Social media has moved far beyond the simple sharing of morning greetings, family snaps and funny clips. Facebook and Twitter in particular are increasingly breaking the News, and even making the News. Lawyers acting for both successfully claimed the legal protections accorded to a publisher for them in court in the US in the Loomer case last year. Yet such organisations still argue that they are simply a neutral platform for social networking. Meanwhile, they struggle to decide who and what to block, when and for how long.
On April 18, 1930, listeners tuning their radios to the main evening news bulletin on the BBC were greeted with, ‘There is no news’. The remaining 14 minutes and 50-odd seconds allocated for the broadcast were given over to piano music. Of course, on that day lots of things did actually happen. There was also no shortage of debates rattling on from preceding days: The week had begun in the UK with Budget Day, which saw increases in taxation on incomes and beer, always a risky political move in Britain. In India, the Salt March had reached its conclusion. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had been arrested and there were riots in Calcutta. To the BBC of the time, were these events simply not newsworthy?
‘The Day without News’ occasionally crops up as a humorous example of the way things once were—the stuffy old BBC, with their radio presenters speaking in cut glass accents and dressed in dinner jackets, so ridiculously out of touch. But there is perhaps another way of looking at this. That day was a public holiday. No newspapers were printed. Had the BBC been simply the mouthpiece of the British Government, it would have been the perfect day on which to rebut the negative stories of the previous week. But the BBC has always regarded itself, even if successive governments haven’t, as no sort of servant of the state. In this light, the ‘no news’ statement perhaps meant that in the absence of the rest of the media the BBC felt itself unable to meet the first two of its key purposes: to inform and educate. It had, therefore, decided to focus instead on the third, to entertain.
Cue the pianist.
The BBC was a mere eight years old in 1930, a far more youthful institution than Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram are today. Like them, it was pushing the boundaries of new and emerging media. Unlike them, it was apparently clear what it was, and wasn’t, there to do. My interpretation may, of course, be fanciful and I write not to praise the BBC, for goodness knows it has its faults, but to wonder if today social media platforms shouldn’t just accept, or be required to accept, full editorial responsibility for their content?
Neil McCallum Twitter: @dawoodmccallum *Writes as Dawood Ali McCallum
Author of five novels, Mrs A’s Indian Gentlemen* being the latest