Ditchley and the Media in the 21st Century

By Hilary Cockhill

Hilary Cockhill is a graduate of the University of Oxford, where she completed a BA in History and English and a Master’s in World Literatures. She now works as a researcher for Forever Learn.

In the summer of 2020, Hillary took part in a research internship at Ditchley to explore Ditchley’s archives of conference notes and papers. The following paper is a review of Ditchley conferences held over the last 20 years from the 2000s on the role of the media in the 21st century.


Ditchley conferences since the 1960s have reflected on the important role of the media in modern democracy. From the arrival of mass communications post-war, to powerful technology driven social media today, discussions have considered the balance between freedom of speech and thought, individual privacy, national security, the accountability of the media, the responsibility of democratic states to defend independent media and the power of the media to shape political message in a democracy.  Ditchley conferences routinely include leading journalists and at times media organisations. Described as the ‘immune system of democracy’, public trust in the media has been a cornerstone of post-war Western societies but the position and roles of media, news and journalism are undergoing change.

This article considers Ditchley discussions about the role of the media from the 2000s to the present day.


The role of the media and its importance for modern democracy has been consistently recognised within Ditchley programming since the Foundation was set up in the late 1950s. Like all Ditchley events, conferences on the media convened exceptional individuals from the media organisations and companies, academia, politics and other sectors. A conference in 1970, for example, was attended by David Attenborough, then the Director of Programmes at the B.B.C., the television journalist Robin Day, as well as the Director-General of the B.B.C. at the time, Charles Curran. In 1990, a conference on ‘Politics and the Media’ was chaired by Baron David Hennessy, Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford and previously the Leader of the House of Lords and Minister of State for Northern Ireland. A conference in 1998 on ‘The Media and the Law’ was chaired by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and was attended by several other notable legal figures, such as Miguel Herrero y Rodríguez de Miñón, one of the ‘Fathers of the Constitution’, the seven legislators who drafted the democratic Spanish constitution in 1978.

The pressing issues confronting the ‘fourth estate’ in early conferences were connected to the rapid diversification of the media seen in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and, more surprisingly, the lack of interpretation of current affairs provided by the British press. Later, the focus turned to technological developments, the balance between freedom of speech and individual privacy or national security, the accountability of the media — or lack thereof — and the power of the media to shape and distort the political message in a democracy. These are broadly the same concerns which dominate discussions of the media today.

Yet in the twenty-first century, the role, perception and methods of the media have transformed as a result of technological advances; these changes, and their consequences, are reflected in the discussions held at Ditchley. This paper looks at the conferences held by the Ditchley Foundation this century that were directly or indirectly concerned with the media. It will underline the variety of opinions on the problems of, and solutions for, the media expressed at Ditchley, and how these evolved.

Media and Democracy

The renewal of democracy is central to Ditchley's mission. The role of the media in fostering and enabling democracy has therefore been a consistent focus of Ditchley conferences. The media has been regarded as one of the essential checks and balances of democracy, by holding governments accountable and thereby representing freedom of speech, as well as by fostering civic engagement and active citizenship. It has also been seen as an important tool for encouraging democratisation and managing the rise of extremism.


In the early 2000s, Ditchley conferences grappled with the issue of regulating the press whilst also allowing it to hold governments to account. Many journalists felt that the British libel laws were too onerous for journalists investigating public lives of public figures, but not strong enough against those investigating the private lives of public figures, or the private lives of private figures.

The issue of privacy was a major focus around the time of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press in 2011 following the News International phone-hacking scandal.  The Inquiry led to the formation of the Press Recognition Panel. At a 2013 conference titled ‘Is serious journalism still possible?’, which convened journalists from many parts of the world including Brazil, Bangladesh, Denmark, India, China, Qatar, Palestine, Russia and Poland, there were instead concerns that defamation and ‘insult’ legislation could easily be abused by governments to limit free speech. It was noted that the Leveson inquiry was being manipulated in more repressive countries to justify extra restrictions on the press. There was a general consensus amongst participants that whilst individual privacy had to be respected and protected, particularly in the digital age, regulation would rarely be a good thing for serious journalism. Most thought that journalists should be accountable ‘to the law of the land and to the ethics of their own profession, not to governments or regulators’.

