Dead Inside

What is the problem with journalism? Is it falling literacy, lower circulations, the threat of the internet, cuts in budgets leading to poor fact-checking and lower standards?

Or is it attitudes from insiders like this piece on the Jan Moir fuss, from Fleet Street Blues?

Moir or less

Let us simplify the narrative a little:

1. Stephen Gately dies
2. Jan Moir writes an article published by the Daily Mail, strongly implying that he died not of natural causes, but from some abstract moral crisis caused by his gay-civil-partnership lifestyle.
3. The internet explodes in outrage as this repellant little tirade, and floods the PCC with complaints.
4. The odd dissenting voice says don’t blame Moir, blame her editors, because she was working within the editorial guidelines and ethos of the Mail.
5. Fleet Street Blues says its all OK, because Moir doesn’t necessarily believe what she writes, she’s a professional working for the Daily Mail, a professional publication that very successfully targets its audience.

Those last two points seem to me to be promoting a number of false defences that I’ve seen doing the rounds recently, usually when there’s a vitriolic online response to a disgraceful tabloid piece, such as the piece about Dunblane survivors that ran in the Scottish Sunday Express earlier this year.

The cases for the defence

The intertwining arguments in defence of the offending hacks and their paymaster seem to go something like this:

1. Journalists working within an editorial regime cannot be held responsible for their involvement in stories that offend wider moral sensibilities, providing they did so within industry-accepted journalistic standards.
2. Providing all concerned – journalists, editors, publishers – act within the law and within those internally accepted industry standards, its all OK, and they should not receive any negative flak from online whiners about their work.
3. Don’t blame us for giving the public what they want, if they pay for it, then its fair game.
4. It’s one, entirely acceptable, thing for journalists to intrude and insinuate on the grief and personal affairs of others, but any attempts to mock, insult or otherwise deride those who churn out such stories is shameful bullying of professionals doing their jobs.

Now, there’s a lot to unpick in there, but it seems that there are some basic presumptions underlying these defences that are worth challenging.

The basis for the defence

1. That the practice of journalism is virtuous, or at least morally neutral, regardless of what political or moral purpose the fruits of that journalistic activity are used for.
2. That it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and it would be unreasonable to expect people to stop taking the pay cheques and walk out just because their employer is involving them in something they know is wrong.
3. That if there is a demand for a product, it is always OK to fulfil that demand.

I would humbly suggest, from my outsider’s perspective, that these three presumptions are Wrong, Wrong and Wrong, in that or any other order you like. I’ll rebut them separately.

Firstly:

Journalism is not an inherently moral activity, and accepted journalistic ethics are not a moral gold standard

We all know the platonic ideal of a free press, bringing truth to light and exposing injustice to the light of day. Informing, educating, presenting arguments – these are all good things that journalism can do. We wouldn’t want to live without them.

However, the fact that journalism can do all these good things does not make it an infallible engine for good. The freedom of the press is worth defending, but that does not mean that the press shouldn’t prove to the rest of us that it is worthy of that defence.

And, while codes of practice and ethics are all well and good, the industry’s own view of these is not infallible either. Something can be ‘best practice’ in journalism terms and still not morally acceptable to the rest of us. Acting within the ‘rules’ of journalism does not absolve you of the requirement to act within the framework of basic human decency, or to throw aside any consideration of what is factually correct.

Put it this way – we would all agree that being a doctor or nurse, devoting yourself to helping others get better, or at least manage their intractable illnesses or conditions as best they can, is a good thing. This does not mean that every doctor, every nurse, every hospital is inherently good.

Equally, being a journalist, being professional to the standards set by your peers, is not good enough if you are using those highly professional skills in the service of distortion and disinformation, or to attack people through misrepresentation.

“I’m just following orders” is not a good defence, right?

If there’s a scandal in the public services, journalists are always eager to find someone to blame. It was the Minister! It was the Head of Services! It was this civil servant, that manager, SACK HIM, SACK HIM, SACK HIM! Didn’t he/she know what they were doing was wrong? If they couldn’t do the job, they should quit.

