Two cheers for journalism

I hope that politicians come to realise that, with the appalling massacre in Norway in July, and the riots in the UK in August, the first big news story of the summer – the phone hacking scandal – needs to now be put in some perspective.

There are, of course, aspects of modern society even more unpleasant than tabloid journalists. The focus of public attention has moved on – much to the relief of the tabloids.

As an ex-journalist (who still dabbles in the blogosphere with contributions such as this one) I have as a councillor met good people locally who have been badly treated by the media.

Two particular cases come to mind: firstly, a local family unfairly maligned as irresponsible dog-owners when a family pet unexpectedly attacked and killed another dog. The second case was the sensationalist and inaccurate reporting of the suicide of a shopkeeper, some years ago, which did little to help his family and colleagues recover from the shock.

But if there is anything more unpleasant than journalists thinking they are above the law and hacking into the phones of murder victims and their families, it is sanctimonious politicians who try and use the outrage as a pretext to close down a free press. Clearly the useless Press Complaints Commission has to be replaced by a much tougher form of independent regulation, but it is worrying that several senior politicians have called for statutory regulation of the press – a little like the official censorship of the London theatre by the Lord Chamberlain that persisted until the late 1960s – or a new Privacy law.

A note of caution needs to be introduced. In London boroughs like Greenwich the problem is not too much media activity but too little: there is too little reporting of (let alone misreporting of) the council and local news in general. While the Mercury remains a good paper, its resources are limited and news-breaking is now increasingly done by local blogs of varying quality. The local community would benefit from more high-quality local journalism both digitally and in print – much of which I and other councillors would probably not like much – to report local news and hold the council and other bodies to account.

Politicians and journalists have much more in common than they realise. Both trade in words. A very cynical Tory MP once said that being a good backbench MP (or councillor) boiled down to the ability to write a good letter. Like a good news story, a good letter has to grab the reader’s attention and have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Why else would so many ex-journalists enjoy a rapid rise as politicians (Michael Gove is a case in point), and so many ex-politicians go on to be successful journalists and broadcasters (Matthew Parris, Michael Portillo and Robert Kilroy-Silk – always a better broadcaster than a politician – among them).

At a recent debate at the London School of Economics, the dangers of both the phone-hacking scandal – and the coming backlash – were laid bare. One solicitor involved in acting on behalf of phone hacking victims, Charlotte Harris, said she had been warned some years ago that pursuing the matter would be career suicide – if hacking had taken place, the charges would never be proved.

But the tables have now been turned. It is now clear that the Phone-hacking scandal was a spectacular own-goal by the British press, who may have only themselves to blame for the fall-out, even though it took everyone by surprise. Even a few days beforehand, no-one would have predicted the closure of The News of the World. As one speaker at the LSE argued, the NOTW was like a villainous husband – like a long-suffering wife, its readership wanted it to change, not up sticks and leave.

I recently bought an old paperback copy of All the President’s Men – Woodward and Bernstein’s account of the Watergate scandal (I have always been fascinated by Watergate, partly because the week in October 1973 when the scandal really got going – with Nixon’s attorney general Elliot Richardson resigning and the first Oval Office tapes being released – also happens to be the week I was born in).

Woodward and Bernstein may not have paid Deep Throat for information, let alone bugged his phone, but the only way the story was broken by Woodward, Bernstein and others was a lot of camping out on people’s doorsteps, offering them money for the story. Carl Bernstein candidly admits that he impersonated other people on the telephone and paid a contact to go through credit-card records – illegally – to stack up his story that the Watergate burglars had been paid with money from the White House.

America is famous for its supposedly high journalistic ethics – newspapers there have fact checkers and are very careful to always correct errors, however slight. When I worked for a small-town American paper in the late 1990s, I was solemnly given a copy of its style guide, containing pages and pages of journalistic do’s and don’ts.

Did all the actions of reporters covering Watergate comply with all aspects of the Washington Post’s code of ethics? Probably not – but these journalists were unearthing the most serious criminal conspiracy in American history, in which the President was authorising the burglary and bugging of his opponents’ campaign office and then coercing other officials into covering it up.

Cutting a few journalistic corners was clearly defensible, as the ends justified the means and otherwise the story may never have been broken if there had been an absolute ban on all such journalistic methods, with no public interest defence.

The trouble is that too many journalists think they are Woodward and Bernstein. The most arresting part of the recent LSE debate was when a victim of the 7/7 bombings spoke up from the audience, to say he had been pressurised by the press to confess to a (non-existent) criminal record, and threatened that if he did not do so it would be unearthed anyway by the journalist’s police contact, who had access to confidential Criminal Records. Even if this gentleman, who had only been thrust into the public spotlight by being on the wrong tube train at the wrong time, had a criminal record the public interest in reporting it is negligible. The use of such unpleasant and unlawful methods to expose his criminal record – even if it did exist – is indefensible.

But just as the spirit of Watergate should not be invoked by journalists too often, it is important that the rage that the phone-hacking scandal has unearthed does not lead to new legislation, or regulation, than will strangle the free press. Difficult cases really do make bad law.

The Leveson Enquiry, which has just started examining the relationship between the press, politicians and the police, has too many sensible members sitting on it to fall into the trap of recommending privacy laws, statutory regulation of the press, or removing any public interest defence for investigative journalism. But there are lots of sanctimonious politicians, hypocritical celebrities, and powerful corporations who must be hoping and praying that they will do just that.

And it is worth remembering that many of the reasons for the decline in tabloid ethics is economic: newspapers are chasing fewer readers, and fewer advertisers, as both migrate to the Internet. Newsrooms have fewer resources, but just as many pages to fill, so journalists felt they had to employ more and more questionable methods to get the stories that will sell papers and keep the wolves from the door.

Like good public services, good journalism needs to be paid for. News International has done something right in the last year: by introducing a pay-wall for The Times, it is pioneering a way of getting revenues from online journalism that may one day save the British press from oblivion.

Why am I an ex-journalist? Partly because I caught the politics bug and preferred that to the harder slog of getting ahead in national newspaper journalism, a crowded field in which I never thought I had the talent or determination to make it. But also because print journalism is a shrinking industry.

The two media outlets I wrote for in my twenties – a weekly newspaper in the US, then a weekly trade magazine in the UK– have both since ceased publication, being thrown to the wall by competition for dwindling advertising revenues. The handful of stories that I am proud of breaking, about uncomfortably close relations between developers and small town politicians in the US, and industrial unrest and unscrupulous printers here – simply don’t get written so much nowadays. That can’t be a good thing for democracy, or for journalism.

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