Thursday, 9 June 2011

Standing up for journalism, standing out from the mob

This is the text of the keynote lecture given at Westminster University, June 8 2011 at the conference entitled: 'What makes good journalism'

This conference is part sponsored by the British Journalism Review. The Review is, of course, a very British paradox. A very necessary British paradox.
And very different from the journalism journals in, say, the United States.
Journalism is still a trade here in the UK. Unlike America, journalists have no special status, no special protection. Though even there, as John Carroll, the former LA Times editor once put it: 
“It is the constitutional right of every person, no matter how depraved, to call themselves a journalist.”
Here in the UK, we’re quite rightly ambivalent about the study of journalism and the academic style of journalism that’s prevalent in the States. We tend to shuffle nervously or change the subject when people try to talk about journalism in academic terms. We see journalism as a doing thing. Something you do by instinct. 
Talking to people. Having a persuasive and personable manner when you’re trying to get your hands on that key fact. Listening to, following hunches. Knowing something doesn’t smell right. Weaving compelling narratives. 
The American journalism reviews are wonderful things in their way. 
But they have little ink on their fingers. Never feel to me like they know much about staring at a camera with the clock running down and the story breaking round you.
And that’s the great achievement of this thing called the British Journalism Review. The paradox. That it’s a thoughtful place. A place working journalists think over what they’ve done; think over the big questions they’ve had to answer. But a place that absolutely does not lose contact with our trade.
And that’s a tribute to Bill Hagerty and his team.
If I had one observation I’d like to make about this excellent conference. One question I’d like to ask, it’s this. Where is the audience? Where are those our trade touches? Our victims, if you like.
I ask that question partly because they are almost always the missing element when we come together to talk about ourselves. And partly because the people formerly known as the audience – as Jay Rosen calls them – are now, it’s often argued, our partners in our trade.

How many of you know this man?
He’s Sohaib Athar. The IT consultant who moved to Abbottabad in Pakistan for a quiet life.
And found himself live-tweeting the kill or capture operation that killed rather than captured Osama bin Laden.
He tweeted what he heard and what he saw. 
But hadn’t the faintest idea what it was that he was hearing and seeing.
Journalist? Or the kind of faithful, eyewitness we journalists have always sought out at great events.? 
How many of you know this photograph? 
Probably one of the most famous photographs in the world.
The Twitpic image of US Airways flight 1549. 
Captured not by a journalist. But by an eyewitness. 
And already around the world before “journalism” had got its boots on.
Or again, the kind of faithful eyewitness journalists need to do their job?
And even if you aggregate thousands, millions of examples of accidental witness, does that make it journalism?
How does this stack as journalism against the work of, say, Brian Hanrahan, Kate Adie, Jeremy Bowen, Martin Bell and John Simpsone. Or of course the great Martha Gelhorn. All celebrated at the Imperial War Museum North’s exhibition on war reporting. 
Now, I’m pretty clear – and I suspect many in this room are pretty clear – about the difference between them and accidental witnesses like Janis Krums the guy who shot the Hudson plane picture. Or Sohaib Ahtar?
But you know, I’m starting to lose count of the number of conferences and think-ins and seminars and panels where there’s one question on the agenda. How is new media changing journalism? Not, how do new media and journalism overlap. But how the fundamentals of our trade are changed and changing. 
You know the questions as well as I do.
Do we still need reporters and correspondents in the age of You Tube and Twitter?
Do we still need investigative reporters in the age of Wikileaks and crowd-sourcing?
Do we still need columnists and leader writers in the age of the blogger?
There’s an underlying assumption at all levels in our business that paid-for, deliberate, mainstream journalism has to make itself more like amateur, happenstance, random social media. That we have to embrace new media and social media and change our assumptions about journalism. There’s even a strong thread in the current privacy debate that goes: if Twitter can spread rumour around the globe at the speed of light, we must be allowed to do that too. 
I usually find myself in a minority when I argue that journalism is different from, distinct from the new forms of communication that the web and social media enable.          
That it’s a very narrowly, closely defined region of the information universe. That it isn’t, can’t be, mustn’t ever be the same as or part of the white noise of the global mob.
I find myself in a minority for a very good reason.
Journalism is very hard to stand up for.

