I suspect that “Hack” is an irregular verb.
· I investigate,
· You hire private eyes (in the public interest of course),
· He hacks.
Journalists are very keen to say – We abide by the code – We do not hack – We do not do this sort of thing.
I like most of the journalists that I know. They are people who find the world deeply interesting. They try to make sense of it and they try to convey what they see to other people. All of these things are admirable.
I deeply dislike anything in the way of a witch hunt, and I do not like that at present many journalists will feel threatened by the crisis that is hitting their profession. It is of course nothing like as bad for the majority of them as it was for the MPs when their turn of being in an unwelcome spotlight came two years ago. The journalists have the advantage that they can tell things their way, and a pretty good chance of making themselves heard, a privilege that was completely unavailable to the MPs who were attacked without mercy by the press.
However I do not accept the comfortable view held by many journalists, that the state of journalism is fine, there are just a few bad apples, criminals who should bear the full penalty of the law.
If we look at what the some elements of the press produces, sensationalism, speculation, exaggeration, celebrity focused gossip, the prejudging of people accused of a crime, the details of murders, tragedies, scandals, the demonization of individuals and of different sectors of the community, then we are forced to see that all is not well.
If we look at the many burning issues that the papers raise but do not really help us to grasp: the future of pensions, jobs for young people, the state of our care services, tax avoidance, fuel poverty to name a few, it is right to expect that the press could do so much more.
If we look at the way in which papers drive a wedge between people who we elect to try and solve these problems for us then we could wish for a different and more productive ways for the press to promote better communication.
It is not all well. The press needs to see this. It needs to accept that this is a moment where a change is both possible and necessary.
The press would be happier if the focus remains on the extreme horror of the Milly Dowler case. This would be a wasted opportunity.
I have spent much of the last 6 months sitting listening to hearings of the Stafford Hospital inquiry. The common perception , which has been fostered by some rather seriously flawed reporting, is that Stafford is unique, and that therefore other hospitals do not have much to learn from the matter. This is a shame. Most of what we are finding by close scrutiny of the Stafford Hospital case actually shows that the problems that did exist here were not spotted because they are not in any way as extreme as they have been portrayed. There were a series of individual problems which are on the spectrum which takes in the whole of the NHS. The NHS has a lot to learn, but because the press has not yet been able to see this clearly the NHS does not yet recognise this.
There is an analogy with the News of the world and the press. There are aspects of what was happening with the NOTW and NI which are pretty unusual, and perhaps unique, in particular the behaviours for which Vince Cable has just coined the phrase “heavy lobbying”, and the uncomfortably close relationship with the MET, but there are other aspects of questionable ways of getting a story, or failures to check accuracy which we can find throughout the press. The behaviour is not an aberration, but something on the edge of a broad spectrum of behaviour which is common to many other papers and journalists too.
So what is to be done about it?
If we stay with the perception of isolated extreme behaviour the temptation is to go after the individual journalists that went too far, and throw the book at them, sackings, trials, prison sentences. But if it is part of a spectrum, part of a culture in which bad practice thrives and the best practice struggles, then a different approach is needed. The curing of this widespread insidious infection has to come from within the body of the journalistic profession. Journalists have to play an active part in the healing process.
A number of people are suggesting some form of amnesty for journalists; a window of opportunity for them to come forward and declare the things that they feel have been wrong, an opportunity to openly analyse and to assist with the process of devising good rules, good monitoring processes and imagining a better press.
The urging for this amnesty is coming from a range of different people, who may have different, and perhaps conflicting reasons for suggesting it. I suggest it because I value openness and I hate witch hunts, it is possible that other people are suggesting it to deflect attention from the Murdoch press and to spread blame more widely. I am not sure if an amnesty is something that journalists would welcome, or if it should be done. I would like to hear other people’s views on this.
The ground rules that have governed the press are the “editor’s code” this is what it says. It is a code that is devised by editors, and it is there to help protect editors. If their journalists infringe the code then that is cause for dismissal. If they remain within the code then this is protection from being sued by people who object to their coverage. This is all good for the interests of the editors and proprietors.
Does this code serve the public well? Does it serve the interests of principled good journalists who want to follow the highest standards of the profession? How could or should it be improved?
All of this will come under close scrutiny as the Leverson inquiry takes shape. I want to see journalists working with the public to devise rules that are for the good of the public as a whole.
Going after the journalists who can be seen to have done wrong is something that will appeal to the “sleuth” in many journalists, and it could run and run. Personally I do not see this as a productive process. A great deal of real harm has been done to many people by the press over many years. Maybe now what we need is not so much retribution as a truth and reconciliation process.
What do other people think about an amnesty where journalists can own up to bad practice, followed by a period of generous and prominent apologies to those have been harmed over the years? This should be coupled by the full co-operation of the journalists in the devising of a code where the primary purpose is to protect the public, to foster the public good, and to protect journalists from undue pressure.
Let me know what you think about this. Does there need to be a wider survey to canvass opinion?