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Tell the truth and shame the Devil

July 7, 2011

There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.
Walter Lippman

Apart from the fact that it’s a matter of crucial importance, why should I add to the millions of words being written on the current situation involving phone hacking and the News of the World?

Well, apart from the fact that as a ‘concerned citizen’ I have as much right as anyone, the timing of this crisis has a certain resonance for me. As an avid reader, writer and news junky, the fourth estate have always been important to me, an ever present influence and inspiration in my life, from teenager to now. Journalists have been some of my greatest heroes; their work has provided some of my greatest motivation. I’ve been lucky enough to count journalists of various types as close friends, and even managed nearly twenty years as a columnist myself, without ever remotely considering myself to be one of the profession. The power of words, the hard slog of reporting, has always impressed me.

So now that my son stands, hopefully, on the verge of a journalistic career, I am intensely proud of him and optimistic that he has chosen a career where he will have at least the opportunity to make a difference and exert a positive influence.

Of course, writing those words on such a day as this, they sound somewhat naive, contrived even. We live in an age, and have done for some time, where journalism is not a career that evinces automatic respect. With each appalling allegation of goings on at News International, the very idea of encouraging a young person into that particular profession seems madness.

And yet.

In the past weeks, years or decades, nothing has substantially changed about the aims of journalism, the good it can do, or its positive contribution to the world. The fourth estate is still filled with idealist writers with a mission to illuminate the truth, inform the public, and expose wrongdoing. The problem lies with the public, their expectations, and those who created the conditions for those expectations through their actions in government.

When a story is rated as ‘big’, we are sometimes overwhelmed by the immediate details. Thus: bankers caused the financial crisis; News International have besmirched the name of journalism. Well, both views have some traction, but they are only part of the story – for banks, like newspapers, swim in the sea of consumerism, and that sea flows in currents regulated by government ambitions and standards.

In the past fifty years, we have moved, as a country, from a default position of hard work, value for money, and pride in achievement to one that rates money making, public success, and personal gratification above all else. Whether you are a footballer, a pop singer or a businessman, being seen to be successful – ie ‘rich’ – has far outstripped the need to earn respect by putting in the hard work and preparation, of mastering a craft.

It is true that the Thatcher years made it ‘respectable’ to be openly greedy, to flaunt wealth, and decry mutual support. It is equally true that New Labour, on election, made the clear decision to build on that appeal to the worst of human traits, rather than sticking to its principles. Some in Labour went along with the project, believing they could ride two horses – promoting equality while currying favour with those in awe of profit. It could never work.

However, the truth is that the decisions that enabled Thatcherism to flourish were made, not in the 80s but back in the sixties, when Wilson’s government, in good times and eventually with a decent majority, went for popularity rather than social need, missed the chance to promote a fair and socialist agenda, and, in so doing, wasted some of the greatest political minds the left has ever produced. Pragmatism, the need to be electable, began its march to domination.

The voters bought the deal. Of course they did. And they became used to asking ‘What’s in it for me?’ when elections came around. Indeed, in a relatively short period of time, that question became the only one of any importance at election time. All the major parties had to do was to decide which sections of the population could be most effectively bribed. And it turned out it was either the already rich – wanting to preserve or increase what they already had, or the aspiring rich – wanting to move on to the next level. Which left very little in the way of support for the most vulnerable in society – whoever was in power.

And we tend to get the politics we deserve. Not surprisingly, this is also mirrored in the journalism which serves such a society. And also, perhaps, its policing and law structures.

It was a double whammy – profit was promoted and self interest became the norm. At the same time, coincidentally or perhaps consequential to all of this, media became a multinational money maker; we got rolling news and the need to satisfy its schedules, profit margins decreed the end of World in Action and the shifting of Panorama out of prime time. The folk who were making all the money weren’t keen on promoting programmes which might examine how they were achieving their profits. And neither were the politicians.

Our elected leaders, now fully paid up to bribery of the voter as a policy driver, could hardly take on the media – they needed its support. Beyond that, the decision was taken to bring the media moguls on board, placate them, and reward support with access to the highest echelons of government.

It is not surprising, then, that the need for profit has become the driving force behind many areas of print journalism. Selling papers has become more and more difficult, and the tactics used to maximise sales have become more and more desperate. Squeezed out of news delivery by rolling news and the internet, many of the red tops have become little more than entertainment news sheets, and a readership, claiming to be bored and turned off politics and ‘serious’ news, have rewarded them by accepting the new style content. If the titillation of secrets revealed is the demand of the consumer, should we be surprised that a corporation driven by the bottom line dives so low beneath the ethical surface?

There are many folk announcing their horror at this week’s revelations who were quite happy to support the News of the World week after week, lapping up their ‘sensational revelations’, without being too worried about how they got their information.

Sales have confirmed that the public is happy with celebrity tittle tattle, sound bite information, and shoddy reporting. Those many journalists who operate with integrity struggle to make a living in many cases, because stories need to be ‘sexy’ – in every sense – to sell the papers. Many papers have taken the route of ridding themselves of seasoned journalists, replacing them with more inexperienced, cheaper writers, and producing papers largely on the back of the news agencies.

Whether it’s the media, or servants of the state like the police or the law, – when the public lose interest and willfully ignore their operations, corruption and wrongdoing will follow. This is in no way an attempt to excuse the damnable behaviour of certain tabloid journalists, but it does illustrate the context in which it became possible, if not inevitable. As consumers, as the public, we need to be clear in our expectations of all who serve us, and we need to hold them to account. It really isn’t good enough to look the other way and then cry foul when misdemeanours are discovered.

I think we do get the journalism we deserve – but this cuts both ways. When we accept low standards, we encourage bad behaviour. However, there are many who cherish good journalism and find it, both in print and broadcast media. At its best, journalism is crucial to democracy; at its worst it corrupts any sense of public good.

I am hugely proud of my son’s commitment to what I still revere as the craft of journalism. Sadly,there will always be murky corners in the ways in which we operate as human beings; luckily, it is equally true that, as long as we have journalists who operate with integrity and insight, there will be those who will shine bright lights into those dark places, dispersing the gloom.

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Thomas Jefferson

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