and distributed ledger technology is yet to fully register with many.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE DIGITAL LANDSCAPE
Often, the future can be a scary place. Making future predictions is a risky business. The famous futurist George Gilder in the 1990s predicted the death of television before the start of the 21st century. A bold effort, with a messy outcome for him.
But all Gilder really did was get the timing wrong - video as we know it has transformed over the last decade. No doubt about it. Video is now very different from what we once meant by TV and it is everywhere.
So, at the risk of getting the timing or other elements wrong, here are a few of my personal observations as to central elements in the digitally empowered future and the impact these huge change forces are having on our society.
Let me begin:
- The strong trend in power transfer to citizens will accelerate.
- Consumers will continue to channel trust with their friends and online communities of complete strangers, long before they trust traditional authorities, leaders and commentators or well-established brands. Often notions of ‘truth’ itself will be under ferocious attack in this process, as we have seen in many major jurisdictions already.
- Fragmentation and new fusions in many media components will accelerate. The outcomes will be unpredictable - the only constant will be the necessity or inevitability of dramatic change.
- With so few barriers to entry in a digital world, the cost of failure has never been lower because the cost of innovation will continue to decline. This is crucial, representing a massive change especially for incumbent enterprises, as previous protection benefits from that incumbency, erode.
- Many sustainable commercial models are either unresolved or still shaky. However, as they are worked out, much commercial and policy carnage will follow, ensuring that these will continue as choppy, uncertain times. Indeed, digital models almost always tend to be quite destructive of existing delivery modalities.
- Which means that the turbulence and speed of change, the disruption and breakup central to digital life, is going to be with citizens, their governments; businesses and investors for a long time; because upheaval, and all its often very messy impacts, has only just begun. This will require creativity and agility to succeed - both with the broad community and with myriad niches in society, which have been empowered, in many instances for the first time.
- As part of this turbulent process, technology will continue to become an almost genetic extension of ourselves. Touch, gesture, and voice commands have become second nature in modern product constructs, embedding technology patterns and personalities from the youngest age. Technology is now an embedded part of most of us and for children and teenagers almost core to their being. Neural implants are probably not far away.
- The new cultural paradigm is that if I can imagine it, it simply must be there - I just have to find it (or invent it myself). A weighty reset in thinking!
- We will continue to see increasing consolidation in markets and fiercely heightened competition internationally where technology smarts define both the field of battle and success on it.
- Large international software players, who innovate for a living, will continue to offer a stunningly wider range of products and content services, through worldwide distribution management where geographic separation will be ever less relevant.
- Nations and their legal frameworks over time, will be substantially bypassed in this process. I’d suggest that the impact of this huge disintermediation has not yet been examined or really understood by governments. With political parties it is often, sadly, ignored. They are firmly planted in the 20th century - frustratingly out of touch with many of these powerful change forces. The notion of them being 'in command' is faintly delusional.
- Network speeds and ubiquitous connectivity will increase relentlessly. Huge capacity expansion will be matched with ever more sophisticated software tools; empowering astonishing change in the way in which we produce, manage, store, deliver, consume, interrogate, and share information.
- A central element on which there can be little debate is that mobile technology and allied software will continue to rise and rule, ensuring ubiquitous software as the dominant change force.
- Consumers now expect mobile devices to become the central controllers for other devices and services in their lives. The handy ‘computer in your pocket’ will rule the day with ever better functionality.
- Consumers will demand that a wider variety of devices work together harmoniously and seamlessly. Moreover, they will want them to work together in ways that change fundamentally how they consume, interact with and share content and a vast array of other life services. In fact, many now almost expect the technology to know them and anticipate their wants and needs.
- New players and on-line providers will continue to grow and enter diverse marketplaces where many extent players will be unusually vulnerable if they don’t change their game. As I mentioned before, many often attach too much emphasis to the benefit from incumbency. In reality many large players are exposed because they have the wrong cultural settings, often drawn from protection and hubris, with an incapacity to respond swiftly and with requisite, confident dexterity. Leaving media aside because it is so close to us all, think motor vehicles and financial services as but two prominent industry examples.
- In this connected world societies which don’t achieve consistent innovation and productivity improvement will experience uncommonly harsh declines in living standards with competitive advantage vanishing, relatively quickly.
- The nature of work will change profoundly. In my view, there is enough evidence that employment levels will decline. I know this is currently seen as an aberrant view. However AI and general automation will assert ever more aggressively and inescapably far outpacing labour demand. Widespread fresh collaborative models including cross border alliances will also eliminate much duplicative work currently undertaken.