Education and ‘Media Literacy’

In the most recent decades of Ditchley conferences, the emphasis has turned from governmental regulation to the importance of education and ‘media literacy’ for individuals in managing the effects of the media. This was first flagged in a 2008 conference on ‘The Media and Democracy’, wherein participants emphasised the need for the public to receive the media’s product with discernment. It was suggested that ‘media literacy’ and a stronger sense of civic responsibility should therefore be incorporated into the education curriculum. 

In 2019, a conference on Trust in leaders, experts and institutions, was convened to address the decline in trust including in the media. There was consensus that public education was necessary but not sufficient to reverse the declining trust in institutions, put down in part to failures in government public communication. The conference concluded that better public education cannot be a substitute for the proper regulation and controls for advertising and the powerful engines of social media platforms. A responsibility on the part of news consumers — to check that the news they are reading and sharing is from trustworthy sources — was seen as essential, but consumers needed additional support or tools to do this.

This latter point was also repeatedly made at the 2020 Ditchley Summer Project session on the lessons for the media from the COVID-19 pandemic. One participant emphasised the need for the news consumer to work out who has written something, why it is there, and what its relation is to other information that is readily accessible. This discernment was seen as particularly crucial in the contemporary climate of ‘fake news’ and misinformation about COVID-19. Others suggested that news consumers should be better supported by shifting responsibility for identifying misinformation back to the platforms.


A major issue which has surfaced in every Ditchley conference about the media has been described as a crisis of trust, both between the press and politicians and between the general public and the press. Trust between the press and politicians is essential for the media to act as effective channels of information. Trust from the public enables journalists to mediate understanding and make sense of overwhelming quantities of information. 

A 2003 conference on ‘The Impact of the Media on the Politics of our Time’ made clear an increasingly difficult relationship between the press and politicians. This was said to have been particularly exacerbated in the UK by the largely negative coverage of the Iraq war in the British media. Participants at the conference suggested that the adversarial relationship between the press and politicians had alienated the public, resulting in a culture where both were considered untrustworthy. This blurring of the boundary between the two was thought to be due to a range of factors, from the professional media training of politicians, to their increasing attempts to manage the press and to the political activism of journalists. 

It was suggested that whilst American journalists were still fairly respectful of politicians, British journalists were more contemptuous, favouring ‘gotcha journalism’ that aimed to expose the misconduct of politicians. Many thought that the pressure of press investigation was so burdensome on British politicians and their families that it had resulted in a reduction in the quality of those entering public life. There was general consensus that British journalists should not approach politicians on a basis of plain disbelief, nor with their primary concern to expose differences of view between senior members of government. The constant journalistic vigilance over possible sexual improprieties of politicians was another issue for the British media, which journalists themselves did not have to face and which, it was suggested, should only be revealed if it was thought to have political relevance.

However, this difference in levels of respect towards politicians between the British and American media has reduced over the last two decades, particularly commented on since the election of President Trump in 2016. In the 2020 Ditchley Summer Project session, American journalists saw President Trump and American senior officials as attempting a ‘reverse accountability’ by attacking ‘the media’, individual journalists and their institutions, which they saw as an attempt to influence the press through harassment. The Trump Administration was also accused of breaking the ‘good faith’ relationship between press and politicians by using the media to plant and spread false or unproven information, which has made the division between opinion and news untenable as news-side reporters must decide whether to knowingly reproduce untruths or to reproduce and note that this is untrue. This constitutes the contemporary ‘information war’, or ‘misinformation war’ between the American press and government.

