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Governance | Robert Ashton | 19 Jul 2011

The phone-hacking scandal holds some clues as to why the Big Society has struggled to get off the ground. But the rapidly-shifting media landscape offers great opportunities for campaigners, says Robert Ashton.

Heads are rolling as the News of the World hacking scandal gathers pace. Public pressure is this time not being fuelled by the usual media frenzy. You only have to view the wonderful YouTube clip of former Assistant Police Commissioner Andy Hayman to know things have somehow changed. The footage of him being asked if he’d taken money from journalists is a classic example of how social media is now making the news.

The killing of Osama bin Laden was reported first on Twitter, where ordinary people around the world now report the extraordinary. Add the collapse of advertising revenues and rocketing print and distribution costs and you quickly see that press influence is destined to decline. Once they all go to online or iPad editions only, the innate equality of the internet will bring them down to the level of any articulate blogger.

The cynic might accuse the government of hastening the inevitable decline of media influence. After all, although distinctly unpleasant, the recent bout of phone hacking and bribery is hardly a new phenomenon. Ask almost any former politician and you will hear stories of harassment and intrusion. Families of murder victims will have similar stories to tell; they remain raw for decades.

You see Big Society has struggled. Not because it’s a flawed philosophy, but because media interpretation has been sadly biased. Exposing scandal and denouncing success is what sells newspapers. Unfortunately it also inhibits social change. The true Big Society opportunity is at the grassroots of our nation. It surely is the opportunity every frustrated community activist has been waiting for; the change to gather community together and take control.

Has the government used the hacking scandal to hobble the press? Who knows, although the unpopularity of Rupert Murdoch’s growing power was a gift in terms of presenting the perfect opportunity. And Twitter has enabled everyone to comment, share and take part in the debate. In fact paradoxically, press journalists themselves now increasingly rely on Twitter for their information.

Furthermore, it’s far easier online to spot the troll from the thinker. A recent blog of mine suggested a new kind of ‘National Service’ to enable community organisations to benefit from otherwise unemployed graduate talent. It attracted a flurry of comment, some positive and some venomous. Trolls it seems don’t read a piece before slagging it off. This makes them far easier to spot than the malicious journalist seeking to bring someone or something down.

So just as we are witnessing societal and cultural change on an unprecedented level, so too is the way we become informed changing for ever. Just as we once eagerly followed press comment when forming our own opinions, now we simply scour the internet for comment and critique. Who wrote it is becoming less important; it’s the strength of their argument, their ability to illustrate with actual experience and the resonance with the reader’s starting point that counts.

But don’t just read the blogs on this website; comment, tweet and become part of the debate. Today’s press is at your fingertips. You and me, we are the media!

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Robert Ashton

Robert Ashton is a social entrepreneur, campaigner and author.

Robert is a vice patron of Norfolk Community Foundation and chairs Human Library UK CIC.

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