Scandal at the Times: another journalistic cover-up?
Journalists can dish it out, but they don’t have to take it. They have a right to criticise and attack whoever they choose, but no one has a right to criticise them. That’s clearly the view of John Witherow, editor of the Times, whose editorial in response to our critical analysis of the recent journalism of one of his reporters you can read here.
Witherow's attitude is widely shared in the corporate press and beyond, and it is an arrogant and corrupting view that is damaging both journalism and public discourse.
Journalism in the UK press is not accountable. The civil law – relating to libel and privacy – is usually beyond the reach of all but the very wealthy. Regulation is non-existent (IPSO is a cynical sham). Democratic, parliamentary scrutiny is extremely rare and when it happens is treated with contempt.
That leaves two possibilities. One is commercial accountability – dissatisfied readers can withdraw their custom. Right now, paying customers of the corporate press are certainly doing so in large numbers, but we’ll come back to that. The other possibility, relevant here, is peer scrutiny – journalists checking up on, and exposing the failings of, each other.
It barely happens. We are given the impression that the big papers – Times, Telegraph, Mail, Guardian etc – are fierce rivals engaged in a dog-eat-dog struggle to bring us the hottest news, but this is fiction. If it were true they would leap on any opportunity to expose low journalistic standards at other papers. The truth is that in this industry dog does not eat dog.
Look at the reaction to our 'Unmasked' report from the trade magazine, Press Gazette.: a short article merely echoing the Times’s outrage that anyone should have the effrontery to criticise Andrew Norfolk. The headline began 'The Times condemns . . . ' Why not 'Detailed report criticises . . .'?
You might think that Press Gazette would wish to give its readers even a taste of the content of our report: three series of front-page articles in 15 months fundamentally wrong; untrustworthy sources relied upon; expert evidence ignored; quotations abused; important information omitted wholesale. But no.* If Press Gazette discussed any of that it would be dog eating dog.
Applying any normal news values, 'Unmasked' is newsworthy. It is evidence-based, it is shocking and it concerns the chief investigative reporter at the Times newspaper, who is among the most decorated and probably the most famous news reporters in the country. This is, in other words, a scandal at the very top of an extremely prominent British institution. But still, dog does not eat dog.
And it's not just Press Gazette. Besides publishing online and alerting a small army of people by email, we circulated hard copies of our report to hundreds of leading UK journalists and news executives at a dozen and more national papers and broadcasters. Well over two days later (and remember this is the news business), we are still waiting to see whether even one of them will dare bring this scandal to the attention of their readers or viewers.
The effect of this is obviously corrupting. If Andrew Norfolk can get away with omitting all inconvenient and contrary information relating to his stories, or burying it in the 19th paragraph, then why can’t every other reporter? If the industry can be counted on to circle the wagons around anyone who is challenged, on whatever terms, then who needs to care about ethics and standards?
You hear a great deal about the trouble journalism is in. It is the fault of Facebook and Google. It is the fault of an uncaring public. It is the fault of critical academics like me. You never read that it might be the fault of journalists themselves, who bring discredit on their own industry, in some cases by their own appalling conduct and in many others by turning a blind eye to that conduct.
The public notices. Trust in journalism is at shockingly low levels and it is impossible to dispute that this is one reason paying customers are deserting in large numbers.
Slowly but surely, our corrupt corporate press is killing journalism, and tragically it is being helped in this endeavour by the many journalists who, day by day, would rather tolerate misconduct in their midst than denounce it.
* Remarkably, Press Gazette carried 10 quotations from the Times totalling 185 words, and even contacted the paper for further comment beyond its editorial. A total of eleven words were quoted from our report, which runs to 66 pages.