Monday, 31 May 2010

Laws law

Journalism has its first scalp of the new government. Inside 17 days. A new personal best. Should we be proud?

Have we, once again, brought power to heel with our watchdoggery? Stood firm in defence of the honest man and woman?

Or has journalism, true to type, proven its inability to understand its civic purpose? That the point of journalists' scrutiny is to improve the way we govern ourselves? Without that, it is just self-regarding noise.

There's a real dilemma at the heart of this and we journalists should, at the very least, recognize that. Perhaps even, whisper it quietly, be prepared to try to resolve it. As things are, we excuse in ourselves behaviour we would accept in no other institution - a behaviour that is at best arrogant, at worst delinquent.

You don't have to take sides or be soft on politicians to have been dismayed by the assertions of some in the press that, in spite of David Laws' explanation of his actions in the light of the Telegraph's disclosures, they knew what it was really all about. What was really going on in the former minister's mind.

'Sobvious innit. MP = greedy. Snouts, Trough, Boots. Fill. Nothing's changed, they're all as bad as each other. Bad as the last lot. Chuck 'em all out.

Thus the Sun: Mr Laws "channeled more than £40,000 of taxpayers' money to his long term partner" - the verb, intriguingly upgraded at the subbing stage; the original story had the more bland 'paid' ... as you can see from the url.

Thus the Mirror: a simple expenses scandal - his apology groveling (oh, come on ... you can do better than that: surely it was at the very least 'sniveling' ....)

And thus Barbara Ellen in the Observer ... who you might have thought should have known better.

Don't we - in the interests of both scrutiny and accuracy - have to begin with David Law's own explanation of why he did what he did? If we can disprove it through proper scrutiny .. fine. But if we simply dismiss it - because we really know - we also have to explain why one of the cleverest and most economically astute men in the country, let alone Parliament, didn't arrange his affairs to cash in to the max. Something he could have done entirely within the rules both as they were then and as they are now.

And this matters. Matters way beyond the detail of this one story.

It's likely - most sensible commentators seem to agree - that that the Laws affair is about judgment distorted not greed. That what we've learned about a (former) cabinet minister is that people - even those in positions of leadership - do daft things for complex reasons. Usually because they understand themselves less than they understand anything else.

Yet that lazy default - "we know they're all on the make" - is doubly dangerous; it looks like scrutiny without being anything of the kind. And it damages our politics, if for no other reason than that it reduces our various publics' understandings to yet another pointless, misleading binary; venal or honest ... with the centre of gravity very definitely on the venal side.

There is a genuine dilemma around disclosure and its effects.

As Roy Greenslade writes:

"The press exists to reveal what those in power seek to keep secret. The raison d'être of journalists is disclosure."

And it's impossible to argue that having bought the information - part of that CD whose contents it began publishing just over a year ago - the Telegraph should not have revealed what they had. And the measured language of its first report can't be faulted.

But is it enough to say that "disclosure" is all? That our responsibilities as journalists end once the revelation has been made? Don't we also - as people with pride in our craft - have the responsibility to make sure that disclosure is scrutinised in ways that are both rigorous and accurate. That we don't hunt scalps just for the sake of it or as means of validating our own purpose in life?

The Guardan's Michael White goes further:

"I do not think the public interest has been well served
by the
Telegraph exposé. Laws is a clever, serious fellow who could have
opted for a life of idle self-amusement but plunged in public life
where dreadful things can happen.

So I regret his going and hope
Telegraph's more thoughtful readers are as unimpressed as I am.
Perhaps the newspapers really are losing the plot in their - our -
battle to retain sales share."

Whether it's about the business of sales share alone, I'm not so sure. There's something so deeply ingrained in the culture of British journalism that the alternative, thinking whether the way in which we treat disclosures like the Telegraph's is proportionate, is just not an option.

So we've got our £40,000 back ... at what cost we will only know when or if the £160bn debt mountain is finally climbed.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

More 'oxy' than 'moron'

Frederic Filloux is a blogger and teacher, based in Paris. He edits a blog/newsletter called Monday Note - worth sticking on your GoogleReader (other readers are available).

