Richard Hooper

The Media: Mass or Mad?

First Published in the October 2016 Harkness Report

Joining the BBC in 1963 as a general trainee, but with no clear vocational passion at that time, I had my first media lesson from the editor of Radio Newsreel. I was preparing my first ever piece to broadcast for the programme, 6.30 to 7.00 weekday nights. I cannot now remember the subject. He asked me to go into the studio and read the script, whilst he recorded it. I did. I came out. He seized the script and told me to go back into the studio and speak it freely – without a script. Somewhat taken aback, I did. We compared the recordings. No contest. Writing for reading is fundamentally different from writing for speaking. Different media. This begins to be interesting, I remember thinking.

Many years later I had the delight of talking with that most distinguished of Harkness Fellows – Alistair Cooke. He was speaking at the memorial service for Charles Siepmann, one of my Harkness mentors in 1967, based at NYU. Charles was Director of the Spoken Word at the BBC in the 1930s and left the UK for the USA in 1939 probably due to his German name. I asked Alistair Cooke whether he in any way ad libbed his Letter from America, it always sounded so fresh and organic with long sentences and parentheses which we radio newbies had been taught to avoid. He replied: “Every word in Letter from America is in the script, no ad libbing. I speak the script out loud into my typewriter as I type.”

Marshall McLuhanWriting for speaking. This early rather fumbling interest in differences between media brings me to the Harkness. I was fortunate. I was introduced to a Jesuit priest Father John Culkin who turned out to be the John the Baptist for Marshall McLuhan, the great Canadian thinker and media philosopher in the late 1960s at the height of his considerable powers. I sadly never met McLuhan but devoured his books and sat at the feet of John the Baptist. Surrounded in cities like New York or Chicago with endless advertising, outdoor, radio, television, newspapers, endless media messages from by British standards huge numbers of television and radio stations, McLuhan was instantly understandable. He was less understandable, less appreciated in London of those years – a capital city far less awash with media messages, three television channels only in those pre-Channel 4, presatellite television, pre-Freeview days.

McLuhan was the first to talk of the “global village” that was being created by communications media – an extraordinarily accurate prediction for 1968. The internet today is a global communications system, careless of territorial boundaries, creating McLuhan’s global village.

‘The medium is the message’

But McLuhan is best remembered for his cryptic, opaque words: “the medium is the message”. For me these five words proved, unexpectedly, to be the source and driving force for my career-long interest in the media. I took them to mean that each medium of communication has different characteristics specific to its architecture. Writing for reading is different from writing for speaking. My passion was aroused. In a recent interview the artist Grayson Perry talked of the “materiality of objects” – this is the same. The materials you use, the media you use affect what you are trying to say – for Grayson Perry his tapestries and vases.

You may say that that each communications medium having different characteristics is obvious. But in fact it is not obvious – and it certainly was not obvious to me in 1968. The 1960s and 1970s allowed me, armed with McLuhan insights, a close up look at the different characteristics of the mass media.

The first key characteristic of mass media such as television is economic. The Crystal Palace transmitter to the south of us across the river, emitting broadcast signals, costs the same to operate whether one television set or one radio set is tuned in or millions of sets are tuned in. The marginal costs of transmission per new additional user are zero. This economic fact should be at the heart of any understanding of mass media’s power and ubiquity and commercial importance. Let us fast forward to the arrival of the mass-mad medium of the internet. The marginal costs of the next user to click on the mouse to watch a live streamed movie, are not zero. There are additional costs per new user in relation to bandwidth and to website server capacity. I well remember a Royal Television Society conference at Cambridge some ten years ago predicting the early death of television and its replacement by IPTV – Internet Protocol Television. Well those Crystal Palace economics will keep traditional television and radio in business for a while to come. Especially if broadcasters understand and exploit the unique characteristics of their medium – for example big live events that exploit zero marginal costs, attracting large audiences.

A second key characteristic. Traditional television and radio are one way – the Crystal Palace transmitter gives us no ability to communicate back. The crucial characteristic of the internet is that it is two way, carried on the modern broadband telephone network. Broadband speeds are measured for downstream traffic – the large amount of stuff I call down from the internet and upstream traffic – the smaller amounts of stuff such as a new email which I send back to and through the internet. In the late 1970s working for Clive Hollick in the private sector, and then the early 1980s inside BT, I helped pioneer the first version of the internet – viewdata/Prestel. 24 lines of 40 characters in seven colours on the television set fed by big computers over the phone line. Prestel’s downstream speed was 1200 kilobits per second and the upstream speed was 75 kilobits per second. Laughable today. But that was the speed of the narrowband copper-based public telephone service. Today modern broadband speeds, depending upon packet switching not circuit switching, are measured in megabits per second and even gigabits per second. Packet switching is another extraordinary invention – the twin of the internet, born in America in 1967 in the womb of American military defence. Messages are cut up into small pieces – packets – with addresses on the front of each packet. Those packets are sent separately through the network not necessarily in the right order not necessarily with the same routeing, and are reassembled in the right order at the receiving end. This makes for a highly cost effective use of network capacity. Unlike traditional circuit switching where my telephone call from London to Sydney requires an open line dedicated solely to me all the way through different exchanges across those twelve thousand miles.

