Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Strong words - press on

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee's report on press standards, privacy and libel is a remarkable document - all journalists should read it. It makes serious efforts to find some sort of way through the tangled issues in its title with important recommendations that you may or may not agree with ... but which at the very least push the debates forwards.

Most striking is the strength of its language in describing and condemning the attitudes and techniques of some in the press and the failings of the press 'regulator', the Press Complaints Commission - less regulator, more mediator, according to the committee.

It's worth pulling together some of these strong words - if only to understand something of how others (in this case, MPs) see the media in general and the press in particular.

The committee's conclusion is a good place to start:

"The freedom of the press is vital to a healthy democracy; however, with such freedom come responsibilities."

Which leads to the obvious question - how does the committee see the press exercising those responsibilities?

Here's a taster - it's what the committee says about an approach a News of the World journalist made to two of the women involved in the Max Mosley story - an approach that, bluntly, said 'give us an interview or we'll publish photos that identify you'.

The committee's thoughts?

"A culture in which the threats ... could be seen as defensible is to be deplored. The fact that News of the World executives still do not fully accept the inappropriateness of what took place is extremely worrying."

And what about the News of the World's defence that the Max Mosley story was in the public interest?

"The News of the World editor's attempts to justify the Max Mosley story on 'public interest' grounds (was) wholly unpersuasive."

OK, so ... standards in the industry generally?

"The picture painted for us of corners being cut and of fewer journalists struggling to do more work is cause for concern. If the press is to command the trust and respect of the public, the public needs to know that the press is committed to high standards even in difficult times."

Some of the committee's strongest criticisms of the press are aimed at its coverage of the McCann case:

"The press acted as a pack, ceaselessly hunting out fresh angles where new information was scarce ... competitive and commercial factors contributed to abysmal standards in the gathering and publishing of news."

Where, the committee wonders, was the PCC in the McCann case?

"It was obvious as early as May 2007 that a number of newspapers were ignoring (the PCC code's requirements on accuracy) yet the PCC remained silent. That silence continued even though the coverage remained a matter of public concern through the summer and autumn of that year.

"This was an important test of the industry's ability to regulate itself, and it failed that test."

And:

"The newspaper industry's assertion that the McCann case is a one-off event shows that it is in denial about the scale and gravity of what went wrong ... 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."

It is, the committee declares:

"A kind of avoidance which newspapers would criticise mercilessly, and rightly, if it occurred in any other part of society."

On the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, the committee's conclusions have been widely reported, but its strong words on the standards on display have a resonance for all of journalism:

"We strongly condemn this behaviour which reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable."

But back to the PCC. The future of self-regulation is important - but the PCC, the committee seems to think, just isn't in the game.

"The failure of the PCC to prevent or at least limit the irresponsible reporting that surrounded the McCann and Bridgend cases has undermined the credibility of press self-regulation."

And:

"For confidence to be maintained, the industry regulator must actually effectively regulate, not just mediate. The powers of the PCC must be enhanced, as it is toothless compared to other regulators."

Dismiss all of this as "innuendo, unwarranted inference and exaggeration" - no, satire is not dead - or politically motivated if you wish.

But doesn't everyone have to face up to the possibility that this report is from the same box as those depressing regular polls that show only one in five Britons trust the press?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Sources close ...

**Cross post from BBC College of Journalism**

When Jeremy Paxman grilled the Observer's chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley on BBC 2's Newsnight, he got down to one of the Big Questions that a largely untrusted trade - journalism - has to answer.

Why should anyone trust a journalist? Especially a journalist quoting or reporting an anonymous source.

Opinions about Gordon Brown's temperament and alleged behaviour are many and various. My hunch is, most people already know what they think about him and that few will change their minds as a result of Andrew Rawnsley's book ... or the second hand reporting of it (which, incidentally, makes allegations that do not appear in the book itself).

But why we should trust the allegations in the first place? In the past 72 hours or so, I've come across any number of people who'd LIKE the allegations and the very worst interpretation of them to be true - not natural GB supporters, then - but who still feel inclined to disbelieve a journalist, however honest and well respected, who can't/won't name his sources. Especially in the face of an on-the-record (non-denial) denial.

As Jeremy Paxman knew, there was no chance of Andrew Rawnsley naming any of those who'd spoken to him in confidence - protecting a source is a fundamental of journalism. Though to his credit, JP continued to challenge knowing that he was articulating the sceptical thoughts - mistrust - that many in the audience were doubtless entertaining.

Why are audiences so sceptical, so mistrusting? Especially since it's an undeniable fact that almost any story worth telling started life with a source anonymously briefing a journalist - the first ray of sunlight that is, according to US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, "the best disinfectant". And without whistleblowers and their like, journalism would have few means if any to challenge, even in small measure, the information asymmetry that pertains between people and power.

The problem is that for every example of outstanding investigative, accountability journalism that leans on anonymous sources, there are dozens if not hundreds of examples of unutterably lousy fiction purporting to be a journalistic account of 'sources'.

Good journalists are alive to the risks and for the need to be scrupulously honest and straight ... even when, as with an anonymous source, there's little chance of contradiction; the BBC Editorial Guidelines offer a fairly strict straitjacket. The constraints in the Reuters Handbook of Journalism are even tighter:

"You must source every statement in every story unless it is an established fact or is information clearly in the public domain ... Good sources and well-defined sourcing help to protect the integrity of the file from overt outside pressures and manipulation and such hazards as hoaxes."

And on single - usually anonymous - sources:

"For a single source story, the informant must be an actual policymaker or participant involved in the action or negotiation with first-hand knowledge, or an official representative or spokesperson speaking on background. Such information should be subject to particular scrutiny to ensure we are not being manipulated."

Both organisations' reputations rely on them being trusted, even when they're using anonymous sources.

But here's the thing. The language of responsible journalism like Andrew Rawnsley's or that which scrupulously follows guidelines like the Reuters Handbook - based on genuine sources and done in the public interest - is indistinguishable from that used to defend fabrication, intrusion and distortion, based on rather less genuine 'sources' and a different understanding of the public interest.

It is the problem of 'assessability' that Professor Onora O'Neill explored in her 2002 Reith Lectures: on the page, there is nothing to distinguish the best from the worst, the trustworthy from the disgraceful.

Journalists who take easy options - inventing a 'source'; turning a half remembered paraphrase into a hard "quote"; attributing their views to a source - then the role of journalism as a check on power is reduced for the simple reason that they erode trust in ALL journalism and not just in the newspapers or news organisations they work for.