- Cities will continue to grow and will depend on the quality of their distributed technology and services sophistication to maintain agreeable, competitive amenity, central to efficient work and social harmony. Great cities will have networks of deployed smart hubs with little relationship to 19th century organisational principles. The pandemic has provided insight as to aspects of some of these new models for work.
- Education, which has to date, surprisingly, been one of the slowest respondents to change, will be revolutionised. Parents will demand new performance and efficient delivery standards in primary and secondary levels as they move on from their 19th century planning tenets.
- The flow of talent and teaching around the world will quicken as will truly tough comparative assessment. Tertiary institutions will be judged ruthlessly across geographies with striking force and at times devastating impact from students, teachers, employers, and commentators equally.
- The digital divide will be very real and will expand with the fresh irony that the wonder of all that is available will also see a new information ‘dark age’ for many, who will be almost locked out. This will affect the old, the poor and many discreet community cohorts who will be potentially isolated.
- Without determined action by informed governments cohorts of education advantage and disadvantage will expand with severe consequences as to equity, aspiration, direction, and outcomes.
- There will be a lightning speed in uptake of increasingly intelligent software tools with advanced learning capacity and omnipotent automation. AI is already a two-letter acronym applied in everything from manufacturing to education and on through any number of media, consumer and business settings, and in the means for maintaining social order.
- The advances in data science and analysis will continue to prove astounding. Developments in data collection, storage, and analysis - known collectively as ‘big data’ - will continue to transform horizons. The best-known use being in ever better refined search, intelligent learning software and new flexible stacked organisation frameworks.
- The application of search in all things from jokes to physics; real estate to recipes; news and opinion, employment to games and virtually all areas of human endeavour - from the cheerfully simple to the amazingly complex - means that people now think and react very differently. Algorithm has after all, become part of daily vocabulary.
- The phenomenon of that post 1981 generation - Gen Y or the "millennials" depending on your preference - already sees a large community which has a vastly different attitude to notions of self, creativity, work, play, privacy, and interaction.
- Enhanced reality and its devices will become second nature to millennials and their children in work and play - the metaverse as originally conceived by Neal Stevenson, is truly with us now, for better or worse.
- Fundamentally central to this new world is the augmented power of social media, based increasingly on mobility extending into active consumer engagement with everything from news, opinions and politics to products and diverse services. Trust is the primary currency here and established notions of truth may well be the main victims. There are many marked trends seen from recent experience in politics, the pandemic and international affairs which provide ample evidence as to the hugely complex issues we confront.
- Time is the other great currency of the era we are entering, and technology is central to managing it. Technologies we have even yet to know we want will rise powerfully and be adopted or discarded rapidly. Remember that American millennials already spend about six hours with social media daily, checking their phones at least 50 times a day. And 82% sleep with their phones on!
- And therefore, for media professionals, that ‘instant expert’ - an established part of digital social life - will become ever more irksomely pervasive! This has changed the way in which people think and engage with news and opinion in often strange and forceful ways.
- The interconnected nature of this generation arising from social media and constant digital engagement will see post pandemic travel increase powerfully with huge social impacts in many countries affecting life partnerships, immigration, health, infrastructure, education, security and in countless other ways.
- The autonomous autarchies already enabled from internet search algorithms will continue to provide one of the most independent potent forces into unpredictable territory. It will be a force for good and bad alike, substantially outside traditional supervision controls of governments and regulators. I personally find one of the phenomena there - that of the ‘dark web’ - deeply troubling and often quite chilling.
- The implications for defence priorities in military deployment and technology potentials will be in a realm which would make science fiction writers gasp in disbelief. The rise of the modern ‘militarized economy’ as William Fulbright described the USA decades ago will continue, regrettably, inexorably - seen particularly in the USA, the Russian Federation, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, the ‘Koreas’ and the PRC. The consequences for clear thinking and informed decisions are decidedly confronting. Cyber terrorism providing an entirely new battlefield.
- On the brighter side personalised medicine and the field of genomics mapping from birth will be matter of fact realities transforming healthcare delivery. Healthcare will see a flip where it will become more about wellness management than sickness care. Thank goodness as we are all going to live a heck of a lot longer!
- The consequences for such issues as sustained peace, sustainable environment approaches, and common life issues from education through retirement and future healthcare are only now starting to be seriously discussed. The intergenerational issues which arise are, and will continue to be, really complicated.
