A Sunday afternoon spent in the Twittersphere has led me to defend journalism again. The lazy contempt being shown for journalists and journalism is more dangerous than the angry mob seems to realise.
There are, as far as I can tell, three main concerns: telling the truth, media blackouts and press release re-writing. All things which concern journalists too.
I won’t get too deep and meaningful before you tuck into your dinner – you know, the one you made for your mum for Mother’s Day as instructed by endless tabloid features.
I will, though, say that seeking the truth isn’t and never has been a case of opening a newspaper or watching TV news – especially not from profit-driven, politically-motivated newspapers or telly stations. We need to get rid of this idea: truth is and always has been someone’s version of it. It is the case even in those history books on your shelf – the ones that ignore women’s history or black history or write only about the winning side or the rich.
Even Orwell – a journalist to be trusted, most would say – admitted in The Road to Wigan Pier that “nearly all the incidents described happened but they have been rearranged”. What does he mean by “nearly all” and, if he has not reported strictly chronologically, can he be trusted to have told the truth at all? I think he can.
Journalists and readers need to lighten up, intelligently embrace subjectivity, enjoy impartiality and seek the truth of their own political leanings, their own eyes when at events, use their brains rather than rely wholly on newspapers – and not demand from journalists what their bosses won’t allow.
Media blackouts – such as the shocking lack of coverage of yesterday’s NHS demo and the general lack of reporting of legitimate protest of interest to the entire nation – are staggering but, again, nothing new.
A national media defending the status quo or the ruling class is neither new nor a characteristic of only the UK media: journalists die across the globe while reporting, fighting oppression, defending press freedom.
I think it unlikely that journalists at the NHS demo failed to submit any copy, film or photos – but an editor could choose to spike their work.
Maybe we should recognise that our journalists – like many across the world – are struggling to publish and broadcast what is happening despite their best efforts.
What is new, perhaps, is our ability as readers and viewers to spot this and challenge it. Our recognising that we can all report what we think needs to be reported is an exciting shift – we now share our experiences of police brutality, moments of inspirational dissent and the media ignoring it through interesting blogs and citizen journalism or alternative media.
Churnalism is, without doubt, a problem – but not one caused or enjoyed by journalists. We don’t want to rewrite PR guff when we could be conducting interviews, using our own ideas for stories of value to the community or even – imagine! – investigating corruption. The industry is being battered by savage cuts meaning fewer journalists are covering the news and newspapers are closing.
31 weekly newspapers closed last year: this creates a genuine news blackout for many thousands previously dependent on their local paper to know who is standing in the elections, whether the local library is threatened with closure, how much is being spent on regeneration … you get the idea. Meanwhile newspaper owners like Trinity Mirror make huge profits: Trinity Mirror, of course, claims that £74m profit is not enough and so intends to make further cuts and kill more local newspapers.
As NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet says: “… local papers are having the life-blood sucked from them. Creative and investigative journalism is seriously under threat as journalists no longer have the time or resources.
“It means that local papers cannot fulfil their vital role as a public watchdog, holding local politicians and businesses to account. It means that the special relationship between the reader and their local reporter is being broken.”
If you want to know how churnalism fills this gap – as money-grubbing media owners work their few remaining journalists into the ground – this film is worth watching and shows how the Media Standards Trust is tackling it.
Lastly, lack of truth, media blackouts and PR churnalism are not the fault of individual journalists – many of whom don’t work for tabloids and/or don’t want to see their role changing, their voices silenced, their writing spiked.
Many others are like me, with qualifications and vast experience, but very little chance of finding a job in the industry.
So let’s not be silly about this: hating journalists and blaming them for the corruption of the British media is short-sighted and lacks intelligence. Put down the pitchforks and burning torches and consider what our journalists face when trying to tell you what is happening.