Strange Tales and Press Standards

1 Dec

I don’t know how many of my fellow journalists are following the Leveson Enquiry, an ongoing public investigation into the culture, practices and ethics of Britain’s press after the famous News of the World hacking scandal. But since I read the Guardian every day, quotes and headlines about it keep popping up and grabbing my attention.

The thing that gets me is the utter weirdness of it all. I can’t imagine — nor do I know any journalist, I don’t think, who could either — dressing up as a doctor and sneaking into a hospital to try and interview a celebrity. I also can’t imagine sitting down and just making up an entire story about someone I’ve never spoken to, complete with fake quotes, and seeing it the next day published as fact. I can’t imagine an editor coming up with the idea of sending a bunch of scantily clad women to surround and jeer a government minister, and turn that into an article as well.

I mean you go to school, follow the various courses, hone your writing skills and, at the end of your studies, get hired at a typical tabloid. Great! You’ve got a job, can start to pay off your student loan — and then your editor asks you to do this kind of stuff: ‘Here’s the number for Hugh Grant’s voice mail – listen in and write an article about what you hear.’ Or, ‘Rupert didn’t like his interview with (ITN broadcaster) Anne Diamond, so go out and dig up something so we can make her life hell.’

Yet, according to Enquiry submissions, these are the kinds of things tabloid journalists do all the time. Singer Charlotte Church, after being obliged to sing for free at media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s nuptials with Wendy Tang in return for good publicity, was instead constantly targeted in nasty, insinuating stories for years. The News of the World hacked the phones of  7/7 bomb victims, actors and the wife of then-PM Gordon Brown, whereby they learned — and printed a story about — how her new baby has cystic fibrosis.

And Rebekah Brooks, a Murdoch acolyte and close friend of Prime Minster David Cameron, humiliated Labour minister Clare Short by pasting a photo of her head over that of a topless woman and publishing it in the Sun. She sent a busload of semi-naked women to Ms. Short’s Birmingham home to harass her, and printed a headline saying “‘Fat, Jealous’ Clare Brands Page 3 Porn.”

Ms. Short must have done something truly heinous, truly damaging to the British public to merit such treatment, right? I mean, that’s how the tabloids defend themselves, suggesting that delving into the personal lives of British politicians and celebrities is in the public interest, and they are informing readers about their real morals and motivations.

In fact all Ms. Short had done was mention that she “did not care for” the Page 3 girls tabloid tradition and considered it “pornography.”

According to a former Daily Star freelancer and, later, employee, Richard Peppiatt, tabloid staffers were obliged to come up with three scandal-hued stories a week or face the boot. He told the Enquiry, “There is an overwhelming negativity and it runs throughout the press. A story is not a story unless it is knocking someone … or knocking an ethnic group, whatever it may be.” Yikes.

He also described the paper not so much truth-seeking as “ideologically-driven and … impact-driven.”

Well I can understand why editors and owners are blithely ruining the reputation of the press as a source of non-partisan information. But how can self-respecting journalists do this, day after day, and not lose their minds?

I guess I am thinking about this more than usual since writing a short guide to freelance journalism, which got me considering the reasons for wanting to be a journalist in the first place. The Leveson Enquiry is making me think even more about the importance I see in integrity, the importance of what journalists do — and how little this notion is shared, apparently, by my fellow scribes.

Now I have nothing against a bit of Onion-esque fun and am familiar with the old idiom about the media “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.” But is this what is happening? In an ever-tighter job market, what are journalism students and young writers to think when the business of newsgathering and commentary is such a zoo?

I acknowledge the need for journalists to try to expose the underlayer of governance and finance, to investigate what lies behind the decision and policy-making that affects the lives of everyone. But that doesn’t mean fining out with whom a politician is sleeping, but rather, from whom he or she is taking donations in exchange for favourable or biased treatment.

I still believe that journalism is one of the world’s most important professions. But after reading about the Leveson Enquiry, I only wish more media workers recognized what that implies about the way we carry out that profession. If more and more journalists simply to refuse to write ridiculous and unethical stories, maybe they can change that culture of “overwhelming negativity.”

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