United Kingdom: The self-inflicted wounds that point to enemies within media

By Rich Peppiatt

When it comes to describing the state of British journalism the best description I have found comes not from Britain at all, but America, and the author George Saunders’ essay The Braindead Megaphone.

Saunders characterises the mass media as akin to a man who arrives at a civilised dinner party carrying a megaphone, and sets about using it to dominate the conversation. He writes:

“Megaphone guy is a storyteller, but his stories are not so good. Or rather, his stories are limited. His stories have not had time to gestate – they go out too fast and to too broad an audience.

“Storytelling is a language rich enterprise, but megaphone guy does not have time to generate powerful language. The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathise with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them – if the story-telling is good enough – we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.

“If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it has come out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine these other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible.

“In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: ‘Tell us,’ we say in effect, ‘as much truth as you can, while still making money.’ This is not the same as asking: ‘Tell us the truth.’”

That final line strikes at the heart of the problem of conflict of interest and its impact on ethical journalism in contemporary Britain. A commercial imperative has superseded the journalistic one, and corrupted the process of news-gathering and dissemination.

But, first let us establish what precisely we even mean by the word journalism. The dictionary definition limits itself to “the activity or profession of writing for newspapers or magazines”, which is far from exhaustive. The following definition, from Professor Brian Cathcart of Kingston University, is a far more robust effort: “Journalism is an activity that is demonstrably valuable to society. It tells us what is new, important and interesting in public life, it holds authority to account, it promotes informed debate, it entertains and enlightens.”

It is useful, then, to look at the characteristics of this ethical definition of journalism provided by Professor Cathcart and contrast it with today’s newsroom environment.

First, journalism tells us what is new…

A great deal of what passes as news in both print and other media in the UK is, far from being new, merely a regurgitation of other news sources. It has long been a practice among newspapers to cannibalise stories from each other (usually without attribution) when the first print editions arrive on news desks around midnight.

Now, in the digital era, individual news organisations know their ownership of a particular story will last only until the moment it is published online. It could be argued that this ‘plagiarism’ is a form of dishonesty/corruption or in fact just a reality of today’s relentless news cycle, but what is undeniable is that the level of checks applied to scrutinise the veracity of cannibalised stories is extremely low; a story having appeared in one publication is in and of itself a verification of its truth and accuracy. The role of many journalists is changing from uncovering something new for their audience, to re-packaging second-hand content.

One effect of this regurgitation process is that what is considered ‘newsworthy’ becomes narrow and insular, a series of pre-defined narratives and well-worn stereotypes that journalists are expected to follow, rather than challenge. Such implicit assumptions may include ‘multiculturalism is a problem’, ‘the National Health Service is inefficient’, ‘teachers are failing pupils’ and ‘Islam is dangerous’. These assumptions dictate how stories are framed, and to break away from this framework – to attempt something new – is difficult. Such work may be considered sub-standard, or poorly conceived, and fail to make it in to print.

It is also hard to deny that the increase in the instances of cannibalisation comes from commercial pressures not to be ‘left behind’ on any story, out of fear of readers taking their custom to another publication, which, particularly among mass market papers, seems to carry more currency than supplying readers with original, carefully conceived journalism.

This phenomenon has been described under the moniker of “churnalism”, by journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Whilst partly referring to journalists’ plagarising from one another, Davies is also referring to the insidious influence of Public Relations on contemporary journalism in Britain. A study by the Media Standards Trust found that more than half of news contains some form of public relations material. Far from finding new, fresh information, journalists are increasingly turning to pre-filtered, agenda-rich sources to fill their pages.

There are now more public relations professionals in the UK than journalists, and it is a trend that is getting worse, not better. Better pay and opportunities in the public relations industry is seeing a talent drift away from journalism as a profession, which has serious implications for public accountability, but it also forges ever-closer links between the two industries.

One journalist working at a leading UK tabloid and speaking under the condition of anonymity, told me: “I probably have more friends that are PRs than are journalists – or are journalists now, at least. Obviously, you want to help them where you can by getting a mention for their clients etc. in the paper. In return, you’ll get a nice slap up dinner, a bottle of champagne or something.

“I wouldn’t say that it would stop me writing a negative story about their clients if one fell in my lap, but it’s human nature not to want to make your friend’s life harder, so that probably has some influence upon me.

“Accepting gifts in return for coverage is not something that is hidden away; it is openly discussed. In fact it’s almost a competition for who can get the best freebies. The further up the newsroom ladder you are, the better freebies you can usually get. I know editors who haven’t paid for a holiday in years.”

This account certainly mirrors my own experience of working at the tabloid end of the newspaper market. The vast majority of the emails I received every day were from PR companies even to build relationships based on the notion of securing positive coverage for their clients in return for gifts.