There was a concern amongst Ditchley participants that the inflammatory relationship between the press and politics in the U.S. was being exported across the Atlantic. Like the Trump administration, some argued that the Johnson government has presented the traditional media, including the BBC, as an obstacle rather than a channel through which to pass information to the public. Like his American counterpart, Johnson has also significantly reduced the number of press correspondents in government departments and will introduce a daily, televised on-the-record briefing instead of the normal lobby briefing from October 2020. This measure was actually suggested in the 2003 Ditchley conference to improve relations between politicians and the media in the UK and has been viewed positively as reducing the ‘clubbism’ and cosiness between reporters and those they are supposedly holding accountable. But in the U.S. context, the televised briefing has been criticised for providing a platform for propaganda, turning the briefing into a show for reporters and politicians and making fact-checking impossible, as it happens in real time. There were concerns from participants in the Ditchley Summer Project that televised briefings could have a similar fate in the U.K. 

The 2003 conference took place at the height of so-called ‘spin’ in the UK, just months before Alastair Campbell resigned as Downing Street Director of Communications in the midst of the Hutton Inquiry. At the conference, the use of ‘spin-doctors’ or professional spokesmen was repeatedly and strongly criticised as an attempt at news management favourable to politicians. It is a sign of the further breakdown in the relationship between politicians and the media that in 2020 certain journalists claimed that politicians have become comfortable with making misrepresentations.

However, in all Ditchley conferences, the breakdown in trust has been seen as the joint responsibility of the media and politicians. It has consistently been suggested that the key issue for the media to rectify is the collapse between news and opinion. The call is for media outlets in both the U.K. and the U.S. to do more in clearly separating and labelling the two.

The Ditchley Summer Project sessions also highlighted the reliance of journalists on multilateral cooperation and trust between different governments. The pandemic has posed major obstacles for journalists by restricting their mobility and by exacerbating Sino-American relations. In this context, it is difficult for journalists to cultivate relationships with people on the ground abroad without being accused of espionage, and they rely instead on information from their own country’s politicians and intelligence services, who have their own agenda. Without easy access to other countries, journalists struggle to provide balanced reporting.

The Impact of Technology

Technology and Democracy

Developments in technology over the last two decades have transformed the way that the media operates. At Ditchley, there has been extensive discussion of the impacts. For some, the turn from print media to internet media is beneficial and conducive to democracy. For example, in a 2011 conference on ‘Democracy and the Power of the Individual’, it was hoped that social media would usher in a new era of decentralisation and openness. Participants felt that traditional media ‘moderated’ or ‘mediated’ information and discourse, like politicians, whereas both would now reach people in increasingly direct ways. Similarly, in the 2013 discussion, Is serious journalism still possible? the ‘quasi-monopoly' of traditional institutions over news-gathering was seen as exclusive and detrimental to the public-press relationship. 

It has also been repeatedly highlighted that the internet has benefited political expression. The internet has enabled citizens in more repressive countries to bypass the censorship of traditional media, and even to organise and mobilise protests against regimes, such as in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. In all countries the internet has led to creation of groups of like-minded people bypassing both traditional media and formal political channels. 

However, Ditchley conferences have also highlighted the range of issues that the internet presents for the media and its role in upholding democracy. Since 2008, the creation of strong online communities with common interests and views has also come to be seen as a major problem. There has been constant criticism of the internet's paradoxical ability to let people ‘live in ever narrower worlds’ due to the huge amount of information sources and the fragmentation of audiences. Through confirmation bias people trust sources that chime with their views, leading to the creation of ‘information silos’. Some at Ditchley argued that many journalists had ignored the views of their audiences for too long, able to do so because of the automatic reach of their ‘quality’ publications. Others suggested that pandering to one’s audience was not the aim of journalism, and that doing so obstructed the journalist’s search for the ‘truth’.

The fragmentation and polarisation of audiences on social media and online networks has had a major impact on the viability of populist politics. In a 2019 conference on the rise of populism, participants highlighted the way that social media is used by populist political campaigns to appeal to particular subcultures and to local, regional and online cultural identities. Traditional media was described as struggling in a populist landscape, hampered by an outdated concept of balance, whilst populist politicians strategically avoided difficult conversations with political journalists and instead used social media to communicate directly. 

