Engagement in an age of declining press freedom

Attacks on the independence of the press are underway in the UK and the US. Twitter is stripping context from thoughtful debates. The only antidote is thoughtful engagement work.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

When you reach your late 40s, you’ve had plenty of time to pick up some ingrained ways of thinking. For example, I habitually think of government threats to press freedom as somthing that happens in other countries. I need to work on shifting those cognitive pathways around, it seems:

After days of growing pressure, the Council of Europe has today issued a Level 2 media freedom alert that the UK government will have to formally respond to. This move came after the International Press Institute (IPI) wrote to the UK Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State for Defence asking them to clarify the selective approach to which media they provide information to.

The current UK government has seen escalating tensions with the press, rather ironically for an administration led by a former journalist, and featuring another in its senior ranks. We’ve already seen them deny access to media outlets viewed as hostile, including Channel 4 news and the Today programme. And now they are explicitly refusing to co-operate with organisations like OpenDemocracy (a former client) and now Declassified UK.

These are rather crude approaches of trying to delegitimise media seen as unfriendly to the ruling party. It feels strange to be writing these words about the UK, but I suspect many US journalists know exactly what I’m talking about. And many more journalists, who have spent their careers working where independent journalism is a dangerous, life-threatening career, will be smiling sadly at our naivety.

Political and commercial pressure on editorial integrity

Of course, exerting pressure on organisations to try to shift their editorial line is nothing new. Back in the 90s, in my early B2B jobs, I was often under low-level pressure to reshape some of my writing around the most prominent advertisers in the space. I was lucky enough to work for editors who resisted the pressure resolutely.

This, though, is a more serious escalation of that. A whisky brand trying to get me to write about their new promotion is not exactly on the same scale as a government attempting to suppress legitimate scrutiny of their behaviour.

It’s also worth noting that this pressure is coming from both ends of the idealogical spectrum. We’ve certainly seen attempts at commercial pressure places from the left. Notably, the recent fracas between The Spectator and the Co-op and, rather more extremely, the Extinction Rebellion actions to prevent distribution of some print newspapers over the weekend.

The deep irony of the latter is that the Prime Minister is accusing XR of trying to “limit access to news”, even as his government comes under international scrutiny for its threats to press freedom.

It’s a manifestation of the increased polarisation of our politics: it implies a lack of tolerance for debate and differing view points. Once you let go of debate as an organising principle of democracy, you can find it effortless to slip into censorship and information control. And we seem to be sliding down that very slippery slope right now.

Building editorial resilience

Plenty of people will spend time this week debating the rights and wrongs of these actions, and there are complexities to each of them. Let’s leave that to the hot-take merchants.

Instead, let’s focus on what we need to do about it. Two things seem clear to me.

  1. We need to build resilient distribution networks. People will find ways of trying to block access to our news, for political reasons. A decade ago, I got my first taste of this when there was a distributed denial of service attack on one of the websites I worked with. We should expect both digital and physical attacks on our distribution infrastructure to escalate. And we could perhaps stand to learn from those media organisations working in more repressive regimes. They have decades of experience of this.
  2. We need to build closer relationships to our readers. This is simple: the greater the distance between us and our readers, the easier it is for people to drive a wedge between them and us.

Let's explore point 2 a little more.

Weaponising context collapse

A couple of weeks ago, this tweet surfaced in my timeline:

Now, I’ve been reading Sullivan for a couple of decades now. I agree with some of what he writes, disagree with a lot of it, too — but I always find it interesting. And one thing that those decades have taught me is that he is not a facist. I have the context to understand that.

Indeed, the evil genius of the tweet quoted above, and of the internet generally, is its decontextualisation. It allows our words, our articles, to be stripped of their context, and with that, intentional misreading propagated.

The following week, Sullivan quoted this exchange in the latest edition of his newsletter:

The following two emails from a Dish reader reflect Twitter so well. First up:
"Fuck you for defending fascism and a murderer. I so regret subscribing to you.”
Followed up with:
*"I’ve actually read the whole column now, not just excerpts. I retract my 'fuck you'.”

This is one reason you'll find me on Twitter much less these days. It can be, at it's worst, a huge machine for stripping context — and thus nuance — from discussions.

(Incidentally, Sullivan claims to be earning $500,000 from his Substack newsletter. 🤯)

Engagement = Context

I’ve long preferred the term “audience engagement” to “audience growth”. They are not synonymous phrases. Growth can occur without engagement. Engagement, though, delivers more than growth. It delivers relationship, and context.

In an age of increasing attacks on our journalism, that context, and the trust it engenders, are vital weapons in our armoury. It’s not just about subscribers and cash, it’s also about delivering the ability to get trusted reporting to the people who genuinely need it.

The secret at the heart of audience engagement is context.

Let's get out there and contextualise, folks.

And now, some personal news

This post is more important to me than most of the many thousand posts here. For the last six months, like most self-employed parents, I’ve been highly restricted in my working time. Most weeks, I’ve had under two days’ working time. Sometimes, if my wife’s job has been busy, even less.

That’s given me a lot of time to think about what I’d like to do with this site when I finally had serious time to spend on it again. That time is now. Both my daughters returned to school this morning, for the first time since lockdown began.

Being honest: my business is an anaemic shadow of its pre-pandemic self. I had as much work as I could handle for the last few months, but that was only because I had so little working time. Now I have the time to start rebuilding it. I’m going to be exploring a number of avenues, but one of them is further developing out this site as a resource for those who care about thoughtful, engaged and debate-generating journalism as part of a democratic society.

Can I find ways of delivering the skills, the news and the analysis people need to deliver that, and to keep myself and my family fed while I do so?

Lots to do over the coming weeks, but if you’d like to support me in this work, please consider becoming a paying subscriber, or, at the very least, promoting this post and any others you like to your community.

But even if you can’t do either of those, thanks for taking the time to read me. I’ve been writing here for 17 years now, but the thrill of seeing people taking the time to read what I’ve written has never quite worn off.

Thank you.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.