I’ve updated this post’s conclusion shortly after it was written; I was unhappt with my conclusion and, after reflection, decided that we the people are to blame for the state of the media.
It has long been accepted that newspapers in the UK will do whatever it takes to sell copies. The established political parties and the so-called celebrities may bleat about phone hacking and its deleterious effects on their lifestyles but the rest of us have known for a very long time that the last thing you want is the British press pack on your heels, snapping away for a story. We even have words for their antisocial behaviour. “Monstering” is them surrounding you as you walk along. “Hosing down” is them setting off flashes close to your face so that you appear disorientated in subsequent photographs. They often do this when police are present and although it is a demonstratively aggressive and dangerous thing to do, they are never arrested for assault.
The argument that journalists have to obtain their investigative skills in the gutter in order to crack the facade hiding a top official is difficult to resist. The Daily Telegraph broke and persistently worked to uncover the scandal of the MPs who fiddled their expenses. Plainly their journalists worked elsewhere first and not on such high minded stories. The list of newsworthy revelations serving the public is far too big to detail here.
However worthy and useful the activities of the journalists are, the titles they work for have in recent years given up on certain standards. A ‘fact checker’ used to be a post held down by several staff at a time on a newspaper. One wonders whether they employ any at all now. Witness the Daily Telegraph article which I posted a link to a couple of days ago, when I wrote about Gillian Hammerton being an imposter in Occupy London. It is absolutely obvious that the Telegraph didn’t trouble itself with any attempt at fact checking whatsoever.
In that story, the Telegraph reported that Gillian Hammerton was a barrister who had been advising Occupy London from the beginning of the Occupation. It follows from this story that a number of facts should be checked. Firstly, is she a barrister? I am a barrister but am not currently practising. The “About Scrapper” page on this blog makes that clear. I use the job title in a comedic strapline and nothing more. If you check both my name and Gillian Hammerton’s name at the Bar Council website you find nothing. That is because neither of us are practising. The Daily Telegraph’s reportage seems to imply that she is practising because it does not say that she is not and mentions that she has been advising; only a practising barrister could do that. They have not checked the facts. Secondly, has she actually been advising Occupy London? Any attempt to confirm this claim would have had to have involved Occupy London’s official press feed…
I appreciate that it might be difficult for such a traditionally minded title to work out that Occupy London has an official newsfeed. I expect it would be more work than they could stomach to actually contact the press team on our website. Doing so would admit that we were highly organised through our direct democracy. That would contravene the whole grain of their stories. That’s the nub of the problem: the newspapers and the established broadcast media always have a story they want to tell and then they find facts to fit it. This isn’t journalism, this is pornography for the political class who run the country. It allows them to get off on themselves.
The Daily Telegraph are not alone in being routinely slipshod. On 23rd November 2011 the London Evening Standard published a front page scaremongering story about needle using drug addicts being present at St Paul’s Cathedral. Again no attempt was made to discuss the story with Occupy London’s press team. Occupy London appealed to the Evening Standard to get in touch and report the whole story. Balanced reporting requires that both sides of the story are reported at the same time.
It used to be said that the tabloid media sought to entertain and the quality media sought to inform. It is harder to be sure about this distinction these days. The internet challenges the profit margins of newspapers. The blogosphere is effectively better at crowd sourcing facts better than any amount of proprietary resources contained inside any particular newsroom. The political question has become whether the established print and broadcast media needs to be regulated when the internet cannot be. The politicians who call for this, call for an end to democracy as we know it. The burden of requiring high standards falls on us, the general public. The good folk of Liverpool have famously punished the Murdoch empire by simply refusing to buy their titles after their shameless reporting of the Hillsborough Disaster. That was an extreme case. Murdoch’s titles wronged an entire city.
With the attack on public standards spread wider, it seems that none of us take personal responsibility. We continue to buy these rags. Perhaps the answer lies in education? Would a more highly educated public consider it beneath them to purchase papers which provided inadequate reportage? The problem with that argument is that anyone with a high level of education knows that whenever their specialism is reported, it is dumbed down to the point where it is reported wrongly. A Press Complaints Commission with real teeth is needed. That would be the stick. There are plenty of carrots for good reportage – awards abound for journalists and newspapers. The problem is this: we get the press we deserve. If we all followed the example of the citizens of Liverpool, our free press would use its freedom much more widely. As a culture, we don’t care enough to deserve a press which reports facts in a balanced manner for public benefit.