The first edition of British Journalism Review was released in 1989. Its editorial, ‘Why are we here?’ was a scathing account of the state of journalism in the UK. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that it could easily have been written yesterday:
Anyone who thinks seriously about the state of the media in 1989 must notice a great discrepancy between general statements and the actual world to which they are supposed to apply. Freedom of the press is uttered as a cliche, and perhaps honoured as an aspiration, but does not appear to be a condition which the nation as a whole fights tigerishly to defend. Journalists and editors, in any medium, are rarely if ever respected as heroes of the people. Newspapers and television companies feel themselves to be getting less not more free. The famous axiom continues to be intoned, but the activity it describes is dominated by interlocking crises: a crisis of standards, a crisis of credibility, a crisis of freedom itself.
Whatever one’s definition, the business is now subject to a contagious outbreak of squalid, banal, lazy and cowardly journalism […] [J]ournalism cannot escape the driving force of Gresham’s law: the bad will drive out the good … or at least reduce it to the margin of life, if the only objective is commercial profit.
I recently upset a few journalists on Twitter by repeating these sentiments. The context was whether Trump was right to consider removing journalists from the White House.
We should start with the intuition that I’m disputing. In order for democracy to function, you need a well-informed electorate. The role of the journalist is to hold the powerful to account. A free-press can, without fear or favour, pursue the truth, uncovering corruption, and communicating policy debates.
According to this account, journalism is essential to democracy.
My argument is that this intuition is inconsistent with the evidence. The selection of what gets covered in the Press is not an ideologically neutral question, nor is how the issue is covered. Frankly, a lot of policy debate is not communicated in the Press because it’s boring, leaving important decisions to be made in meeting rooms around Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney, behind closed doors and with minimal public scrutiny. It’s not uncommon for it to be a bargaining chip of interest groups: talk and negotiate with us privately, or we will make a big stink in the media about it.
Journalists routinely get stories wrong (or, at the very least, ‘not quite right’), but the people in the best position to tell them that they’re wrong are often the same people with the incentive to dispute accurate stories. For this reason, three-quarters of any newspaper you pick up isn’t full of retractions, corrections, and clarifications. But it seems to be the journalists who are the only people who think everything they publish is accurate. The public has long known that you ‘can’t believe everything you read’. Amongst the politically engaged, this manifests as rather a tired kind of cynicism. But amongst the politically disengaged, it manifests as a fertile ground for something like conspiracy theories. The result for both is a lack of public support for journalism, especially when it’s under attack from governments.
Back to the British Journalism Review:
Perhaps the greatest weakness of British journalism, when we compare it with the journalism of many other European countries, as well as with some of the best of American journalism, has been its lack of a reflective and analytical culture. And its lack of courage. That in itself may say more about the British education system, and our social development in general, than it does about journalism in particular.
I’m not sure this is true of American journalism any more. BJR discusses what makes a journalist in these terms:
Journalists are drawn into the business rather than systematically trained and recruited. They don’t even require basic training provided they are quick and street-wise. They take no oath of fidelity to a moral or ethical code as doctors do. Nor is there any objective measure of skill as there would be for a bricklayer or a carpenter. It is mainly down to chance and opportunity, luck or habit.
It is unclear, but it feels like the BJR is criticising this view, but it is not clear how. It definitely thinks the views of the Press Association are wrong when they say:
We are in the business to write stories to sell newspapers. I think we are part of the entertainment industry at the down-market end. We do it for the money. And if that serves the public at the end of the day – well, that’s a bonus.
But the BJR struggles (in this piece at least) to structure a critique. What, exactly, is it criticising? The quality of journalism? By what standard? The necessity of good journalism? To whom and why?
We can do a bit better.
The debate facing contemporary journalism is, coincidentally, a similar debate facing academia. In academia, the pressing question is how universities demonstrate the impact of their work. Why does the public fund universities? How do we engage the broader community in the work of universities? How do we make sure the best Australian research ends up in people’s living rooms?
The Australian taxpayer subsidises journalism in a lot of ways. A number of new media outlets pay practically no tax in Australia, and some have trusts with not for profit status to support their activities. But the taxpayer also provides journalists with privileged access to politicians. The taxpayer also provides journalists with a handful of statutory protections, and carve out in laws that apply to everybody else in the community. The question can therefore be framed: what does the taxpayer get in return?
At the moment, the answer seems to be profits and influence for an elite few. Murdoch, for example, runs his newspapers at a tremendous loss simply for the influence it buys. But why are we funding his influence?
We can have the not unreasonable discussion about whether or not the sort of journalism we want is compatible with our political and economic environment. Does the profit motive destroy the promise of Journalism with a capital ‘J’? But if it’s incompatible, how should we pay for Journalism? Should we instead concede that journalism is just another form of entertainment and treat it as such, clearing the way for something else to fill the knowledge gap in democracy? Does the rhetoric about journalism prevent that something else from thriving?
My final point on this is maybe we can read BJR‘s ‘education’ comment a different way. I once worked in a policy unit that brought together a group of people with radically different backgrounds in order to deal with a major problem. That diversity meant that, although we were all conversant in basic policy work, we could also bring to the table additional expertise (or know where the blind spots were and what additional knowledge we would need). I am often surprised by the lack of diversity amongst journalists. Journalists writing about legal issues who have utterly no background in law is a common occurrence, resulting in stories that are utterly incoherent. But it is surprising that there are so many political journalists who haven’t ever worked in public policy. The result is a narrowness of journalism, with journalists incapable of working out if the lobby group feeding them information is feeding them something useful. Talk to a journalist about this and you’ll get the hubristic: ‘Ah, yes. We take what they say with a grain of salt and then check it against other sources.’ But this is very commonly more of a bias confirmation process, especially when the stakes are fairly mediocre.
Long story short: maybe we just teach journalists badly. We feed them a steady diet of profession-affirming ideological affirmations (Mark Pearson’s book, The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law, is a good example of this), and then send them out in the world to report on economic issues today, social issues yesterday, and legal issues tomorrow. Can media companies afford expertise in a particular area? Can media companies afford journalists capable of anything more than sophomoric political critique? Is there a responsibility to have structures in place so that journalists — both affiliated with particular mastheads and freelance — are able to specialise in communicating particular topics? Should, say, the National Security College be running MOOCs for journalists writing about national security?
The key message from the BJR is not to be found in what it says, but in when it said it. It was written in 1989 and we still haven’t got our head around the problems noted. Perhaps this means that journalism has always been bad and people contextualise the current as being the most degenerate time ever; or maybe it means that there hasn’t been a lot of development in politics and the media since the 1990s. My money is probably on the latter, but it is still a useful starting point for working out what it means when we criticise or defend journalism, and what it is that we intuit to be the ideal political participation.