Alan Rusbridger

There was a pantomime moment in the 2012 Leveson Inquiry into the British press when the proprietor of the Daily Express, a newspaper which once sold 4m copies a day, was asked about his attitude to ethics.

“Ethical?” queried Richard Desmond, who had made a fortune from publishing soft porn magazines before buying himself a mid-market tabloid. “I don’t know what the word means, perhaps you would explain what the word means.”

Desmond was playing to the gallery as an honest geezer who just tried to make a tidy profit out of journalism, and who left highfalutin moral questions to others. But there was an unintended truth in his reply. There has always been a strand of amorality in the attitudes of some journalists and editors.

They are neither very moral, nor terribly immoral. They don’t necessarily believe in doing bad things. But newspapering is (they might say) a’ rough old craft’ and in the end, it’s the story that counts.

The Leveson Inquiry was set up in response to a giant ethical catastrophe in the British press – the discovery that newsrooms, in their desperation to get the story, had collectively embarked on mass-scale illegal intrusion. If technology allowed you to eavesdrop on people’s private communications, then, frankly, why wouldn’t you? Ethics didn’t come into it.

But that was six years ago – a lifetime in the timescale of the revolution we are now in the middle of. Since 2012 a few British journalists have gone to jail and many victims of intrusion have, between them, collected a few hundred million in damages and costs. But the debate has moved on… and the ethics of communications have suddenly become a bit larger and quite a bit more interesting.

It begins by pointing the finger at others, which is usually a more comfortable stance than self-examination. The “others” are the tech giants who have, in the space of a decade, begun to eat the breakfast, lunch and dinner of the legacy players. No-one takes kindly to seeing their livelihoods disappear, and journalists starting asking some tough questions about the methods and beliefs of the new kids on the block.

This was an entirely reasonable thing to do and produced rich pickings. The engineers who built Facebook were, in their own way, geniuses – but they seemed to have given relatively little thought to the societal, political and moral implications of allowing two billion people to donate to the biggest bran tub of personal data in history.

For a long time, Facebook clung to the hope that they could define themselves as pipes, or neutral delivery mechanisms. Sure, people might be sending hateful, violent, pornographic, deceitful, malign and lying material down their tubes – but that was not their responsibility.

You wouldn’t ask the Post Office to steam open every letter to see what was inside and to accept responsibility for the contents. AT&T can hardly monitor every phone call. So why pick on Facebook, which was essentially doing the same job, even on an unimaginably huge scale?

That argument was sustainable for a while, but will hardly hold for long. The engineers have belatedly woken up to the democratic and societal consequences of the machines they have built and are being forced to take

some measure of responsibility for the content they enable as well as the pipes.

But throwing rotten eggs at the west coast giants is to some extent a convenient distraction for editors trying to work out how to create a sustainable future for journalism. We know there is low trust in social media as a reliable source of news (34% in Europe in the latest 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer.) No surprises there.

But why – a few pages later in the same survey – do we find a slide pronouncing that “media remains least trusted institution.”

Yes, there have been modest gains in the last year. But trust in the UK media, for instance, still languishes at 37 per cent – just three percentage points above trust in the much-criticised new tech platforms. That should surprise and disturb us. Surely journalism is better than that? Surely we deserve more trust and support?

In writing my recent book, Breaking News, I picked on a couple of examples where traditional approaches to the news were – in my view – failing a public that otherwise keenly appreciates the need for trustworthy information amid oceans of chaotic misinformation.

The first is Brexit – the crucial decision for Britain over whether to sever its trading, legal, regulatory and political ties with its nearest neighbours. It was surely obvious to most people – almost regardless of which side they instinctively supported – that this was by no means a simple question. And so it has transpired.

What was the duty of news media in advance of such a vote? By 2016 I was a reader, not an editor, and I was pretty clear what I wanted: to be presented with the arguments on both sides, with as much complexity and context as the issues demanded. Only then could I make a reasonable, and reasoned, choice on the ballot paper.

That’s not what most British newspapers did. For too many editors Brexit was a simple question, not a complex one. And for too many of them, the object of their coverage was to advocate for one side of the argument, not explain both. Overall, the Leave coverage outgunned the Remain coverage two to one. Desmond abandoned all pretence at neutrality, writing a £1m cheque to the main Leave party, UKIP, at the start of the campaign. Another newspaper had to register as part of the Leave campaign after printing a poster for readers to stick up in their windows.

Hundreds of front pages bellowed and bullied their support for Brexit.

Set aside the politics and ask, what message do we want a sceptical public to believe about journalism? Is it primarily a craft of verification or opinion? Is it there to give a factual basis for debates society needs to have or is it there to push the beliefs of an individual proprietor or editor?

Or take climate change, probably the most consequential story of our times. Given its importance – and the remarkable scientific consensus about the urgency of the threat to humanity – you’d think that it would force its way onto the front pages with depressing regularity. Only it doesn’t. It is either missing altogether or, worse still, is presented in tones that drip with scepticism. That matters because, in the short to medium term, politicians are going to present electorates with difficult choices about necessary and radical alterations to their lives. If the public has not been informed – or, worse, misinformed – about the need for change then democratic decision-making becomes infinitely harder.

These are ethical choices about the public interest we claim to be serving as journalists. We’ve moved from an age of information scarcity to one of almost infinite plurality.

Only those with the highest professional and ethical standards will rise above the oceans of mediocrity and malignity and survive. It won’t matter to Richard Desmond: he has long since made his millions out of the Express titles and moved on. But it really, really matters for the rest of us.


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