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July 15, 2012
LillibulleroWe see, from the BBC website, that Bush House finally emptied out this week. It is the rather grand art-deco building that housed most of the broadcaster's newsrooms, through more than half a century. Visitors to London have noticed it at the foot of the Kingsway, between Aldwych and St. Mary le Strand; but far away, in every corner of the earth, those who heard the BBC World Service formed a mental image of the place.
The last five-minute news bulletin from Bush House was transmitted at 11 a.m. GMT, Thursday; the first from their new digital wonderland in "Broadcasting House," at noon.
There is no great significance in the move, to more purpose-built quarters. The "Beeb," as it is affectionately called, remains the Beeb, and mere location does not disturb the smooth, deadlined continuity to which journalists sign their names in blood. The transformation has been a gradual one, from what the BBC once was during a World War (when people tuned in with their hearts pounding, often behind enemy lines), to what it has become - a reliable, international, multimedia source of smug, left-liberal attitudinizing.
Or perhaps there is some disruption. As an aging right wing hack, I have come to speculate that location counts. It preserves vestiges. I have watched through my lifetime various news organizations move from what were once fairly imposing stone monuments in the middle of downtown, to factories in the suburbs.
I have also watched the transformation of journalists, from salts who once walked to most interviews and events, into car-parking cubicle workers. Well before the Internet arrived, we had become habituated to electronic transactions, although the sum of the effort continued to appear mostly as ink on paper. Now that is fading away.
A child of the McLuhan generation, I actually believe the environment in which one works, and the medium through which one communicates, make a difference to the message.
Bush House is left full of ghosts, that will not follow the journalists to their new quarters. The grandeur of that Portland stone building, with its wings and busy courtyard and statuary; its "catacombs" of studios and canteens; its babel of languages and customs - cannot be reproduced.
The voice which announces, "This is the BBC news," has itself been changing. Less and less does it convey, subliminally, "This is important." More and more the news has become a niche within the entertainment industry, with commercial intentions displayed on every sleeve. The promise instead is, "This will be fun."
And with the loss of that confining sense of location comes, too, the generic quality. People take news as background now, as they take music at half attention.
We will see over time if that is a good thing. Certainly there are advantages to the diffusion of the media, and the access granted to "citizen journalists" (as Sarah Palin calls them) through blogs, tweets, troll commenting, and faces.
Conversely, I don't think the old pretensions of the periodical press were an unambiguous gift to mankind. Had I lived in the 18th century, I might well have been appalled by the rise of newspapers, and by the arrogance of hacks who affected to know things beyond their station. With "traditional" print journalism came the cheap poses of "enlightenment" at which I constantly tilt - including the ceaseless demand for government "action," of a kind both morally and materially counter-productive.
I am not sure that the tranquillity of the world was ever worth smashing; that people were not better off when their minds were less distracted from the verities of human life and cosmos; when the relationship between God and Man was mediated less through the blare of publicity. Journalism has contributed to a strange way of accounting, in which we see the black ink but filter out the red.
The terrible, hidden cost of "mass communications" is overlooked in the race to make them bigger and faster. The debilitating effect of mere information has ceased to be an issue in our "information age."
Jonathan Swift - himself an ingenious hack - conveyed this in the metaphor of Lemuel Gulliver, shipwrecked in the land of Lilliput, tied down by a thousand tiny threads. His works have the character of prophecy.
We live in a media-saturated environment, wherein prophecy has been replaced by prediction. I have tried, in this paper, through a number of years, to resist this temptation; and even though cast as a political pundit, to turn attention whenever possible to the larger view. Who knows if I have accomplished anything?
With this last Sunday number of the Ottawa Citizen, I am taking my leave. The editors of the paper have been good to me over the years, and have stood behind me stalwartly through heat. I leave without recriminations.
I may well write for the paper in future, but not three times a week on staff. So far as I have any gifts at all, I will apply them in what remains of my life to argue for the Catholic religion, and defend nobility in every humane form, according to my faith and conscience. But I may no longer belong in "mainstream media;" may never have belonged, and must be on my way.
© Ottawa Citizen