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Monday, 11 July 2011

A necessary outbreak of journalistic self-loathing

As a breed, journalists are not overly given to introspection. The trade is populated by those who prefer to look outward at the world, rather than inward. How could it be otherwise?

But this lack of reflection is at the heart of the problems over at Wapping. Perhaps it's wrong that 40 per cent of the British national print media is owned by one person. But if the newspaper industry were as critical of itself as it is of, say, MPs and their expenses, this wouldn't be quite so salient.

The crisis at Wapping was created by a small number of editors tacitly redefining what "journalism" is and their fellow employees going along with it. So how did this happen? Was it just market forces? How many journalists knew about it really? And if we didn't know about it, shouldn't we bear a share of responsibility for not having worked it out? What kind of journalists are we?

Whatever you may have heard, there are no courses at journalism school devoted to how to hack into mobile telephones. Clive Goodman, the former royal correspondent for the News of the World who went to prison, and any other journalist who wrote a story arising from illegally acquired information, was basically window dressing for private investigaton. This man, the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, was not a source, he was employed by News International, remember? The result was journalism to the extent that it was printed in a newspaper - but then so are advertising and graphic design and we call those what they are. The decision to turn a blind eye to the provenance of such information was certainly taken at the highest level of News International but anyone who read the resulting stories, week after week, and knew anything about the inner workings of newspapers should have wondered about it.

I say that with some self-consciousness because I have an admission to make. When I heard how the News of the World was getting all those stories about the royal family - among other people - I felt oddly vindicated professionally.

As a youngster, I spent five or so years working on diaries at The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard, which are the parts of the newspapers generically known as gossip columns. It isn't a job that many enjoy or are any good at - and there was always a procession of "young hopefuls" passing through to bear this out. But I did enjoy it, partly because I was moderately good at procuring useful tidbits from relative strangers. Good enough to make a living at it on a freelance basis. But I also liked the challenge and the wide variety of people I met. I realise this makes me sound like an air hostess.

I learnt who was likely to have something to gain by talking to the press - PRs, anyone with something to sell and people who liked seeing their names in print, mainly. But I also learnt that there were fairly clearly defined limits to what people were prepared to tell you under normal circumstances. Making good contacts helped. But one generally found that the more money and influence involved in an industry - football, movies, the royal family - the less inclined people were to talk. There appeared to be a point at which people calculated that they simply had too much to lose by discussing anything controversial.

And this is what often puzzled me about many celebrity stories in the News of the World and elsewhere. Apart from the kiss-and-tell variety of tale, where money had evidently changed hands, there were other stories, the ones without the posed photographs, whose provenance was far from clear. In them money, entertainment and prurience went hand in hand to an extent that puzzled and dismayed me because, like a magic trick, I couldn't understand how it was being done. There just weren't enough disgruntled former employees in the world to account for it all. Yet to say so felt as if it would have been an admission of professional incompetence, lack of imagination or stupidity.

The thought crossed my mind that I was simply being out-classed. I knew there were diary journalists who were better than me. But I also knew, realistically speaking, that this was because they were prepared to go the extra mile, to hang around in bathrooms at parties frequented by Kate Moss, sit opposite Johnny Depp for several hours without telling him who they really were or attend three parties a night for fear of missing a "crucial" celeb appearance. These things just made me weary, physically and existentially. Two hours at a book launch after work hobnobbing with writers was fine but giving up one's personal life entirely in pursuit of something fit only for the red-tops wasn't why I'd chosen journalism.

I also knew that the higher up the office food chain you were, the more likely it was that someone would invite you to lunch because they had something delicate that they'd like to see alluded to in print. And that sometimes the police have motivations for telling journalists things off the record.

But when I looked at the News of the World on a Sunday I often found myself completely at sea. For years I was haunted by the possibility that I was still in the foothills of what was possible journalistically, that my contacts book was poor, or that there were stories brought in at executive level that just came with the territory. The latter appears to have been the explanation - because the executives concerned were prepared to step outside of what I actually understood to be journalism. I was naive but they had cheated.