I suggest you try it. Not here, among friends. Outside. In the real world. But be prepared for hollow laughter. Derision.
When was the last time you saw a journalist as hero in a film or TV drama? It was probably Bill Nighy in State of Play back in 2003. Though the fellow played by Ben Miles in Peter Kosminsky’s The Government Inspector was a pretty good chap, too.  
One of the recent TV cults was The Killing. Remember the role of the press in that? Correct – the mercurial, anonymous mob who magnified every rumour. Took every misunderstood half-truth and made it a scandal. Decided who was guilty and made the story fit. Oh – apart from the guy who wanted to suck the Birk Laarsen’s story dry for his own career.
How very different from the home life of the great British journalist.
Well, we know that’s not true.
In early June 2011, BBC Radio produced one of the most riveting programmes about journalism I’ve heard for some time. It was the story of Kim Cotton – Britain’s first surrogate mother. You’ll remember, she was paid £6,500 to have a childless couple’s baby. And more than twice that to tell her story to the Daily Star.
You could say she was foolish. You could say she was greedy. But she was also trashed by the press. Routinely. Cruelly. Almost casually. 
“Kim Loses Her Money Box” – was how the News of the World headlined her hysterectomy.
Asides by her brother were turned into major family rows – rows that never actually happened. Inaccuracies. Distortions. Manufactured stories. Black and white judgments. Cruelty. Verbal abuse.
But as Kim confronted each of the journalists who’d written about her, one thing stood out. They really didn’t get it. Really didn’t get how they looked to the public. People who weren’t journalists. 
And it wasn't just the tabloids. Polly Toynbee expressed mild regret for what she called her ‘waspish’ comments. But they were comments that misrepresented her subject and her motives. A tad more than 'waspish', I think.
While the other, tabloid, editors and journalists said, more or less. What did you expect? Not me, guv. It’s the system.
Perhaps Kim Cotton was a victim. Perhaps she just lost control of her own publicity. Either way, it makes uncomfortable listening - especially if you put yourself in the position of an ‘ordinary member of the public’. Wondering – ‘how on earth could these people think what they were doing was right?’

We have to accept that most of the public we claim to serve don't like us. Our brand is toxic.
The IPSOS/Mori monthly poll asking ‘who do you trust’ should be on every journalist’s desktop. Our low standing is consistent.    
It doesn't matter that most of us have never hacked a phone. That most of us have never set-up a victim; egging them on to commit the very offence we're purporting to expose. That most of us have never bribed a policeman, a DVLA clerk, a doctor's receptionist to break the law. That most of us don't make up interviews and quotes. That most of us check our facts. Most of us go into a story looking for the facts that will overturn our prejudices as well as those that might confirm them. 
But our brand is poisoned by those who do. And sneer at those who don't. And by editors and executives who deny or forget that they happen on their watch.
We know that there's a culture of contempt in too many newsrooms. Not just the necessary contempt for wealth, power and celebrity. But for the public that we journalists claim to serve. 
Nick Davies described his book Flat Earth News:
"a snapshot of a cancer … I fear the illness is terminal."
John Lanchester went further in the London Review of Books. 
Journalists are, he wrote: 
"... indifferent to their own best traditions of independence, recklessly indifferent to the central functions of reporting and checking facts ... and in far too many respects, simply indifferent to the truth. There is a growing, industry-wide failure to be sufficiently interested in reality."
These are tough words. But if we’re going to stand up for journalism. And make it stand out from the digital mob, we have to accept they might be true. 
The public isn’t stupid, you know. They know that what is true of MPs, the police, the bankers, financial services is true of us journalists. That without some kind of independent scrutiny, inward looking groups and professions do things not because they’re right. But because they can. 
MPs expenses scandal. The bungling at Soham. The banking collapse. Payment protection mis-selling. It’s because the public should know what’s happening in the dark that we  legitimise journalists’ nosiness. That’s what we mean when we insist that institutions are accountable. That’s what we mean when we say sunlight that is the best disinfectant.
While boarding up our own windows so tightly Miss Havisham would be reaching for the torch.
We try to argue that what makes us different is freedom of speech. We are the institutionalisation of free speech. Its bastion.
And we argue that freedom of speech is indivisible. That freedom for Panorama to expose Winterbourne View can’t be differentiated from the New of the World’s freedom to expose Ryan Giggs or Max Moseley.
We use arguments we need to protect the best in journalism to excuse the worst.
But the public knows that free speech isn’t the same as a free-for-all.
Freedom, protection, to report on the repressive organs of power and privilege is not the same as the licence to ogle the reproductive organs of premiership footballers and their Z list flings.
They hear us when we assert journalists’ right to report in and from Syria and Zimbabwe and China. That without journalists, without men and women to bear witness, challenge authority, tell it how it is. Where there are no journalists, all we have is rumour. Gossip.    
Now, some of you may not be able to see the irony in that. But readers, viewers and listeners do. The public aren’t stupid.
At some point, we will have to face up to the fact that if we’re to stand up for journalism. If we’re going to persuade our various publics that journalism has a real and distinct value. Better than. Additional to social media, the mob on the web.
Then we have to be able to say. Look. This is important. And you can trust us to do it. And we will only convince our publics of that if we prove it by what we do and what we say. And we have the opportunity to do that in some of the current, big debates about our trade. 

