Real Journalism After Leveson: how do we achieve it?

By Media Reform Coalition / Monday June 10, 2013 Read More
This is a talk given by Angela Phillips at an event called ‘After Leveson: is citizen journalism the answer?’ The event was held by Citizen Journalism Educational Trust on Saturday 8 June. Angela is our Ethics Chair and the editor-in-chief of Goldsmiths-based London news website EastLondonLines. Can we start by getting rid of the title: Citizen Journalism? Journalists are usually citizens. I am not too keen on the term ‘blogger’ either. Bloggers are people who use a particular form of technology to write stuff. People who write stuff are not necessarily journalists:
  • They might be grannies writing a news update for the family.
  • They might be campaigners putting seriously important stuff in the public domain.
  • They might be people with opinions who want you to hear what they think.
  • They might also be journalists.
I am interested in journalists and in journalism.  I think there are lots of different kinds of journalists too but one thing that should set them apart is that they try to find things out rather than simply telling us what they think. This is how Occupy Gezi News tries to distinguish itself:

 “the website refrains from publishing information before confirming with eyewitnesses and only publishes first-hand information as a principle.”

And they are trying to counteract  this:

“People were usually left scrambling through hundreds of tweets, drowning in conflicting accounts with no serious fact-checking and no way of holding anyone to account. Particularly when the protests, and police violence, have spread to other cities than Istanbul, people have felt the urgent need for effective media organizations that report objectively from the ground.”

Now, I have issues with the use of the word ‘objectively’ in this blog post, because clearly the protesters are partisan. They are participants in the protests, campaigners. But I welcome the fact that they see the importance of reporting rather than merely emoting and that they recognise the need for journalism. The author of this post, Burcu Baykurt, says:

“While the rising popularity of alternative media is promising, what Turkey needs is a reinvigoration of its media landscape to truly serve the public good and report in the public interest.”

That is of course what we all need, and it is what I believe the Leveson Inquiry has provided a very small step towards.  So let’s start by looking at our own landscape. Leveson’s first mission was to expose it to public scrutiny and that he did with merciless efficiency. But fundamentally what was being aired was the dirty laundry of a particularly cynical brand of highly competitive tabloid journalism. It demonstrated on the one hand the sycophantic relationship between Government and the Murdoch press in particular.  But it also demonstrated a total lack of interest in public interest journalism. For the News of the World public interest means what the public is interested in and – if they want to know who ‘their’ footballers are having sex with then the NOTW will find out and smugly congratulate itself for upholding moral standards. In the words of  ex-NOTW reporter, Paul McMullan:
“Circulation defines the public interest. You have to appeal to what the reader wants – this is what the people of Britain want. I was simply serving their need…”
Well, pornography serves a need for some people, but that doesn’t give it a right to any kind of special protection. Most of the other kind of journalism – the journalism that serves democracy – did pretty well out of the Inquiry. We heard from people who were genuinely interested in exposing abuses of power. This is the kind of journalism that does deserve protection and it matters very little where it takes place, or indeed even whether the people who do it are paid. Leveson understood this, which is why he wanted to provide a greater measure of protection for public interest journalism. But he wanted it to be balanced by greater protections for ordinary people who may find themselves at the mercy of the NOTW. Media Reform campaigns for just such an arrangement: to provide easy access to a redress – usually a right of reply  –  for people who have been wronged by the media. This is what elicited howls of rage from the tabloid press. They pretended that it was about upholding press freedom but in fact it was all about upholding their right to peer through windows on your behalf. Yet Media Reform also campaigned for  protection from vexatious litigation for journalism that could be judged to be “in the public interest”. Responsible news organisations, of any size, should have no difficulty in judging whether they have acted unfairly or ‘in the public interest’ and should have not trouble providing a right of reply without needing any kind of legal machinery to oversee it. Of course there will be people who feel unreasonably outraged by what has been said about them. If news organisations have procedures in place for dealing with such outrage they really have no reason to worry.  We have been running EastLondonLines for 4 years now and with an audience of 40-50,000 a month we have had our fair share of outrage. We publish simple instructions for complainants, and always publish their comments unless they fall outside our criteria. We would normally publish a response, even if we feel it is unreasonable, because we know that the author of the post is always in the dominant position compared to the respondent – we don’t fear criticism, we welcome it as part of a dialogue. We truly believe that journalism will be strengthened, not undermined, by a small measure of humility. It is worth noting that The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times appear to agree on that.  I think these publications are rather more on the side of real journalism than are the Sun, The Express and the Daily Mail. We do not yet know whether the combined might of the tabloid press will succeed in crushing reform. That may well still happen. If they fail (and I hope they do fail) a new form of regulation should hold no terrors for anyone who cares about real journalism.  Small online publications will, in any case, be exempted (if they wish to be) from the new arrangements – though we personally would like to see an arrangement that makes it possible for even the smallest news blogs to join in.  We believe that the benefits of protection from libel litigation offered to responsible journalism will, in the end, outweigh any fears that small publications may feel about being exposed to additional costs. For everyone else, greater accountability can only be a good thing. It will not, as its enemies protest, kill off investigative journalism (unless you mean investigations of people’s sleeping arrangements). Combined with the amendments to the Defamation Bill, responsible investigative journalism will have greater protection than ever before. Real journalism will only be strengthened by Leveson. The big issue for all of us is how it will, in future, be paid for.   The alternative press is alive and kicking (as it has always been) but good journalism cannot easily be produced as a hobby. It needs time, and time costs money. The enemy of good journalism is not Leveson, it is the kind of irresponsible management that moves into journalism by borrowing huge sums of money. Local journalists are working harder and harder to pay off those debts. Real journalism needs new, independent news companies, prepared to work with a low rate of return. It needs job subsidies and new forms of ownership. Real journalism is a job that has to be paid for.  The most acute problem of the next few years will be finding out how to do that.

Angela Phillips is the Ethics Chair of Media Reform and a Reader in Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London.