Monday, 4 July 2011

In which there's something rotten in the fourth estate

Despite my incessant grumblings, journalists are, by and large and other than when they’re making my intern cry, decent people. My carping comes from a professional standpoint: PRs have particularly peculiar relationship with journos – we need each other to get the job done. When our professional relationships work, they really work, but when they don’t, it can be painful to pick up the phone to each other. And a lot of them could do with being less rude (that said, a lot of PRs could do with being better at their jobs. Swings and roundabouts).

But journalists telling outright lies isn’t as common as people in the street would glibly suggest when they spout platitudes about not being able to trust anything you read (although the ensuing apologies that are buried on p17 when inaccuracies are printed are Not Good Enough, and should be given the space the original story had (or even be more prominent), but that’s a whole other rant). If you're so inclined, I recommend reading Fleet Street Fox’s excellent post on just how and why it’s so hard to get a barefaced lie into your paper.

But in the past week or so, facts have been brought to light the fact that show some members of profession seem intent on doing their best to besmirch the reputation of all their kind by indulging in serious breaches of journalistic ethics.

Johann Hari’s bad enough. There are plenty who’ll defend him, saying that he wasn’t really misleading anyone and that his subjects had said the words he attributed to them. I, on the other hand, happen to think that “reportial accuracy”, as Hari puts it, is the first thing I want from my journalists. Intellectual accuracy comes a bit further down the pecking order. A good journo should be able to elicit great quotations from their subject whilst the two are sitting across a table, or at the ends of a phone line: to pass off quotations given to someone else, or written in previous works as something you’ve obtained is, in my view, lying.

The News of the World hacking into the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler is on another, far darker, far more sinister level entirely, and one that I don’t feel particularly well qualified to comment on, other than to say either Wade, Coulson et al either allowed it to happen or were bafflingly negligent; that I have no idea how, as a human being, you could do something like that and sleep at night; and that everyone who was involved - on whatever level - should have to answer for either their actions or their complicity.

But whilst these massive abuses of journalistic ethics and readers’ trust are happening, at the same time we need to remember that there are fabulous journalists out there. There are talented individuals who write beautiful prose; fun and entertaining features; who uncover and publish stories that are, genuinely, in the public interest. Much as I won’t tar all Indy journos with the ‘liar’ brush, we shouldn’t assume that everyone who works at NoTW is morally bankrupt. One imagines there are a few people this evening feeling pretty sick at the behaviour of their colleagues.

At the same time, I don't know that ‘rotten apples’ goes far enough in describing the conduct that some members of the media have recently indulged in. The public, whatever they might say and however savvy consumers they may be, essentially trust the mainstream, established media to deliver factually accurate news – with that news obtained in a way that doesn’t deliver a collective feeling of nausea the length of the country.

It’s not fair to the majority of decent, hard-working journos that their profession has of late been embroiled in two such vicious cases of foul practice. But to paraphrase a far greater writer than I could ever hope to be, all it takes for terrible things to happen is for good men to do nothing.

The majority now needs to make sure their conduct is beyond reproach - but we need to remember that not everyone’s in on it.


Brennig said...

The majority now needs to make sure their conduct is beyond reproach - but we need to remember that not everyone’s in on it.

It's time for some hard-edged, independent governance with the power to deal in a painfully harsh way with transgressors. Journalism has repeatedly proven, through the actions/inactions of the toothless PCC - and in the most recent revelations - that it is incapable of policing itself. It isn't time for the majority to do anything except be subject to independent oversight and scrutiny, the way other professions are.

Amy said...

This is a brilliant post. Recently, all of your posts have been bright lights of sense in the Internet's black sea of utter nonsense.

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