Secondly, journalism holds power to account …

… with the exception of the Guardian, which is managed by the Scott Trust, Britain’s national press is proprietorially owned – 70 percent or so by politically conservative billionaires. Whilst journalism and journalists like to consider their profession anti-establishment, it is difficult to level this with the fact that most newspaper owners are very much part of the establishment. They have a vested interest in the status quo and in promoting – or at the very least treating uncritically – political policies which suit their business interests, and free market capitalism in general (after all, it is a system under which they are doing rather well).

Whilst much newsprint is dedicated to the money defrauded from the taxpayer by ‘benefit scroungers’, far less column inches can be found on the topic of tax avoidance by wealthy individuals and corporations. Nearly every newspaper proprietor has been accused of such practices, and it is hard not to conclude that this influences this imbalance.

It feels almost trite to say, but there is an innate conflict of interest between being a wealthy, powerful newspaper proprietor when the role of your newspaper(s) is to hold the powerful to account. The most obvious example is Rupert Murdoch, who has for decades traded business and political influence for favourable coverage.

A glance at his titles such as the Sun and Times in recent years reveals a wealth of current and former politicians working as columnists and leader writers: former home secretary David Blunkett, former Conservative MP Louise Mensch, ex-Metropolitan police chief John Yates… the list goes on (the Telegraph’s Barclays brothers, the Mail’s Lord Rothermere, among others, are little better, counting London Mayor Boris Johnson and the wife of senior Tory minister Michael Gove amongst their employees).

This ‘revolving door’ between the upper echelons of politics, business and journalism does not suggest the holding of power to account but the subtle corruption of mutual kinship, of favours traded and bought amongst a social elite.These men (because they’re always men) own newspapers as a business – the business of making money and the business of increasing their power, and when the public interest implicit in the practice of journalism comes in to conflict with the self-interest of capitalism it is the latter which today too often prevails.

If any newspaper group embodied this problem most blatantly it would be Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell, publisher of titles including the Daily Star and Daily Express and owner of TV Channel 5. Television shows are frequently promoted on the front page under the guise of news stories, a type of synergistic cross-promotion that may increase the profits of his business, but utterly degrades the practice of journalism. A current Daily Star journalist (whose words certainly echo my experience of working for the title) spoke to me anonymously about this self-promotion masquerading as journalism.

He said of reality TV show Big Brother: “Whenever a new series is on Channel 5 it would take a new World War for that not to be splashed on the front page. It could perhaps be forgiven if it was just one day but we’re talking for weeks on end, the banal behaviour of minor celebrities on a television show is treated as if it is the most important thing in the world.

“When there’s nothing interesting to say about their behaviour it is basically fabricated. Who’s going to complain if you own the TV show and the newspaper confecting stories about it? The losers are the journalists forced to write it and the readers being fed nonsense”.

It is not just the tabloid press that allows the commercial to encroach upon the editorial. A recent report in Private Eye magazine recounted how a review for Hollywood movie Despicable Me 2 was given two stars by the Daily Telegraph journalist tasked with watching it. That was until the Executive Director of Telegraph Media Group insisted the film was given an extra star in case the scathing review jeopardised a lucrative advertising deal with the film’s producers, Universal Studios. The link between advertising spend in print by large corporations and positive coverage of said corporations is increasingly pervasive across Fleet Street, and a blatant commercial corruption of journalistic integrity.

There is also the rise of the advertorial in print media. Advertisers, realising that their adverts are more effective if not recognised as adverts by consumers, have, with collusion of the commercial departments of newspapers, been allowed to place content which appears to all but the closest observer to be part of a newspaper’s own editorial content.

In some instances it is even a one of the newspaper’s own journalists tasked with penning the advertorial. It is a practice that demands a higher ad rate than a standard advert, and so is an attractive commercial proposition.

The practice of special sponsored supplements is also on the rise. For example, the Telegraph publishes a Russia Beyond the Headlines supplement paid for by the Government of Vladimir Putin (for a reported 40,000 pounds an issue) and The Times has printed a number of supplements from the banking group Santander.

Of course, journalism does criticise powerful institutions such as big business and government, but, I would argue, this is far too often a by-product of one powerful institution flexing its muscles against another for self-interested ideological or commercial reasons. Negative coverage of, say, the BBC as bloated, left-leaning and increasingly debased fits this profile. Some of the stories may have justifiably shone a light on a public service body, but the light was primarily pointing in the BBC’s direction because the likes of News International, Associated Newspapers and Northern & Shell have a commercial interest in undermining a powerful rival.

Thirdly, journalism promotes informed debate…

In his book The Establishment, journalist Owen Jones quotes separate YouGov and Ipsos MORI polls which paint a startling picture of public ignorance in Britain. Amongst those surveyed, 27 percent believed social security is claimed fraudulently, whilst the true figure is 0.7 percent. They also believed 41percent of social security goes to unemployed people, whilst the true figure is just 3 percent. The rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK was perceived to be 25 times higher than the true statistics, the proportion of the population identifying as Muslim was estimated at 24 percent when the true figure is more like 5 percent. This is just a snapshot of the types of misinformed opinions commonly held.