His latest post - The Oxymoronic Citizen Journalism - has generated ... well, mostly yawns, except amongst the ubercitjguruklasse - e.g. NYU's Jay Rosen who Tweeted in response to it that - "from Paris, the worldwide professional freak out over the term 'citizen journalist' continues ...".

"Freak out" there is a noun, by the way. Verb or noun, though, no freak out.

Like I say, mostly yawns at that old 'would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid's neuroblastoma?' gambit. Answer: 'No'. Answer continues: 'Nor would I trust one of those journos who made up over 100 totally false stories about the McCanns to tell me how many legs I had. Let alone offer me something with "more professionalism than mere crowd-powered demagoguery".'

Let's be honest, too much of our journalism is exactly that - 'crowd-powered demagoguery' ... except the crowd is populated by journalists in what Tony Blair once called a hunting pack of 'feral beasts'.

Too much journalism is too bad to make the claims that Frederic, and others, make in defence of it. Differentiating it from random rumour and the "utterly superficial" by virtue of its "painstaking" professionalism - a differentiation that Frederic himself concedes is all too rare.

There are differences and distinctions between those of us paid to do journalism and those of us not - but 'professionalism' isn't it. Especially since more of us would trust a total stranger than a journalist to tell us the truth.

To be fair to Frederic, he acknowledges that 'citizens' have a role in telling their own story about themselves to themselves - but the mask slips when he talks about "newsrooms" having "a challenge on their hands"; that what non-journalists have to say about their world is an "input" that needs "handling".

Frederic seems to think 'citizen' and 'journalism' are contradictions - he probably didn't mean to but, put like that, you see it for the nonsense that it is. And you have to be careful, you know, with 'oxymoron' - it doesn't quite mean what you think it means. If you want to sound really clever, do the Greek: oξύς (sharp) and μωρός (dull) ... which kinda reads across to citizen=sharp, journalism=dull ... though, of course, in French that would be the other way round.

Journalists forget at their peril that the facts they deal in - assuming they are dealing in facts - don't actually belong to them. And they have no right to manipulate them on the other side of some 'professional' membrane, separated from the citizens whose lives they're both describing and - potentially - changing.

And if you don't get that, you kinda don't get very much.

Anyhows, all of this will be on the agenda at what we hope will be the biggest ever Citizen Journalism conference in the UK - it's at the LSE on 11 June.

The Value of Journalism (#voj10 on Twitter) will look at CitJ from every angle - especially, what it means to the so-called 'professional tribe' and how it nurtures and supports our civic lives.

My hunch is that 'oxymoronic' is not a word we'll be using much.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Crystal ball or book?

Nick Clegg's short intervention this morning - that the party with most votes and seats, the Conservatives, should seek to form a government - could be a hint that things are moving faster than they might seem.

The assumption has been that the Lib Dems key demand - an agreement to, at the very least, a referendum on PR - is anathema to the Tories and effectively rules out any coalition between them. Certainly, that was the assumption of this morning's 0810 interviews on BBC Radio 4's Today - and with good reason.

Need that be so? And need we spend too much time looking at the crystal ball?

The 2008 election in New Zealand provides a good example of a 'confidence and supply' agreement; an agreement between parties - none of whom has an overall majority - in order to form a stable government but which does not tie the partners together as tightly as a formal coalition with a single, agreed, full legislative programme.

The basis of 'confidence and supply' is, very crudely, that the smaller partner agrees not to vote against the incoming government's Queen's Speech or a confidence motion nor to vote against supply measures, enabling the government to pay its bills and raise credit.

In the case of New Zealand, the centre-right National Party - which was the biggest party, three seats short of an outright majority - drew up a 'confidence and supply' agreement with the (broadly) Liberal ACT.

Its preamble is interesting:

"Recognising that National and ACT have a duty to give effect to the will of the people as expressed at the general election, in particular the strong mandate for a change in New Zealand’s economic and social directions ..."

Remind you of anything?

And here's something else to think about. What if part of a 'confidence and supply' deal between David Cameron and Nick Clegg is that the Tory leader agrees that a vote in parliament for a referendum on PR isn't a confidence measure ....?

We'll know, I guess, at 2.30.