2018 in media

By Matt Gray

17th January 2019

How can we best sum up a tumultuous year in media-land?

Countless stories have landed on our desks here at Eulogy. Some rumbled on for months, some blew over in a matter of hours. But all gave us a little glimpse into how the media is everchanging, chocked full of controversy, and of vital importance.

Offence taken

Logan Paul’s video in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest – commonly known as the “suicide woods” – raised the question of ethics in the YouTube generation. When a platform prides itself on handing full creative control to the talent that uses it, does it have any right to intervene on the grounds of taste? Is YouTube duty-bound to keep the audiences of controversial creators – who in the case of Logan Paul, PewDiePie and others, are very often children – protected from potentially offensive content?

Where do the grounds of taste lie? Causing as much a stir as Paul’s video was Scottish YouTuber “Count Dankula”, who in March was found guilty of being “grossly offensive” under the Communications Act 2003. A 2016 video in which he taught his girlfriend’s dog to Hitler salute at the command “gas the Jews” lay at the heart of the controversy—was it all just a joke, as his defenders argue, or in plain bad taste, as his detractors claim?

That these questions remain unresolved – Paul and Dankula both have vociferous supporters and millions of subscribers – shows that neither social media platforms nor existing media legislation can satisfactorily deal with such philosophical questions. With an ever-expanding roster of independent content creators catering for an ever-expanding audience, perhaps they never will.

The buyout bonanza, parts I…

Mega-mergers were a key narrative over the course of 2018, as traditional media companies looked to sure themselves up against the existential challenges thrown at them by newer rivals.

First, we had the creation of Reach. Trinity Mirror Group’s purchase of the publishing assets of Northern & Shell has placed ideologically opposed tabloids – namely the Mirror, Express and Star titles – under the same ownership.

As we report in the “Month in Numbers”, the merger has yet to reverse the audience decline of any of Reach’s component parts. We’re also yet to see the cessation of any titles, or any inclination that either of the Express or Mirror’s editorial directions will become more aligned. What we have seen, however, is the pooling of certain news desks across multiple titles—most notably in sports.

It begs the question: with the same journalists writing the same stories across different publications, is there any point keeping the titles separate? Perhaps. It is true, that there is very little crossover audience amongst the titles.

Reach certainly thinks so. In its latest trading update it reported quarterly revenue growth of 23%. Staff shouldn’t start celebrating just yet though. CEO Simon Fox has reasserted his commitment to press on with £20 million of savings by 2020—the bulk of which will be made through slashing back on the hacks.

…and II

It was the “will they, won’t they” story of 2018. But as the courtship entered its final act, a wealthy American entered the scene to steal the heart of our protagonist.

Well, maybe we’re slightly stretching the metaphor, but the drama behind Sky’s takeover did occasionally have the ring of a Mills & Boone novel. The old flame, Rupert Murdoch and 21st Century Fox, was eventually supplanted by the US giant Comcast—with a brief fling with the Walt Disney Company thrown in for good measure.

The story, which reached its conclusion in September, had been rolling since 2016—when Fox first made a bid for the 61 per cent of Sky it didn’t already own. What then unfurled was a complex web of dealings, further complicated by Walt Disney’s attempt to purchase Fox’s entertainment assets—including its 39 per cent stake of Sky.

There were concerns about Murdoch gaining complete control of Sky, especially regarding Sky News. He had threatened to close the satellite channel down in order to ensure his deal – which was scrutinised by regulators for some month – was rubber-stamped.

Ultimately, no such action was needed. Comcast’s final bid – £17.28 a share, nearly £30 billion – blew its rivals out of the water, giving the US giant an immediate international presence in Europe. Questions can be asked as to whether Comcast paid too much for Sky, but the US company will see its purchase as a buffer from its most fearsome rivals: Netflix and Amazon.

Facebook’s year from hell  

Where do we start with Facebook?

Surely Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t have expected a worse year than 2017, in which conversation was dominated by fake news and misinformation in the wake of both Trump’s victory and the Brexit referendum. Yet by the end of 2018 Facebook’s stock – both in reputation and financially – had plummeted, accused of facilitating mob violence in Sri Lanka and India, and condemned for its role fomenting the genocide of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

In March, The Observer blew the lid off Cambridge Analytica, exposing how 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested in order to influence the 2016 US election and Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Mark Zuckerberg’s week-long silence on the matter – as well as a popular #DeleteFacebook campaign – was deeply damaging.

Zuckerberg was forced on an “apology tour”, which ended with a two-day appearance in front of Congress. His robotic body language launched a thousand memes, but his evasive answers proved frustrating. The congressional committee chair summed up what many were thinking when, referencing Facebook’s early motto, he asked if Zuckerberg had “moved too fast and broken too many things”.

In December, the UK parliament released a cache of emails it had secured in the previous month. The emails – dating back to 2012 – showed Facebook staff, including Zuckerberg, discussing whether to trade users’ personal data in exchange for revenue, trademarks and cash. Platform executives were caught discussing how they could harvest more personal data without requiring people to opt-in. Evidence was found that Facebook was continuing to provide unfettered data access to the likes of Netflix and Airbnb, despite announcing they had clamped down on the practice in 2015.

This summary hasn’t even touched upon the moment when Zuckerberg took it upon himself to defend holocaust deniers.

That’s how bad Facebook’s 2018 ended up.

Death of a journalist

What would you be willing risk in order to do your job?

For many of us, the answer may honestly be “nothing”. Our jobs are simply a means by which we keep ourselves and families fed. Others may be willing to risk friendships or marriages in pursuit of a bigger pay package. For journalists, however, the price paid for a job well done could well be life.

The Committee to Protect Journalists found that 53 journalists were killed in 2018, with 34 dying in retaliation killings—almost double the amount killed in retaliation for their work in 2017.

The most politically charged of these killings was that of Jamal Khashoggi, a long-term critic of the authorities within his native Saudi Arabian government. Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey in order to complete his divorce, but was killed and subsequently dismembered.

In Slovakia, 27-year-old reporter Jan Kuciak was shot while investigating alleged corruption, and other journalists have been killed or imprisoned across Central and South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In the US, five employees of the Annapolis Capital Gazette were killed in a targeted shooting, and 13 pipe bombs were sent to some of President Trump’s fiercest critics, including the offices of the New York Times and CNN.

There has, of course, been international condemnation of the killing of Khashoggi and other journalists, who were collectively named as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”. Yet condemnation means little when Presidents continue to use slogans to stir up hostility towards the media, or when sanctions fail to be imposed on the states known beyond all doubt to have killed their critics.

Those that truly value their own free press should be doing their utmost to defend that freedom elsewhere. The ability to hold power to account is one of the most valuable, and historically recent, rights we hold in modern life. We cannot lose sight of that.