- Equally importantly, notwithstanding the unpredictability and insecurity such turbulent change and consolidation generates, the opportunities will be unprecedented and, one hopes, compelling. Change is a given but the liberation to human creativity and ingenuity with this era of inventiveness unleashed and the opportunities it affords, is central to our future.
- And remember, the journey is still only in its infancy, which is often forgotten or bafflingly, ignored.
From all this transformation we will continue to see change in our political systems, and the way we relate to each other as fellow citizens. Who knows where that will take us all culturally, but the implications can be quite mind shifting, often going into completely unchartered territory, especially for news media. Ground-planes have moved and the challenge for engagement has become ever more complex.
It seems clear that many political forces are inadequately engaged with these change processes and their profound implications. I regret to say that many bureaucracies that support them are insufficiently connected, often lacking what I might call digital cultural smarts.
Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity - one of the most accurate descriptors for the characteristics of this digital era
Does it all reflect a strange amalgam between the writings of JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell? Does this all seem remarkably dystopian, or will it offer new horizons of wonder, optimism and social improvement? Truthfully the answers are probably yes and no, in differing measures.
But it is obvious, on even modest analysis, that disengagement is not a realistic option. After all, these things are happening, and rapidly. We have commenced a fascinating, albeit compulsory, ride. One which will have ever increasing force, with the necessity of adjustment to digital disruption at its core. The Economist’s acronym VUCA is one of the most accurate descriptors for the characteristics of this digital era, governed as it is by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.
Not easy by any measure, but rich with opportunity. So, engage and adapt we must.
MEDIA IMPACTS FROM DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES
Let me turn to some matters in that landscape I would observe as central to the experience of the news media, which is at the core of ‘the great levelling’.
In the news media, especially in print based news delivery, we saw a set of businesses which in many instances made a poor fist of understanding and managing most aspects of the digital tsunami which has swamped the sector in the last 30 years. The poor responses often derived substantially from a hubris rich culture, with a baffling resistance to history and analysis, and a resultant incapacity to rethink models in relevant contemporary ways.
Reuters has not been immune but it is well positioned with a long term contract with Refinitiv, a wide body of wholesale contracts with diverse global news media, a vibrant independent digital offering and a new events business
News media generally inherited a notion whereby periods of stability and static movement followed modest incremental change or bursts of invention. This was how many mainstream news media enterprises grew up. That old pattern has vanished. The evidence of this revolution is everywhere.
Incrementalism is an historical facet of pre-21st century culture. We see it in the changing consumption and interaction habits driven by digital technology. Think of how you graze the world and inform yourself now compared with your parents. Imagine what will happen with all the information and key services you will consume in 15 years’ time - there will be little resemblance with today. I am sure you will all have your own examples. But few of you would disagree that commercial and behavioural change is upon us like a hurricane.
On early evidence scale in media and entertainment still matters, deeply. The power of managed distribution is still very high. While the landscape may still be fuzzy and often confusing, the power and primacy of content that informs or delights has never been greater. Depth in content offering whether it be in news and analysis, or entertainment has a rare and durable value in this era.
As I trust we all acknowledge, commercial impacts from digital transitions have been remarkably punitive, affecting the wholesale economics of news media and entertainment equally. It has been a rough transition and there have been many obvious impacts on workforces, audiences, and revenues - especially in advertising and extreme changes in the economic chain of distribution and consumption.
Unsurprisingly, Reuters has not been immune to these impacts. However, it is well positioned with a long term contract with Refinitiv, a wide body of wholesale contracts with diverse global news providers, a vibrant independent digital offering and a new events business which has proven to be remarkably resilient throughout the pandemic.
In all this turbulence some prominent media institutions seriously confront issues of how to sustain relevance and commercial viability, whilst others are through the worst and have effectively reimagined their offerings.
As importantly in terms of general editorial settings, all news media must confront an enemy which provides a fascinating paradox in such an information rich age. I refer here to what I would describe as the unwavering march of ‘the general ignorance.’ For me it is the most alarming aspect of this new era where one could be forgiven for thinking that almost everyone is now their own journalist!
We live in an era where opinions reign, ignorance and assertion of dogmatic opinion enjoy false equivalence with knowledge, analysis, and deep thinking. How media bodies like Reuters, responsibly confront this great levelling is key to successful navigation in this new information future. It is a uniquely difficult editorial challenge.
