Mainstream news media have earned the distrust they complain of
‘Can you trust the mainstream media?’ asks the very mainstream Observer in a 5,000-word analysis by Andrew Harrison, and then it supplies the answer, pretty resoundingly: ‘Yes, you can!’
Most measures tell us that trust in journalism is in a very bad way, but it seems from Harrison’s research that this has little if anything to do with the conduct or quality of the mainstream media themselves. No, mostly we should blame hard-left, pro-Corbyn websites which themselves have no commitment to trustworthy journalism. And the public itself also might have something to answer for, with its capricious, unreasonable attitudes.
The mainstream media get a pretty clean bill of health from an impressive line-up of commentators including Raymond Snoddy, a ’veteran media commentator’ formerly of the Financial Times and the Times, Dominic Ponsford, editor of the trade journal Press Gazette, Ian Katz, editor of BBC Newsnight and a former Guardian journalist, and Emily Bell, also ex-Guardian and now an academic in the US.
If you are thinking those look like mainstream people you would be correct, but theirs are not the only voices in the article: representatives of the Canary and Skwawkbox, both native web outfits, are also interviewed at some length. In their cases, however, they are not asked much about mainstream media but instead are placed largely on the defensive, required to justify specific failures of journalistic standards and ethics on their sites – failures presented as evidence that they are in no position to badmouth mainstream media.
There is something missing here. In fact there is an awful lot missing.
For one, there is no scrutiny of the ways in which mainstream media have squandered public trust over recent years. Missing too is any account of the failures of journalistic standards and ethics that continue in mainstream media to this day. (Think of all those front-page lies about Muslims, immigrants and Brexit, most of them faithfully advertised by broadcasters as if they were genuine journalism.) And also missing is any description of the abuse of power by mainstream newspapers desperate to prevent change.
Far from reassuring the public, the article gives readers more reasons to distrust mainstream media. It demonstrates the complacency of the industry, its lack of self-awareness and its refusal to confront unattractive realities. Mainstream media responses to shocking trust ratings tend to be dismissive or evasive. They rarely say: ‘Maybe we are doing something wrong and we need to reflect and do better.’
And they are doing something wrong. Any rational attempt to understand public distrust of mainstream news media must take account of the catalogue of infamous ethical failures and illegal activities by large parts of the national press over a generation, ranging from the Hillsborough affair and the treatment of Diana, Princess of Wales, through the Motorman scandal involving industrial-scale theft of private data to the McCann, Murat and Jefferies affairs, in which national newspapers recklessly and cruelly printed hundreds of libels on their front pages.
It must also take account of phone hacking – not only the relentless illegal intrusion into thousands of lives done in the name of journalism but also the systematic, long-term denial and cover-up of those crimes by national newspaper managements – remember, the Mirror papers only recently confessed to hacking, after almost a decade of denials. And then there is the corruption by bribery of public officials, including police officers, also perpetrated in the name of journalism.
Harrison glides over all this almost as though it never happened, and if his interviewees even mentioned it there is no sign of it. Yet if people are reluctant to trust journalists today, it is inescapably part of the explanation.
The article does manage to mention the Leveson Inquiry, but in such vague terms that the reader could be forgiven for thinking it was of little importance. It says: ’… recommendations for a new system of press control by the subsequent Leveson inquiry petered out and prosecutions connected to the scandal also proved anti-climactic. . .’ And ‘. . . sections of the public felt that the press at large had got away with something, even if they couldn’t say exactly what it was.’
You might think a 5,000-word article on the subject of trust in news media might find a little more space for consideration of the most substantial examination of journalistic practice in British history, especially given that it ended less than five years ago. And you might also think it would give more consideration to the idea – which is quite correct – that the press got away with something and the public is aware of it. But no.
For the record, Leveson recommended a perfectly reasonable and workable new system of press self-regulation that was designed to be effective where all its predecessors had demonstrably failed, and which would be elaborately shielded from political interference. The idea was to make journalism better by making it more accountable, so that the good could flourish and the unethical could be deterred. The plan enjoyed overwhelming public support.
However, because they have no desire to be genuinely accountable and because Leveson was so scrupulous of freedom that he did not make his system mandatory, most of the press (including the Guardian and the Observer) has raised two fingers to the judge and ignored his findings.
Worse still, corrupt national newspapers have exploited their power over politicians to block measures designed by Leveson to give the public affordable access to justice when they have been libelled by news publishers. And the same papers have stalled the launch of part two of the Leveson Inquiry, which is meant to probe corporate governance failures at press companies involved in criminality.
Perhaps worst of all, the rest of our mainstream media (including again the Guardian and Observer) have either failed to challenge this corruption of democracy and subversion of the public interest or they have encouraged it.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute tells Harrison he is worried people are tending to judge the entire industry by its worst practitioners, meaning that the Guardian and the Observer, not to mention the BBC, are tainted by the disgraceful actions of other news publishers. That is certainly regrettable, but it is also inevitable when they fail to distance themselves from those ‘worst practitioners’.
The Guardian and the Observer could do this now, in four ways.
– They could pick up the baton of assertive reporting on the press that was dropped when Nick Davies retired.
– They could join IMPRESS, a regulator meeting the Leveson standards, and by doing so show the public that, unlike the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Times, they have nothing to fear from being held to high ethical standards by a body certified as independent.
– They could demand the immediate start of Leveson 2, which offers the best opportunity to clear the stench of corruption from the upper reaches of the industry.
– And they could be far less coy in their denunciation of daily journalistic failures in other mainstream media, thus showing a distrustful public they have no truck with the worst practitioners.
This kind of action would be popular with readers – opinion polls have shown that very high proportions of Guardian readers support the Leveson recommendations and want their paper to comply with them.
It is also far more likely to build public trust than publishing bland claims that everything is fine when it obviously isn’t. (The Observer article includes unchallenged assertions that there is no fake news in the UK and that mainstream media are always punctilious in correcting errors. Many readers will simply laugh at that, and they will be right.)
Finally, and for the avoidance of confusion, I am not a supporter either of Donald Trump or of Jeremy Corbyn (though I agree with Jon Snow that the mainstream media should be asking itself searching questions about its coverage of the Corbyn phenomenon). Nor am I an enemy of mainstream media – I worked for the Independent papers, Reuters and the New Statesman.