To feel a little vindicated professionally at the same time as realising that you've been subconsciously comparing your work to that of criminals is a sullying experience. But to what extent does the industry share the blame for what happened?

As pointed out in the Fleet Street Blues blog the other day, there are things that reporters do habitually that non-journalists - as well as journalists who have never been general reporters - see as beyond the pale. Knocking on the doors of recently bereaved families - death knocks - is the big one.

No one goes into journalism to do this part of the job - that would make you a psychopath - but you do it because you have to. Your boss tells you to, so you go and do it. You don't like yourself very much at first, but after a while you get used to it and even learn to take a little pride in managing a difficult situation well.

It's all about chain of command. Although journalists like to bitch and moan after work as much as the next person, the industry is so competitive at a national level that if you want to keep your job you quickly learn to do exactly what your boss asks you to do. And any pragmatic deviations from this had better meet with his approval eventually. Journalism may be the fourth estate and have a function in a proper democratic society but I don't think I'm sharing any secrets when I say that there is nothing democratic about the way a newsroom, or a newspaper, works. The editor is always right, even when you suspect he's actually wrong. This is because he can fire you - and may well if you whinge in such a way that it gets back to him. It's like most other jobs, but more so.

So newspapers are an industry full of people who joined it because they were interested in questioning authority, but who have found that in order to be able to do so in the wider world they have to learn to keep a lid on it in the office.

I'm not soliciting sympathy. Learning to compromise is part of being an adult. I'm just saying: if journalism is to be held accountable for the inexcusable behaviour at News International, these things are relevant. I suggest that overweening fear of losing one's job could be partly responsible for the industry's lack of self-examination. It's a small industry at a national level and bullying managerial behaviour and top-down-ism are - whisper it - deeply ingrained. It's inconceivable that Rebekah Brooks didn't know what was going on but also understandable that no one blew the whistle for so long.

Newspapers, it is said, are haemorrhaging money - or readers at any rate - because of the internet. Yet oddly there is never a shortage of buyers when a newspaper goes up for sale. This is because for the most part wealthy men don't buy them with business concerns at the front of their minds, they buy them because of the political leverage they confer. If The Times goes up for sale because the News of the World was considered to be keeping it afloat, a buyer will be found and the best long term business plan for any struggling paper is to get a richer owner (I'm only partly joking).

The managerial chain of command in newspapers is the conduit of the proprietor's wishes, which is why it's perceived as being inviolable: what good is buying influence in the form of a newspaper if the correct messages aren't sent? So we have to hope that the people who own the papers have more than their own interests at heart and that this is part of the definition of being a "fit and proper" media owner, because an industry-wide culture of unhealthy acquiescence has played a role at Wapping without a doubt. And it sits unhappily with the media's wider purpose.

An outbreak of journalistic self-loathing over events at News International is to be hoped for. It is the beginning of a correct response to what's happened because only if newspapers are capable of thoughtful self-analysis do they have a hope in hell of being able to regulate themselves. We failed, as an industry, in our most basic task, which was to take a realistic look at ourselves.

* If you enjoyed this piece you may also be interested in this, about the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards.

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  1. very thoughtful piece, well said

  2. Nails it. Extraordinary no-one else has really focussed on this. When there are hundreds, even thousands of keen, cheap, bright people queueing up to take a job, it's inevitable that the balance of power becomes unhealthy. Everyone prefers people who have the same views, so it's inevitable that anyone who gets into a position to chose who works for them tends to chose people who agree. We'd all do this. It would take a saint to do anything else. If there's a silver lining to the scandal it's that it might so damage journalism's image as a sexy job to do, that journalism schools will no longer be churning out thousands and thousands of people going for ever fewer jobs...

  3. Very good piece. Interesting insights too. Thanks.

  4. *applause*

    - Peter


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