The 2019 conference also suggested that online media makes it possible for extremist groups to tap into narratives that majorities have otherwise been unable to express. One notable example of this has been the links to a rise of Islamic extremism. In a 2015 conference ‘Global Ambitions and Local Grievances: Understanding Political Islam’, participants suggested that the media was fundamental to the growth of Islamic extremism. Traditional media was accused of being sensationalist and Islamophobic, whereas IS’s mastery of social media enabled the group to appeal to a young and impressionable digital generation. It was agreed that the volume of extremist messaging in social media needed to be met with a similar volume of mainstream content in which Muslims challenge the violent extremist message of IS and similar organisations.

The Spread of ‘Fake News’

The internet has also had an impact on the quality and veracity of information accessible to the public. In 2003, it was noted that the internet created a pressure to report things as they occurred, increasing the prevalence of ‘rolling news’. This change in broadcast media has reduced the quality of comment and fact-checking that journalists can provide. Furthermore, by bypassing formal media, the internet enables the proliferation of false or misleading information. In 2019 and 2020, Ditchley discussions emphasised the need for online media to be more transparent about the provenance of content and the motivation for, and means of, its further amplification. This was seen as essential to the idea of ‘media literacy' and users’ abilities to assess online information. 

It has also been emphasised that freedom of speech ‘does not equal freedom of reach’; namely, that amplification of online content needs to be controlled. Google has a lot of power over this, and in the Ditchley Summer Project session one participant explained that they implement an algorithmic approach to prioritise the most authoritative sources in an attempt to inhibit the spread of disinformation. Whilst there was a general consensus at Ditchley events in 2019-2020 that more needed to be done in managing online amplification, there were few concrete suggestions as to how to do this. Suggestions that made tended to be complex technological solutions.

Business Model of Journalism 

The internet has also shaped the current and future business models of journalism. In the 2013 Ditchley conference, there was agreement that the market for serious journalism remained strong. Rising education and living standards were thought to be producing an ‘ever-increasing number of people interested in understanding an ever more complex world’. Yet key parts of ‘serious journalism’, such as investigative journalism and foreign correspondents, both of which are particularly needed when governments won’t willingly give journalists the required information, are very expensive for media outfits. Newspaper circulations have been in long-term decline in a number of countries and whilst the internet presented an opportunity to reach large audiences easily and more cheaply than either newsprint or conventional TV channels, the issue of how to profit from online editions and content was far from solved, as online advertising had not been sufficiently lucrative to make the necessary financial difference.

Some outlets had retreated entirely behind paywalls, some had hybrid models which required payment after a certain point, and some had remained entirely free. All variants seemed to have problems. Those who offered free content were criticised as having destabilised the wider market — devaluing journalism overall. Changing media business models have been difficult for those in legacy media to accept perhaps blinding an appreciation of the extent of future change.

One option suggested at the conference was ‘unbundling’ or splitting the different parts of general news providers into parts for specific audiences and charging for the result. Yet this undermined the principle of cross-subsidisation, a longstanding feature of ‘serious’ journalism which has always struggled to be commercial. It was instead suggested that traditional news organisations needed to work with those in the ‘neighbouring territories’, building partnerships with NGOs, foundations and universities for funding, technology and access to various markets. It was concluded that the only way to discover successful business models for journalism in different national contexts was through ‘relentless experimentation’.


The internet has not only changed the way the profession works, but also how journalists are themselves perceived. In the 2020 Ditchley Summer Project session, journalists from both the U.S. and the U.K. suggested that televised press conferences had given journalists a new visibility, opening them up to as much analysis and criticism as politicians. In some ways this has been beneficial, enabling immediate accountability through social media and opportunities for the public to give constructive feedback and ideas for future reporting and opinion pieces. Users were said to follow particular journalists they trusted.  Yet platforms such as Twitter expose journalists, particularly female ones, to constant misogyny, abuse and threats. According one participant, there was a need for reporters to shelter themselves from this feedback loop in order to pursue ‘the truth'.


The Media and the Future?

The Ditchley Foundation has long been conscious of the role of the ‘fourth estate’ in a healthy democracy. A longstanding Ditchley aim is to ‘deepen journalists’ insight, so better informing the public and holding power to account’. Since 1963, Ditchley conferences on the media have been attended by those who are pessimistic about the effects and the lifespan of the media, as well as those who view the role and development of the media much more positively. It is unsurprising that many of the same issues, such as the regulation of the media and the need to separate news and opinion, have continually been the focus of these events - they are difficult issues which lack quick solutions and instead require constant revision and debate.

