Why journalists must report other journalists' failures
Helen Lewis has published a piece mocking those who complain when events they consider important are not reported. She lists trivial mishaps – milk stolen from the fridge / the air conditioning isn’t working / a stubbed toe – and feigns outrage that the Murdoch press or the publicly-funded BBC refused to report them.
She has a point. Not everybody’s story is worth covering and it’s foolish to infer dark motives from every news judgement.
Here’s another point. When it comes to journalists failing to report the activities of their own kind, the public is absolutely right to be vigilant and nobody should be put off making a fuss if they suspect a problem.
This is because the people who report and comment on the world’s events for us have an obligation to scrutinise their own industry that goes beyond their duty to report in other areas. Any failure to do so, in fact, is a betrayal of journalism and amounts to corruption.
Why? Here are two closely-related reasons. First, if reporters don’t report on each others’ failures and mistakes, nobody will. Society in general is subject to media scrutiny and that is viewed as essential and healthy: if journalism is free of such scrutiny it inevitably sinks into abuse and society suffers.
Second, it is hypocritical and reckless for journalists to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of their own profession. Think how reporters and columnists treat politicians, the police and local authorities: if they are so quick to demand apologies, resignations and reforms where others have erred, they must apply at least the same standard to themselves.
Corruption enters the picture here because when journalists apply a double standard to their own kind they are guilty of cover-up, and by their silence they not only mislead, they also facilitate wrongdoing. That in turn corrodes public trust in all journalism.
This is not a matter of stubbed toes and stolen milk. When the first phone hacking convictions happened in 2007 only one journalist in the entire newspaper industry, Nick Davies, took the trouble to investigate. He later revealed something appalling, but which, it turns out, lots of journalists knew all along, and his reward was to be attacked and reviled by many in his own profession who felt he had 'broken ranks'.
Such reluctance to see the light of scrutiny turned upon journalists is not unusual. It is more like the norm. When, earlier this year, a reputable study found that trust in the written press was at a far lower level in Britain than in any other of 33 European countries, that was simply not reported or commented upon in the British press (which apparently thinks it can shore up trust by hiding the facts from its readers).
And look at the recent scandal of Kevin Myers and his anti-Semitic remarks in the Sunday Times Ireland edition. That could not have happened but for gross editorial and management failures, yet journalists across the political spectrum appear perfectly content with a couple of apologies and the sacking of the writer. Once again, failure in the journalism industry is swept under the carpet in a manner that can only undermine the credibility of the profession and damage public trust.
So, stubbed toes and stolen milk aside, the public is absolutely right to expect journalists to report their own business rigorously and fully, and the public is also absolutely right to raise the alarm when they suspect that’s not happening.