Has serious journalism lost the plot?

What’s journalism for? It’s a rather pompous question, to which you’ll normally get a rather pompous answer. Lord Reith’s three-word summary of the BBC’s purpose – educate, inform, entertain – is as relevant as ever. As is the oft-quoted maxim from Mr Dooley, a fictional Irish pub landlord in Chicago, invented by American journalist Finley Peter Dunne around the turn of the last century: ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’

Peter Oborne’s recent departure from The Daily Telegraph has triggered some serious questions about whether Britain’s leading media organisations are living up to either Lord Reith’s or Mr Dooley’s injunctions. The Telegraph is of course in the spotlight but it would be foolish to assume that it’s the only place to have cut corners and compromised its journalistic integrity in the face of grim commercial realities. Whether you look at the craven populism of The Daily Mail or the undoubted influence of Rupert Murdoch over the editorial direction of the papers he owns, it’s patently absurd to argue that there’s anything new about the breach in the wall that’s supposed to divide editorial from commercial at a newspaper. As the spread of online journalism continues to fragment audiences and undermine traditional, print-based business models, the pressure on that wall from the commercial side will only increase. Indeed, there are those who would argue that in order for journalism to do its job properly it needs to be shielded from market forces.

But is Lord Reith’s beloved, publicly-subsidised BBC faring any better? Lately I’ve taken to waking up to Radio 4’s Today programme – which is indisputably one of the BBC’s most respected bits of serious news programming. And I have to say, hearing John Humphrys purring away is a significantly more civilised way to start the day than the relentless tinkling of the alarm on my BlackBerry. That said, the more I listen to it, the less I like the Today programme’s brand of journalism.

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The Master of my old college (St Peter’s, Oxford), Mark Damazer, is a former controller of Radio 4. I remember him on several occasions being asked for his assessment of the institution he left behind to join St Peter’s. Understandably, he was fiercely proud of the consistent quality of Radio 4’s output and the integrity of the BBC’s journalism. But I did, on a few occasions, hear him wonder out loud whether Radio 4 – and the Today programme in particular – was a little too prone to gloominess. So often the Today programme specialises in wall-to-wall, sombre reporting of child abuse cases, political corruption scandals, financial crises, economic woes and terrorist threats that it’s a miracle that more of its everyday listeners don’t end up in rehab for severe depression.

In the Today programme’s defence, it’s not their fault that so many of the biggest stories of our age are negative ones. What bothers me more than their choice of stories is the relentless application of tired narratives and a uniform journalistic style that is distinctly limited.

Take one example from last week. On Tuesday morning, Barclays CEO, Antony Jenkins, was interviewed about the bank’s latest round of financial results and his own decision to accept his bonus this year (rather than waive it as he’s done for the last two years). Both undoubtedly legitimate lines of inquiry. As I listened, it rapidly became clear that the main objective of the interview was not to shed new light on Barclays’ progress since Jenkins took over as CEO, but to tap into safe, predictable narratives about misconduct in the banking industry and fat-cat bosses taking home huge bonuses. The goal of the interviewer, Mishal Husain, seemed to be to try to embarrass Jenkins – whether about known cases of Barclays employees playing fast and loose with ethics and the law, or his own tax arrangements. All of which Jenkins responded to with admirable frankness.

Furthermore, there was no attempt to contextualise the information we were being presented with. For example, I would have been interested to hear a serious discussion about how Barclays is faring relative to its peers – both in terms of the financial health of the business and in terms of Jenkins’ much-feted crusade to change the bank’s culture. I’d have been interested to know how Jenkins’ pay package compares to what the CEOs of other major banks get. But I learned exactly nothing about any of this from the segment.

My aim in writing this is not to pick on Mishal Husain, or even the Today programme, in particular. The faults of the Antony Jenkins interview are endemic to the way supposedly serious journalism is done in the UK today – across print, broadcast and any other medium you care to mention. The culture of playing to familiar narratives and using interviews not so much to enlighten the viewer/listener as to make the interviewee squirm has become so prevalent it’s hard to imagine an alternative way of doing journalism.

How did this come about? I was struck recently while reading Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America by his observations on this matter. In June 1997, the by then veteran correspondent (he had begun broadcasting his weekly ‘letters’ for the BBC in 1946) did a piece marking the 25th anniversary of the break-in that was to trigger the Watergate scandal. He concluded it like this:

‘The only other consequence of the whole business that strikes me as having had a lasting influence on journalism is the fame of Woodward and Bernstein [the two Washington Post journalists who eventually unravelled the Watergate story and who were memorably played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 film, All the President’s Men]. They were pioneers of investigative reporting: diligent, serious and extremely careful. Unfortunately, they have inspired a whole generation of reporters in the English-speaking countries who take very little interest in the movers and shakers of their time, but are brought up on the idea that unveiling a personal (preferably a sexual) scandal is the whole purpose of good journalism. It’s true, and it’s awful.’

Returning to this theme a few years later, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cooke hammered the point home:

‘In the past quarter-century there has been a tendency, in this country certainly, to assume that a reporter’s job is primarily to smell out corruption and, on bad days, invent it… This ambition flourishes today in reporters who honestly believe that their first job is to find out who’s to blame.’

This strikes me as being rather more than the usual grumblings of an elder statesman disappointed by slipping standards and once revered norms of behaviour falling by the wayside as his own generation passes into the history books. I think Cooke was really onto something. Watergate truly was a pivotal moment in the history of journalism, when one particular version of what it means to be a journalist got elevated above all others. Ever since, journalists have extrapolated a supposedly universal gold standard for their profession from a moment that was certainly exceptional and quite possibly unique.

I would add a third name to the pantheon of journalists who achieved immortality as a result of Watergate and who continue to cast a shadow over the way journalism is done today: David Frost. Much is often made of the generational shift from interviewers being deferential and disarmingly friendly towards their interviewees (à la David Dimbleby and, of course, Frost himself) to the more aggressive, combative mode associated with John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman in particular. But this difference is purely one of style. When we look at substance, the Frost interview with Nixon, in which he famously managed to extract an apology from the former President, has defined the nature of political interviews ever since. That was the moment when the role of the interviewer changed from interrogator to prosecutor. The aim shifted from establishing the facts of the case to cornering the interviewee into an admission of guilt, or at least shame.

As theatre, the Frost interview with Nixon is brilliant. As a one-off piece of journalism, it was also brilliant. But as a model for every interview with someone in a position of authority since, it’s been a disaster.

By now, dear reader, you’re no doubt dying to point out how hypocritical I’m being. First I tell you that I don’t approve of the Today programme’s constant doom and gloom. Then I proceed to spend several paragraphs arguing (gloomily) that pretty much all journalism produced in the last forty years has been bad. So let me finish with a ray of hope.

Journalism today needs some new narratives. It needs to re-discover the value of elucidating how and why things happen the way they do, rather than simply looking for someone to blame. It needs to re-focus on the stories that matter most to all of us, rather than just the ones that trigger an immediate emotional response. It needs to remember that being hostile isn’t the same thing as holding people to account: afflicting the comfortable doesn’t just mean making them squirm.

I was heartened, therefore, to read Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s piece on Friday, outlining why he is using the final months of his reign at the paper – before he heads up the M40 to join Damazer as Master of an Oxford college – to focus on climate change. It’s a brilliant initiative – a shining example of the constructive role journalism can play if it chooses to. I hope it has a big influence – not just on the climate change debate, but on the way serious journalism is done across the board.

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One Response to Has serious journalism lost the plot?

  1. Pingback: My year in books – part I – non-fiction | Musings of a young Londoner

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