The rise of the mobile

But there is one other important characteristic of broadcasting which increasingly complicates the policy debate. Broadcasting uses spectrum, that is to say wireless frequencies through the air. Yet television and radio are essentially fixed – the tv set sits fixed in the living room. But they still use valuable wireless spectrum. Mobile phones are mobile. They absolutely need spectrum. So over the next few years, more and more fixed broadcasting is likely to transfer to the internet, freeing up spectrum for mobile phone operators who need more and more of it each year. Last year in the UK data use on mobile networks grew by a massive 65% over 2014. Worldwide there are 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions, a penetration rate of 97%, up from a penetration rate of around 10% in 2000. All this needs more and more spectrum. We shall end up with mobile operators providing our phone service and fixed optic fibre under the ground providing our internet. The fixed phone, circuit switching, the red telephone boxes and copper will all be gone.

But let me look at the characteristics of media from another point of view – how we consume media. Most of the time we are in one of two modes. Information retrieval or browsing.

Google and the internet are very powerful at information retrieval. Beating encyclopaedias and yellow pages into commercial decline. I know I was on the Yellow Pages board. But how do you know on the internet that the answer is accurate? I will come back to that.

When we open the newspaper in the morning or switch on Radio Four, we have no specific questions in mind. We want to browse. We want to say to the editor of the Financial Times or the editor of The Today Programme – tell us what we should read, listen to and think about today. I would wish to argue to you that the traditional mass media from the analogue age are much better at allowing us to browse than the internet is today in the digital age. Size of screen is one issue. The double page spread of a broadsheet newspaper beats a mobile screen any day – for browsing but not of course for information retrieval. Browsing is rather like high explosive ammunition in tanks. If it lands near the target, it still works. It does not have to be pinpoint accurate like armour piercing, like information retrieval.

BBC’s i-player

Now a step change is happening in television consumption. The BBC’s i-player is leading that change. The vast majority of viewing is still live, still has a browsing component. But we are beginning to seek out and watch only the things we want to watch when we have the time – information retrieval if you like video style. We are beginning to watch more and more stuff on demand, using streaming technologies like the i-player. Streaming is the internet’s answer to broadcasting. This move to on demand is even truer of the younger generation than our generation. We are no longer all watching the same programme together at the same time, as a community. That might be a cause for regret.

Inexorably, I believe, we are moving away from the traditional mass media world, characterised by browsing, one way, passive, fixed in time and space, and moving towards a very different world which is much more information retrieval, much more individualised in character – family members watching different stuff on different screens in different parts of the house not sitting together in the living room in front of the telly. A more fragmented world, very mobile, two way, not fixed in time and space. Less mass and more mad perhaps.

But this new world, created by the internet using the digital language of 0s and 1s, should not be embraced uncritically. There are many things about this new world which need open debate not uncritical embrace. We may need difficult domestic and international legislation and regulation which will be much to the alarm of the digital enthusiasts. My internet right or wrong. As we all know, cyber attacks come from North Korea and Russia not just from the schoolboy in his bedroom next door.

Let me return to the issue of accuracy already mentioned, The Content Board of Ofcom (which I chaired ten years ago) has a statutory duty to regulate on radio and television accuracy & impartiality, fairness & privacy, harm & offence. Can that be imposed on the global internet – most unlikely. So we look for trusted brands, for example. But then there is phishing spelt p h i s h – when you get an email from a brand that is counterfeit and you unknowingly give up data to fraudsters. There is the even darker side of the internet – 40% of searches going after pornography. Cyber terrorism. Cyber bullying of the worst sort – hugely assisted by the digital liking for and acceptance of anonymity. Then there are all the complex issues about big data, surveillance and privacy. There are two types of surveillance.

The State carries out surveillance in order to identify a small group of dangerous people amongst the wider populace. But the internet tech companies carry out “surveillance” on all of us, the wider populace, in order to find out about our browsing histories and likes/dislikes – in order to monetise us. Most of the internet is free to be paid for by advertising – just like ITV or Channel 4. Privacy as we used to know it is a relic of the past. Act on the assumption that nothing today is hidden from view or will stay hidden from view.

So the world of media is going from traditionally mass to potentially mad. But it is the speed of change that is so evident. We are living through Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and at speed. Back to 1963, BBC Radio Newsreel. I remember at an editorial meeting suggesting a news item. It was turned down because “it is not in the newspapers today”. Before World War 2 the BBC was not allowed to broadcast news until the evening so as not to compete with newspapers. That staid hierarchical media world is gone for ever. The great strength of the internet is that it is not a small elite talking one-way to the huddled masses. Instead of one to many we have many to many, thanks to digital. The digital world is more transparent, less elitist, more competitive. News is global and ubiquitous. So the internet, itself global and ubiquitous, loves news. But some old verities never change. The technology may change but certain issues will not. Obscurantism. Let me therefore end on a wonderful quote from the great American newsman Dan Rather:

“…news organisations and teams within those organisations have to have the guts and the backbone to dig into stories that people in power don’t want the public to know. If you take the attitude that the public needs to know what somebody in power doesn’t want them to know, that’s news. Most of the rest of what passes for news is propaganda or advertising.” (The Guardian, Monday 31 August 2015, page 30)

The digital world, for all its dark side, helps Dan Rather’s concern rather than hinders him.

Richard Hooper (HF 1967-8) covered 35,000 miles through 31 states in 21 months on his fellowship.