The continuing debate about contempt, for example. The Sun and the Mirror face contempt proceedings – and we shouldn’t pre-judge the outcome. But at last, the public will say, an Attorney General has finally had the courage to stop spluttering on the sidelines.
No-one wants to see newspapers prosecuted. But if that’s what it takes to get the message across that press lynchings are an offence to justice and to good journalism, then it’s overdue. And if you think this is overstating things. Ask the McCanns. Ask Robert Murat. Ask Tom Stephens. Ask Chris Jeffries. 

Something similar is true of libel reform.
We all know that British libel laws are broken and need reform. We all know that they can present a real constraint on serious investigative journalism. And we’ve seen how proper, responsible scientific debate can be stifled. But you’re living in a fantasy world if we think that that’s what worries most of the public about our libel laws.
I’ve taken part in any number of debates about libel reform over the past few months. And the story from the public – from non-journalists – has been consistent. 
Yeah ok … we get the bit about free speech and investigative journalism. But why did that newspaper print lies about me? Why did they make up quotes and put them in my mouth? Or take what I did say and make it mean something totally different? 
Why did they portray me as a tart? Why couldn’t I get them to print the truth? A retraction? An apology? Even just tell me why they did it? 
So far, the debate in the media about the media has focused almost entirely on reform to suit the media. Well, that’s standing up for journalism in a sense. But doesn’t it also mean showing our publics that we understand their anxieties too? 

And then there’s privacy. 
There’s little doubt, the public would be with us if we were going to court to defend our right to expose – and their right to know about – crime, wrongdoing, hypocrisy. The abuse of power.
They’d be with us if we were defending the right to intrude where intrusion is the only way to hold power to account. They’d be with us if judges – Mr Justice Eady in particular – really were making up the law on to protect wealth and power. 
But we know that’s not how it’s been. And the public know it too. News Group’s lawyers didn’t even bother to argue in the Giggs case that it was in the public interest to reveal the details of an affair no-one except Mr and Mrs Giggs cared two-hoots about.
We congratulate ourselves that Max Moseley lost his ‘prior notification’ action. We nod sagely that THIS time it’s about orgies and Nazis – but we need to protect the principle so that serious journalism isn’t chilled. But the public aren’t fools. They know it’s not really about that.
So how we defend these principles is at least as important as that we defend them.
Get that wrong and the hollow laughter will still meet you when you try to stand up for journalism.