In the eyes of the press, the rest of us are always culpable for our own actions, and for what we let go on around us. No-one ever wriggled out of a headline grabbing scandal by shrugging their shoulders and saying “What did you expect me to do, resign? Who would pay me then?”

In all this talk of responsibility, you’d think that journalists themselves would be required to look to their own consciences, right?

Wrong, according to Fleet Street Blues:

“The Daily Mail‘s line isn’t one its journalists always personally believe in, but they’re pros, and how many of us can honestly say we’ve never written a story with an angle we didn’t personally support? Journalists are mercenaries, after all.”

Lovely. This seems to partially hark back to my previous point, in that the presumption that it’s OK to be a mercenary presumes there’s some worth in being a journalist regardless of the moral context of your work. But it also seems to suggest that journalism is a tough world where assignments are hard to find, and it’s tough to find paying work, and therefore it’s OK to chase the cheques.

No. People quit their jobs on matters of principle, or are sacked or steadily ‘let go’ because they refuse to tow a line they believe is wrong every fucking day in this world. People also change their career paths, work in different areas, shift priorities and do different things. We get sick of the way things are done, so we go to another firm, or find another line of work altogether.

Not everyone does, but plenty do. And when those who see bad practice around them blow the whistle, and lift the lid on corruption or mismanagement that threatens the public good, that benefits journalism. Good journalism. How many good stories, important ones, come from people risking their own positions because they believe their superior’s activities, or the secret reports that pass their desk, are wrong and that the public should know?

If all those Whitehall sources covered their own arses, considered themselves to be doing a job to a professional standard, and ignored everything they thought the public should know, the papers would have nothing to run but official lines.

Is it too much to ask that journalists apply the same standards to themselves? That if they are writing or editing material that they consider to be hateful, untrue, pandering to base prejudice at the expense of anything verifiable, that they quit? Even if (shock, horror) that means that they can’t work in the media any more, and have to go do something else?

Apparently so. Because journalism is a calling, apparently. Regardless of how bad it is.

Just because people are willing to pay for it doesn’t mean you should sell it to them.

Crack. Smack. Bootlegged videos of executions. Nasty, nasty types of pornography. Racist material that tells you that you and yours are the only real people and that they, they who seem to have all the luck, are just animals and not people at all. Illegal firearms to ‘defend yourself’.

There’s a market for everything. There are plenty of things that people would buy by the shitload that we, as a society, have decided they shouldn’t be sold, for very good reasons.

It seems the simplest thing of all, then, to refute FSB’s claim that the Daily Mail is OK because it reflects a lot of people’s views, regardless of how repellent those views might be, even if everyone from the editor to the journos to the print workers might disagree with every word.

No, it isn’t. Feeding people’s bile to them is not just satisfying demand, it is not a neutral or positive activity. By repeating prejudices, especially by actively ignoring the medical evidence in favour of a half-baked ‘moral’ position, as Moir did, you are reinforcing those prejudices through agreement. By putting those opinions in WH Smiths, Tescos, and every corner newsagent you are saying ‘it is OK to think this’. You are fostering a climate where our worst instincts are not suppressed, or driven into the naughty corner, but held proud as legitimate, authoritative positions.

This is just my opinion

And if you think I’m wrong, fine. That’s a matter of conscience, and I may think you’re completely wrong, but that’s OK. That’s freedom of speech. If someone believes the kind of thing that the Mail or the Express publish, loves working on it, and believe that they’re putting out a paper that tells truth to power then, although I disagree with them, they’re at least acting using the tools of journalism for the purposes of something good, albeit only in their eyes and definitely not in mine.

But if those tabloid journos agree with me, if they disagree with prejudice such as this, if they believe that the tabloids peddle distortions and bigotry and hateful nonsense, and yet they participate in the process of writing and publishing those words, then I don’t think they’re doing good work, I think they’re betraying themselves and their own principles for selfish, careerist reasons.

And you know what? I don’t care whether they hit their deadlines, or how little editing the subs need to do because they’ve written perfectly in the house style. I don’t care whether they’re professional to their own industry standards.

