Sergey Brin's love of the phrase "and whatnot"

Last night’s BBC World Debate on the state of contemporary media was interesting and surreal in about equal measure. After technical problems forced presenter Matt Frei to halt proceedings before he’d even got through panel introductions, there was an awkward silence, as everyone in the packed auditorium, including speakers Sergey Brin, Queen Noor of Jordan and veteran journalist Carl Bernstein, looked around and wondered what to do next. Then. From nowhere. An insistent Scottish voice pronouncing: “For all that TED’s a “Technology” conference, you’d have to say it’s technology is really pretty shitty”. Huh? We all twisted in our chairs and gawped and gaped. And then, from the back of the auditorium, emerged actor Robin Williams, to fill in with an impromptu, freeform stand-up set that had everyone rolling in the aisles.

Then. Onto more serious matters.

Matt Frei did a good job of moderating a debate on the power and influence of new media, but it's clear that none on the panel really had a clear idea of the future. All bewailed an "idiot" culture that sees us more interested in the antics of Britney Spears than, say, the Kenyan election crisis -- or even the American Presidential Election. The rise of bloggers and "citizen" journalism means more access to more information, but lacks context (often for both writer and reader) and can all too often be fueled by a personal agenda of rage or bigotry. In other words, unmoderated “news” can fall far short of the ethical codes laid out for the old school press.

But should governments impose press regulations? No one liked that idea much. For his part, Brin agreed that the Internet affords a million choices -- and that most are pretty bad. But, he added, some are better than the best traditional sources. Therein lies the rub. Cutting through the cacophony to find a thoughtful, insightful voice that isn’t catapulted into the world via the mainstream media can be tricky – but ultimately incredibly worthwhile. And who’s to decree that access to a voice should or should not be permissible? Or that one person’s customization of the way in which they receive information somehow does not conform to nebulous “standards” of what is or is not acceptable. And why, if it comes down to it, are we all overlooking the fact that the mainstream press has pushed an editorial agenda since its inception. All news is offered through a lens of prejudice, intentional or not.

For Brin, Internet regulation was (perhaps unsurprisingly) not the answer. He pointed out that the Internet is already subject to a ton of regulations, though perhaps not those of a traditionally editorial nature. Instead, in a rather understated reference to YouTube’s recent troubles in Pakistan as “definitely a problem,” he warned of the dangers of paternalism while calling for an international technology standard that removes variance from country to country or even state to state. He also showed that he has a love of the phrase “and whatnot”, with which he ended most sentences in a really rather endearing manner.

Truthfully, no one addressed the issues in a blindingly new fashion. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert wondered if the media could tackle itself in a manner akin to the food industry addressing the problems of diet. No one wants to have their right to eat fatty foods taken away from them, but labeling allows consumers to make informed choices. But how would that work in a media context? As Bernstein asked rather pithily: you want to mark every article that’s in some way trite with an icon of Jerry Springer’s head to denote that it’s “idiot” journalism? Rather, Bernstein argued, it’s a matter of context. For instance, he put forward that the press has done a great job with the current U.S. Presidential Election campaigns; but his Kenya-based sister-in-law wrote a sharply worded letter to the New York Times after its superficial treatment and lack of understanding of the true meaning and ramifications of that country’s recent election crisis.

For their part, Noor and Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda, were also more worried about context than the impact of “new” media. While in 2002, there were only six Jihadi Web sites, there are now at least 7,000. But Noor added, there are other sites highlighting irresponsibilities, humanitarian crises and abuses, too. Mwenda, meanwhile, complained bitterly of a “No Bleed, No Lead” philosophy concerning Western coverage of African events and slammed mainstream media organizations for an irresponsible, unethical attitude towards his homeland. Too often, he said, “Africa” is shorthand for disaster, famine, war or disease, with journalists parachuted in after the latest crisis in order to cover a story with no true context or understanding of events. It’s time to bang a different drum, he argued. Noor agreed. “The news is so different within the United States than outside,” she said.

Both, somehow, seemed less concerned of the impact of computers or technology (perhaps not surprising when many of those in their native countries don’t have widespread access to computers) and more hopeful that media and journalism remain a respected craft that presents the news in a responsible, thoughtful manner. Somehow, the discussion ended on an upbeat note. “We can be so much better,” said Noor. There’s such potential and I’m excited about progress.”

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