Now, to some of you, all of this will sound like heresy. Restraining a free press? Am I mad?
You’d be entitled to remind me that I’ve spent my entire career in the regulated sector. Broadcasting. And most of that in the cosseted  protected, publicly funded sector. And that’s true.
For me, independent scrutiny from the Trust and OfCom were standard. Strict Editorial Guidelines that, constrained all of the practices I’ve talked about in a way that the PCC’s Editors Code simply does not.
Yet … Panorama remains one of the few truly investigative units in British journalism. And at Today, we uncovered Shirley Porter’s secret bank accounts. Exposed African exorcists here in London who were guilty of child abuse. And the local authorities who bungled keeping watch on them.
But if that disqualifies me, here are some other people to listen to. Evgeny Lebedev. One of the new breed of owners and publishers. If you didn’t catch his speech at Oxford University last month, I suggest you do so.
Evgeny excites conflicting opinions. But what is unarguable is that he is in the front line of making the news business work. 
He also knows at first hand what a truly shackled press is like. What it means to have “armed raids at night by rogue elements of the state” to make the press behave. But here’s what he says about the British press:
“There is too much trivialisation … what passes as an urgent story is nothing more than tittle-tattle. And when that meaningless trivia is procured via illegal means, we are on a slippery slope as this becomes the accepted standard or norm. We must be wary of abusing our freedom, which could result in losing that very same freedom.”
And, he says:
“What has never been more under the spotlight are the role and responsibilities of the press. We must take them seriously. We must uphold them, cherish them, and nurture them. Because if we don't, we threaten press freedom and therefore we damage our society.”
Responsibilities. Evgeny is warning that if we carry on as we are, we will force statutory press regulation.
Perhaps. But the bigger danger is that we do nothing to regain our public’s trust. Do nothing to stand up for journalism and make it stand out from the mob.
Some editors get this too. Back in January, the FT Lionel Barber gave the annual Cudlipp lecture. And he talked about the importance of public trust if we were to stand up for journalism. If we were to argue that it was still valuable in the age of the web. Trust that the facts are accurate. Trust that appropriate weight has been given to context. 
“Journalism is not perfect, nor was it ever meant to be. But we have allowed our standards to lapse. Let us hope we have not left it too late.”
It’s time for journalism to enter into a bit of self-examination, Barber argues.
So perhaps some owners and publishers. Perhaps some editors understand the kind of self-examination, self-criticism we need now to be able to stand up for journalism. But there’s a third player in this who is very important. And that’s the Press Complaints Commission.
Now, I’ve never had much time for the PCC. It was, you’ll remember, the wheeze that the drinkers in the last chance saloon came up with to avoid having their collective collars felt back in the early 1990s.
Though the then Culture Secretary, David Mellor, didn’t help things much by cavorting around with a lady that wasn’t Mrs Mellor. And by taking his summer break with PLO holidays 
But for the first 20 years of its life, the PCC proved itself to be exactly what its critics predicted. A trade association. A toothless watchdog that slept through every raid on journalism’s reputational locker.
You’ll remember what the DCMS select committee said about its abject failure to face its responsibilities when the McCanns were being libelled over and over again. 
"In any other industry suffering such a collective breakdown ... any regulator worth its salt would have instigated an enquiry. The press, indeed, would have been clamouring for it to do so. It is an indictment on the PCC's record, that it signally failed to do so."
And the PCC’s weakness was further underlined when the newspaper group responsible for those libels – Richard Desmond’s Daily and Sunday Express and Star – simply walked away from the PCC in January this year. Their message: we don’t need anyone else to tell us what we can and can’t do.
The PCC had also failed to show any leadership when it took a cursory look at the phone-hacking scandal, preferring to censure those who were insisting this criminal activity wasn’t just the work of a rogue reporter and private investigator. 
But maybe – just maybe – the PCC is starting to stir. And maybe it has to if we’re to stand up for journalism as a unique, valued, skilled trade.
We probably all smiled wryly when the PCC chair Peta Buscombe told BBC 2’s Newsnight that Ryan Giggs should have come to her, rather than the courts, to maintain his privacy. And it would have been interesting to see whether News Group would have paid any attention to a body without any real sanction.
But the important thing here isn’t whether we believe the PCC could have guaranteed Giggs the privacy he wanted. It’s the fact that the PCC said it at all. The fact that it wants to be a player in what will probably be the most important debate for journalism over the coming years. What might well be the defining debate.
The balance between privacy and the freedom to report.
When I read the PCC Director Stephen Abell’s interview with Roy Greenslade last month, I was struck by the way in which he recognises he need to get onto the front foot. Not just standing up for the press. Standing up for a responsible press. He talks about reinforcing:  
"… a sense of responsibility and self-restraint.”
But, more importantly, of the way in which responsibility and restraint is a defining feature of a press that stands out from social media and the free-for-all on the web.  
"We've been in the position of seeing stories on Twitter that we know about and that haven't been run in the press following guidance from us … In the end, what newspapers find most marketable is credibility. You may ignore a story on Twitter. It only really matters when it is published on a trusted site."
Well, if this is an indication that we can’t let social media set the standards for journalism, amen to that.
Especially if the PCC goes one step further and devises a tougher Editors Code which places at its heart a notion of ‘public interest’ that really means in the interest of the public. Not just in the interest of publication.

Now, there are some in journalism who’ll think this is pie in the sky. Who’ll insist – you can’t place any restraint on free speech. And if you try, you’re out of touch with what’s happening on the web. In social media. 
At the same time, at our most neurotic, we look across at Twitter and You Tube and Facebook and Google. And we look at yesterday’s depressing readership figures. And wonder what it is now that distinguishes paid-for, deliberate acts of journalism from the eternal murmur out there. Why anyone should bother. Let’s just get our slice of the mob’s free-for-all. If they can say it on Twitter, we can say it in our paper. We need to be part of the world where gossip and rumour rule.
That’s precisely the wrong conclusion.
We need to take a long, hard look at what it is that gives journalism its value. Not what we, inward-looking journalists value in what we do. But at what it is that our publics value.
If we act in a way that shows our contempt for our publics – and we have to accept that too many of us have too often. If we sound when we’re arguing over the contempt laws, libel reform or privacy that our only interest is in preserving our revenue streams.
And if we think that free speech means having not restraint on what we say, what we do. Then we can’t be surprised to find our publics value us not at all.
And that we will have failed to stand up for journalism. And made it stand out from the mob.

1 comment:

Andrew Watt said...

Mr. Marsh,

I would like to make contact with you regarding the death of Dr. David Kelly in 2003. I gather that this may be a matter of interest to you given that you were the editor of the Today programme on 29th May 2003.

I blog about Dr. Kelly's death on my Chilcot's Cheating Us blog. I can be contacted at

Thank you

Dr. Andrew Watt