Journalism vs big vested interests


Can we follow our career passions with strong principles but without ‘selling out’ to big vested interests?

I’ve titled this blogpost as such because it stems from a number of conversations I’ve had with journalists and people working in and around the field of corporate communications. But it could equally apply to any other profession whose services are required by large and often wealthy organisations and institutions. This is also being written in advance of the vote in the House of Commons on Leveson – the one that has split the Coalition.

Journalism – teasing out the difference between ‘a journalist’ and ‘the corporate & print media’

The debate around journalism in the context of Leveson has become extremely muddied. Even some of the brightest minds are split on what should happen. All too often the interests of journalists have been conflated with the interests of the corporate and the print media. These are not necessarily the same thing. It may be in the interests of the media corporation to cut costs by reducing salaries, but that isn’t in the interest of the journalist. It may be in the interests of the media corporation to ‘outsource’ & work on a ‘journalists as freelancers’ model, but that screws things up as far as job security for journalists goes.

There are then things around which lines do you cross and which ones don’t you. This is something that hit the media pages of the newspapers when Rich Peppiatt resigned from Desmond’s stable. It’s led to something of a new career for Peppiatt, who is currently touring the country and is often found commentating on all things newspapers. (One of his longer talks with Merseyside Skeptics on his time as a tabloid journalist can be found here). I’m also learning a fair bit from Fleet Street Fox’s diaries too. Having met her recently, there’s something I find strangely fascinating about reading people that I have met in their own words. In particular compared to autobiographies (I’m a historian by heart – I’ve read a few), there’s something much more raw and real about what Foxy went through.

“Yeah – Pooffles, you wanna be careful about talking to journalists – you don’t know which one will put you in the middle of a firestorm”

So a number of people have told me. But then this is sort of a reflection of where the media and journalists are currently held in the public’s esteem. Are they one and the same? No. Does the employer hold more of the power and influence than the latter? Undoubtedly yes. This perhaps was one of the things that Leveson, to a greater or lesser extent was trying to unpick. Just as Robert Jay was trying to tease out who bore what responsibility for things ranging from bad morals to acts of high crime, those at the top of the media corporations were trying to make the case that it wasn’t their fault or that they had no knowledge of what was going on. In the case of News International, the Commons Culture Select Committee accused senior executives of wilful blindness. Carl Bernstein (who, along with Bob Woodward uncovered Watergate that brought down President Nixon in the 1970s) had this to say.

“But Pooffles, every idealistic middle class luvvie and their pet poodle can’t be a guardian journalist. There wouldn’t be anyone to read their stuff!”

That’s not really the point. That assumes that the only worthwhile journalism comes from a liberal-left perspective. Remember that it was The Telegraph that broke the expenses scandal. Even though it was outbid by a tabloid, the source chose to go to The Telegraph because it agreed to treat all politicians to the same standard, rather than favouring or going after one party over others.

The ongoing problem is trying to make good journalism – and good journalists – make a living in an era where it is ever so easy to self-publish at almost zero cost. (The things we take for free when you unpick them do cost someone something). It goes beyond newspapers. Traditional journals too are struggling – especially ones that have previously benefited from longstanding patronage. Think of those journals and magazines that rely on public sector subscription. This for me is one of the untouched areas of the move towards digital by default publishing: What will happen to all of those niche publications and those that work for them? It’s not just the newspapers.

The decline of journalists and the growth of PR & corporate communications

Some, having made a name for themselves in the mainstream media have moved over to ‘the other side’ – in the world of corporate communications. There are a number of examples. Adam Mynott spent years at the BBC before ending up as the director of media for G4S. (Think how familiar broadcast journalists would have been seeing his name as the media contact when this broke). Gutto Hari moved from the BBC to work for Boris Johnson, Under Labour’s tenure, George Eykyn, once of the BBC took over as Director of Communications for the Department for Communities and Local Government. Recall that with it’s predecessor department, former BBC Moscow correspondent Martin Sixsmith also ended up there. Finally there’s Alistair Campbell who was at The Mirror before becoming Blair’s director of communications.

While it’s up to individuals to choose what career path they want to go down, the wider trend (looking at US data) of the growth in PR vis-a-vis journalists is a cause for concern – in particular for both democracy and political discourse.

the ratio of PR people to journalists in the U.S. rose from 1.2-1 in 1980 to 4-1 in 2010

The reason being that wealthy interests with connections to the media are much more able to influence not just how news is presented but also whether it gets into the news in the first place. Certainly the PR world is aware all is not well with how their profession is seen in the eyes of the public.

Freedom isn’t free – and neither is good journalism

It’s easy to take both for granted, but both require the vigilance and input of lots of people. And that has a cost, whether a financial one or an opportunity cost of time spent doing other things.

Leveson certainly did not have all of the answers. For a start, the inquiry hardly touched on the internet, social and digital media. Newspapers expanding into all things digital are producing digital videos in the format of TV news reports, blurring the line between the highly regulated TV journalism and the much more loosely regulated newspaper journalism. Where do you draw the line?

The wider issue – using your professional skills in a manner that earns a living but at the same time is on the side of the people, not a powerful corporate interest.

This is a theme that is regularly cropping up in conversations I’m having with people across a series of professions. In Rich Peppiatt’s case it was him wanting to use his journalism skills not to incite a divide in our communities but for something more positive. I could point out a number of horrible building developments in Cambridge that make me think “What were the architects and planners thinking of?” – throwing together bland box-like developments that you see all over the place rather than creating something that is in harmony with the city. Even the army of young interns and graduates buzzing around Westminster have mentioned on more than one occasion how they would like to be doing what they do but for a charity or for an organisation working for the social good rather than a multinational corporation.

We then come to the overall question, which is this:

How have we got to a place where our social and economic systems mean that too many people are unable to use their professional skills for the social good?

I’ll also leave you with the question of ‘how do we get out of this place?’

On journalism in general (i.e. not just newspapers), can such a new model of journalism provide both the stability of a career while at the same time allowing for proper redress when things go wrong? At a more focussed level, how do we as a society go about funding the essential investigative journalism that requires a huge investment in time and resources, that carries with it the risk that such investigations may not uncover anything and/or may not lead to the ‘splash’ that generates the extra sales?


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