The relationship between journalists and politicians has always, naturally, been a strained one. But it seems from Ditchley conferences that the Iraq war was not the breaking point in British press-politics relations that it was believed to be at the time. But it did mark a turning point. On both sides of the Atlantic, governments now are seen as not only trying to manage the traditional news media but, in some instances, to sidestep it altogether. This has been enabled by the increase of social media, which has disrupted the role and authority of traditional journalists and also extended their personal reach.

Future conferences at Ditchley will necessarily look at the impact of technology on fragmented audiences and misinformation, but an issue which must be reconsidered is the future business model for serious journalism in a digital age. The economic viability of journalism will shape who enters the profession, who reads its product and that product’s quality.

Timeline: Ditchley Conferences and Annual Lectures (in bold) and key dates

BBC Television Centre opens – the first purpose-built television production centre in the world.

Ditchley conference:
Transatlantic images presented by mass media of communication

BBC 2 – first full colour service in Europe

The Apollo 11 moon landing was broadcast – a defining television event

The Open University goes on air

Ditchley conference:
Responsibilities of mass media to society


Ditchley conference:
Responsibilities of Government, Legislatures and the media towards the public in regard to Government policy and actions

Ditchley conference:
The media and developing countries

Ditchley conference:
Freedom and Accountability of the Media

The network of networks that became the INTERNET began shape under the World Wide Web invented by Tim Berners Lee

Ditchley conference:
Politics and the Media

The first version of the Google search engine was released

bbc.co.uk is launched

Ditchley conference:
The Media and the Law

25% of UK households have internet access (Office for National Statistics)

The Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly over BBC reports on exaggeration of Iraqi threat

Ditchley conference:
The Impact of the Media on the Politics of Our Time

Facebook launched

Ditchley conference:
The Challenges of Governing in a Freer and More Complex World

Ditchley conference:
The Media and Democracy 

WhatsApp founded

Facebook has 350 million users and introduces the ‘like’ button

Instagram is launched and has a million users within a couple of months

The extent of phone hacking by News International of private citizens’ phones becomes public and the News of the World newspaper is closed down

THE LEVESON INQUIRY HEARINGS launched: a judicial inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press following the exposure of News International phone hacking. Chaired by Lord Justice Leveson

Ditchley conference:
Democracy and the Power of the Individual

PART ONE OF THE LEVESON REPORT PUBLISHED recommended new independent body legally recognised – recommendation was not enacted

Facebook acquires Instagram for $1 billion

Royal Charter on press regulation to allow for independent self-regulatory bodies to be set up

Ditchley conference:
Is Serious Journalism Still Possible? 

Independent Press Standards Organisation set up

Facebook buys WhatsApp for $19 billion

Ditchley conference:
Global Ambitions and Local Grievances: Understanding Political Islam

PART TWO OF LEVESON dropped by the Conservative Party Manifesto

The EU’s data protection law came into effect as GDPR

Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress. The world sees politicians struggling to understand the business model

90% of UK households have internet access

The Cambridge Analytica scandal broke which reveals massive use of Facebook user data without consent

Ditchley conferences:
Trust: in Leaders, Experts and Institutions. Where and Why Has It Gone and What Can We Do to Renew It?
The Rise of Populism: Crisis of Democracy or Noisy Renewal?

Netflix has around 150 million subscribers (Digital News Report, 2019 Reuters Institute)

Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world with 2.4 billion users (ourworldindata.org)

WeChat with 1 billion users and TikTok with 500 million, are growing rapidly (ourworldindata.org)

Half of adults in the UK now use social media to keep up with the latest news (Ofcom’s news consumption report 24/7/2019)

Concern over misinformation during the COVID 19 pandemic reaches new levels (Digital News Report 2020, Reuters Institute)

Ditchley Summer Project session:
What Are The Main Lessons So Far for the Media in the Pandemic? 

BBC celebrates its centenary in 2022