REUTERS NEWS AND THE THOMSON REUTERS TRUST PRINCIPLES
In recent years, notwithstanding naysayers, Reuters has responded to many challenges remarkably well. It has used technology cleverly; has adapted its news resource and its deployment; kept relentless focus on speed; retrained its workforce; and imbued it with a resilient and ethical heart. The management of the vast flow of information throughout the pandemic occurred seamlessly with almost 100% of team members working remotely.
I commend the whole Reuters team for the remarkably improved online experience and continuing product innovation in so many areas
Continuing editorial leadership from Reuters was evident in many arenas over the difficult 2020 and 2021 years - this was marked by the continuing exceptional coverage of global political issues, COVID-19, and with a wide variety of economic, business and social impacts which arose in this continuing strange and challenging era. One where we are all experiencing the unexpected (particularly the unwelcome unexpected) which often provides the ‘new normal’. The coverage of COP 26 was really very fine as it was with so many other momentous occurrences in commercial and political life throughout the last two years. Just look at the exceptional quality of the current Ukrainian coverage.
I would commend the whole Reuters team for the remarkably improved online experience and continuing product innovation in so many areas - I am sure you have all observed the marked effectiveness of many of these changes in usability, speed, clarity, and attractiveness in presentation as seen on a daily basis. The Pulitzer prizes in recent years testify to peer endorsement of the quality of the team’s work. The graphics, photographic and video work is so often a scene leader in world news coverage.
The change demanded to manage the journey liberated in using new digital tools well is reflected in the daily work of Reuters brilliantly - because digital chemistry and personality now permeates all the culture of Reuters securely.
There is a temptation to be romantic when discussing news organisations - let’s not do that. The core logic, intelligence and imagination informing successful news production must come from understanding the settings and experience of history and invention. Our great media institutions most of whom are Reuters customers, are rethinking ways in which they reinvent their audience relationships and editorial processes coherently. Encouragingly after a truly difficult initial period, there are now many fine examples of this working well.
2021 represented the 80th anniversary of the first iteration of Sir William Haley’s creation of the Reuters Trust Principles in a time even more troubled operationally, politically, and commercially than today. He saw the need to imbue Reuters with an indelible sense of its ethical purpose when the mainstream London newspapers were admitted as equal owners by the Press Association during WWII. Haley was a true editorial visionary, first at the Manchester Guardian, then at the BBC and finally at The Times. He was also a committed director of Reuters including through the especially colourful transition from Roderick Jones to Christopher Chancellor.
There have been a number of iterations of the Trust Principles since then, probably most importantly with the amendments made, prophetically, back in 1984 with the creation of the Founders Share and the Founders Share Company as part of public listing then. This saw the firmament of the Trust Principles from a simple shareholders’ agreement to a set of amendments that gave commercial force to the protection of what are now the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles with which you are all familiar.
The Trust Principles were a central component to the transaction back in 2008 when Thomson assumed ownership of Reuters. Thomson embraced those Principles as a mark of distinction and leadership.
the Trust Principles burn brightly with contemporary relevance and continuing purposeful application
The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles are timeless, embodying the core precepts of integrity, independence, and freedom from bias; together with the allied responsibilities as to widest possible service availability, recognition of diverse responsibilities, and commitment to maximum effort in maintaining news leadership.
The guardianship of that set of obligations is taken very seriously by the Trustees of the Principles. Whilst the work is necessarily discreet, it is accepted with due regard to principled and dedicated purpose.
In an environment where core ethical settings of honesty, respect, responsibility, and accountability have never been more central to maintaining community trust, I think the Trust Principles burn brightly with contemporary relevance and continuing purposeful application. They provide a special differentiation for Reuters from all other news providers and stand proudly for the workforce worldwide.
The Principles are unique in the world landscape of modern news media. They are of profound value in providing a sense of true north in addressing many of the issues I summarised in this era of continued pervasive disruption. The focus on editorial integrity and trust has never had, I believe, greater value.
All must recognise that digital technology has changed forever the nature of information access, exchange, and the direction of society through politics, commerce, creativity, education, and communication, in life as we know it. Continuing commercial fragmentation is guaranteed - the ferocity of attack on established customs and practices, and the velocity of change will not abate. Merit, ingenuity, speed, and flexibility increasingly rule the day, across the planet.
In that landscape there is reason to take confidence in the editorial and commercial business settings at Thomson Reuters as being fit for purpose in this fascinating era. From my extensive observations of the Reuters editorial workforce and its executive team over recent years, I am confident it relishes the challenge, and is committed to the service of truth, trust, integrity and independence - all of which are central to democratic life and values in an increasingly politically, socially and economically complex world. ■
- « Previous
- Next »
- 1 of 65