Poisonous pens write media out of picture

March 21, 2003

Journalists and their trade, in print, on air and online, are under fire - and much of the criticism is deserved. Those who care about a quality press must join the global debate, says Ian Hargreaves.

Journalism is a controversial business. There has never been a time when the news media, or at least some part of it, stood free of the accusation of excess. Even that great democrat Thomas Jefferson, who famously proclaimed that given a choice between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter, spent his twilight years grumbling viciously about the insolent intrusions of reporters.

Today in Britain, yet another House of Commons select committee is interrogating newspaper editors about their attitudes towards privacy and intrusion and asking out loud whether we can come up with something better than the supine Press Complaints Commission to instil public confidence in the press.

Tabloid editors are accused of whipping up racial hatred over asylum, fuelling mob violence about paedophilia and trafficking daily in what used to be called "chequebook journalism": paying people, even witnesses in criminal trials, to tell stories, regardless of the effect that the financial incentives involved might have on their credibility.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that this is only more of the same. Media behaviour in a bygone era such as the early Victorian period was one thing: then the press was considered over-mighty in posturing as a "fourth estate" of the realm. Now our global, always-on media have muscled their way into what often feels like the first estate: the primary agency for determining public questions, from decisions on war and peace to the fate of individual politicians and other public figures.

If a modern politician cannot prosper in the media, he or she had better not run for office. More people vote in Big Brother and other reality television shows than in municipal or European Parliament elections.

So when people complain about press misbehaviour, or dumbed-down television news, or the toothlessness of the PCC, they are making a charge that needs to be taken more seriously than hitherto has been the case. As Onora O'Neill, principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, argued in her Reith lectures last year, the modern news media have the capacity to poison the wells of public discourse; they are critical purveyors of the information on which successful democracies and modern economies depend. O'Neill's view is that the free press settlement hammered out after the English civil war will no longer do.

No wonder the imminent debates in the House of Lords about the communications bill, which tries to make sense of media regulation in the age of the internet and multi-channel television, is so eagerly anticipated. The legacy with which the legislators are dealing is a century of heavy state regulation of television and radio, which stands in stark contrast to the liberal, market-based traditions of press freedom.

What is at stake is whether the electronic news media of the future will become more like newspapers, subject to regulation only in terms of the exercise of commercial power in advertising markets, or whether newspapers might learn from broadcasters and embrace some sort of statutory oversight of press standards.

The debate about the shortcomings of the news business, however, is not confined to Britain. In the US, a well-organised Committee of Concerned Journalists argues that unchecked media commercialism has undermined the First Amendment of the US Constitution, turning the foundation stone of press freedom into a "a property right establishing ground rules for free economic competition, not free speech".

In recent years, there has been a host of books written by North American journalists bemoaning the state of television and newspaper journalism.

Some of the titles convey the flavour: How Showbiz Values Are Corrupting the News , Drive-By Journalism - The Assault on Your Need to Know and American Journalism in Peril , this last from the executive editor of The Washington Post . At a time when the role of the American republic in a unipolar world and the self-confidence of its values are being discussed as never before, not enough attention has been paid to the crisis in US journalism.

Meanwhile, in Italy, controversy surrounds the media interests of Silvio Berlusconi, the country's prime minister and former owner of its largest commercial television company. Critics of Jacques Chirac say that France's privacy laws have stifled discussion of the presidential affairs that would have sunk his hopes for re-election in any other liberal democracy. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin continues to play power politics with his nation's television system.

Perhaps more significant is the rise of al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television service that came to widespread attention when it broadcast videotapes from Osama bin Laden in the Arab world. By claiming a global audience estimated at 300 million, it has spearheaded a challenge to the pre-eminence of English-language TV news services. This is, so far, the most important media development to have followed the September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

It would clearly be wrong to characterise all of these developments as negative. The self-critical spirit of US journalism, for example, probably makes it healthier than the complacent attitude of journalists in Britain or Germany. The fact that today we can watch television news made beyond our own national frontiers helps us see the world more clearly and makes us less susceptible to the picture created by our own national leaders.

According to my own recent research, 8 per cent of young British Asians regard the internet as their primary news source. It is good that they have an alternative, given the inadequate efforts of traditional newspapers and broadcasters to engage their interests and reflect their points of view.

Yet in an era when the news media are so influential and so pervasive, we need to be concerned about the strikingly low levels of trust people have in journalists. In Britain, Mori surveys regularly position journalists at the bottom of the heap, along with politicians, as those least trusted by the public to tell the truth.

In the US, there have been a number of polls suggesting that a majority of Americans think the US Constitution gives journalists too much, not too little, freedom. Since September 11, it has often been said that the US news media have shown alarmingly little capacity to reflect critically on the agenda of the Bush administration. News media without self-confidence, and without a strong base of trust among the population at large, will find themselves in trouble.

Then there are the inescapable economic indicators of decline. In all advanced democracies, certainly in Britain, newspaper sales and readership continue to fall, even though other forms of paper-based publishing, such as books, continue to grow. The economics of journalism is under threat, as free newspapers jostle with television, radio and internet news. Why should anyone pay for news when you can't move around without its being thrust at you?

When you look at what British journalists get paid (an average of £22,500 a year), their youth (35 per cent are under 29) and their unrepresentativeness (only 4 per cent are from ethnic minority communities), you do not have a sense of a profession living in the glad, confident morning of a technological revolution that has established information as the world's most valuable commodity.

These are just some of the reasons why those who care about good journalism, without which we won't have good politics or honest business, should be attuned to the global debate about the way that it works.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University, former editor of The Independent and director of BBC news and current affairs. His book Journalism: Truth or Dare? is published by Oxford University Press next week (£12.99).

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