This isn’t some kind of highly tuned philosophical argument. I’m sure that, should anyone bother to read this, they will be able to pick apart my arguments from a million different directions. I’m not a trained journalist, I’m a fiction writer who has done a few reviews.

What I will say is this, and would ask this one question to whoever may pick nits in all of the above –

Is it right to do something you believe is wrong for the money?

Mark

Edited to take out hilarious write/right freudian slip in that last line.

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October 17, 2009. Tags: . Uncategorized.

4 Comments

  1. Fleet Street Blues replied:

    Liked the response, and there are some good points in there… but lots of people do things they're not particularly proud of to earn a crust. Journalists aren't unique.And as for the article itself, OK, it wasn't journalism's finest hour. But for it to be bad enough to decide it's worth curtailing the right to free speech, it's got to be pretty bad…

  2. Mark Clapham replied:

    FSB, thanks for your feedback. All fair comment. And, indeed, plenty of people do things against their own conscience as part of their job. But would they be publicly defended for doing so? And does it make their participation better, or worse? You're right that this is a wider question that just for journalists, of course.As for the curtailment of free speech – if I accidentally mis-stated or otherwise implied that I thought anyone should be legally or otherwise prevented from offering their opinion, then that was not my intent. However, I do not believe that (beyond the legal prevention of harassment and abuse) that any of us should be exempt from the negative consequences of what we use that free speech to say. Let's take the most extreme potential consequence of Moir's article – the Daily Mail cave in and sack her. Is that a blow to free speech? No, it's a blow to her having a national platform, to being paid for her writing. That's not the same thing as free speech. She'd still be able to go out, get a blogspot, and write what the hell she liked. The talk of 'mobs' and 'jackboots' is a grotesque exaggeration, which seems to go back to the idea that once you're in, journalism as a career and livelihood is inherently worth protecting. I hope that makes more sense…

  3. Iain Hepburn replied:

    As I've said before, the Dunblane piece – while immensely stupid, and unnecessary – ultimately saw vilification of the wrong person or people by media types in London looking for a name to hang their anger on.That aside, a well argued, hard to disagree with piece.But, as you admit to being an outsider, here's an open invitation, Mark. If you're ever up this way, you're welcome to come into the newsroom for a day and see what it's like at the sharp end.

  4. Mark Clapham replied:

    Thanks Iain! I'm glad you didn't totally hate the piece. Vilification is wrong, in all these cases (although in the case of the Dunblane piece, which presumably took a lot longer to prepare than Jan Moir's half-arsed ramblings, I'm still dubious about what sort of person could work on a story like that and not, at some point, think 'wait a second, I'm doing a terrible thing here'), as there's plenty of blame to go around – at the sharp end, editorially, at the parent company level and in our culture at large. It's the way of big supply chains – every level can just blame the next stage up, shrug their shoulders and say 'well that's what people *want*.' It's a wider cultural malaise – corporate responsibility spreads responsibility so widely that no-one actually has to hang their own decisions on their own consciences. But there's a difference between sharing the blame and being absolved of it. No-one at any of these levels of influence is anything other than a grown adult legally entitled and able to make their own decisions. I have to admit that, when it comes to the state of living at 'the sharp end', a decade working in the public sector has left my sympathies running somewhat low. After years of reading stories about how this office should be abolished, how these civil servants are a blight on the taxpayer, how those over there are snooping into the lives of private citizens, and how, generally, unemployment going up would be fine if it was only public sector jobs being thrown on the bonfire… I am only willing to extend the same level of sympathy in terms of employment pressures in return. I say that not with malice or ill-will… but with a degree of smugness, I admit. Instead, I'll throw out a counter offer, of sorts – if there are any journalists or columnists who don't like what they're doing but are afraid for their job security, why not cross the floor? There's not a public sector press office or media management team in the land who won't be *pathetically* impressed that someone from the sacred towers of the private sector would deign to come play with the little people. These are big issues, and thanks to you and FSB for popping over and discussing them with me. There are discussions which need to be had, not just in regards to journalism but in terms of a lot of areas of public life, and I wish they were being had in better and bigger places than this little blog, and by more prominent and powerful people than us!

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