How, with the wealth of news platforms, is public opinion so out of step with reality? How is journalism failing so badly in its role as the great informer of the public? Perhaps because, I would argue, this vital duty to inform has been subjugated to the bottom of the priority list. In one of the opening statements of the country’s Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, Jonathan Caplin, lead counsel for Associated Newspapers (the publisher of titles such as the Daily Mail) inadvertently lifted the lid during his opening statement.

“Our Aim”, he said, “is to entertain – to engage the reader.” It is a telling choice of words. Because to entertain and to inform are not necessarily easy bedfellows. That is not to say the two cannot exist together, but it is a more time and resource intensive process to take the occasionally bland realities of life and make them sing to a reader or viewer.

Time and resources are two things today’s journalist is often deprived of. Instead, the pressure to create an eye-catching story and put a sensationalist spin on the facts at hand takes precedence. The traditional divide between news and comment is a thing of the past. The journalist’s job is to make the story adhere to the newspaper’s view on an issue. In recent years Britain’s broadly anti-European press have accused the European Union of wanting to ban kilts, curries, charity shops, the British Army and lorry drivers, to name but a few. None of these, needless to say, came to pass.

We return again to this notion of pre-defined narratives and well-worn stereotypes; to edit the facts at hand in a manner that makes immigration appear out-of-control or Islam to be eroding ‘traditional’ British culture or people’s hard-earned taxes supporting a huge underclass of feckless scroungers enjoying a life on benefits makes, put simply, a better story.

When ‘journalism as entertainment’ becomes a dominant ethos, as it has across much of British journalism, the driving force is to provoke an emotion, and emotions provoked are, in this case, overwhelmingly negative: fear, anger and hatred. This is intrinsically linked to commercial pressures – in an age saturated by ‘new media’ in the form of video games, thousands of TV channels and fast internet connections, people have a huge amount of choice. Beside their rivals newspapers tend to look rather dull and dated.

Bigger headlines, more scandal, more intimate revelations, are all tools of trying to compete with their naturally flashier media cousins. With readers leaving in droves, editors are desperate to pander to their perceived prejudices as a means of keeping their custom. It is a desperate downward spiral.

The pervasive influence of celebrity culture in society has been exploited for commercial ends within the news industry, as a form of cheap, easily accessible filler for their pages. A study by the Media Standards Trust found that between 1979 and 2009 the percentage of print dedicated to foreign news events had declined from 20 percent to 11 percent. In the five years since then I would hazard that the situation has deteriorated even further, and that this decline is largely linked to the rise of celebrity content, once limited to a single gossip column but now often dominating the front pages.

Foreign news is the first to be pushed out to make room for the trivial, and a lack of understanding about the world beyond our shores reinforces insular values and discourages understanding among voters. The fact is, however, that as a commercial strategy, focusing news resources on showbiz content is effective.

The Daily Mail’s MailOnline website has established itself as the biggest news website in the world off the back of a right-hand sidebar of celebrity stories, most of them amounting to little more than ‘celebrity X is pictured walking down the street’, ‘celebrity Y is pictured eating lunch’.

Sadly, for young reporters entering the industry, showbiz journalism is one of the few viable options available to them – hardly an arena to hone serious journalistic skills. It comes down to cold economic calculations: it is cheaper to have a reporter spend the day chained to their desk, churning out copy to write around celebrity pictures, than it is to allow them to investigate a genuine public interest story, which may take days or weeks and eventually amount to nothing.

Though it is apparent from discussions with working journalists that increas power on the commercial side of newsrooms is a troubling trend, it is difficult for reporters to push back against what many regard as a corruption of the journalistic profession. As previously mentioned, the job market is contracting, leaving many more reporters than there are jobs.

In August 2014, Northern & Shell announced plans to cull 25 percent of their editorial staff, just two years after similar cuts were imposed (and all whilst the company was boasting profits in the multi-millions). Those reporters lucky enough to be in full-time roles are desperate to hang onto them, which naturally discourages dissent.

Many reporters who are receiving work are doing so on short-term, casual contracts that can be terminated at any time, again making speaking up an unwise career move. Compounded by the declining power of journalism unions, the commercial operation of the news business is able to dominate editorial content. This culture of silence among journalists as their profession is dismantled around them was laid bare at the Leveson Inquiry. Given a once-in-a-generation chance to speak out against the pressures heaped upon them, only a few chose to do so, and for the most part anonymously.

It is also unfair to ignore the pressure news organisations are under to survive, and this makes them increasingly susceptible to the lure of corporate money. It has been argued to me, not wholly unconvincingly, that a press in the thrall of corporate interest is better than no press at all. But a press that is financially sustainable and not a mouthpiece for big business must still be the goal of efforts for a better journalistic eco-system.

A starting point for fighting back against the intrusion of corporate influence within journalism is an ownership cap, with the 15 percent limit suggested by the Media Reform Coalition seeming a broadly sensible level. There seems only a tepid appetite among too-limited a selection of MPs to see this pass into law in the near future, but it is, in the medium term, an achievable aim.

Main image: “Fleet Street” by Conny Liegl is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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