This article by journalist George Pitcher is the first of a series looking at journalism and ethics.
A big problem with calling out journalism for a decline in its ethical standards is that it can imply there was ever a golden age in what used to be “Fleet Street”. It’s a romantic fantasy of Old Journalism, viewed through ink-tinted spectacles. Picture, if you will, a loveable rogue-reporter held at the elbow by his Cockney-sparrer chum and told “yer can’t do that, ‘arry, it ain’t right ‘n’ proper” (copyright: Ealing Studios).
Other falsely recovered memories might trace a descent from the moral high ground: perhaps it reflects the nadir of a wider post-modern decline in societal moral standards? Or was it about the big money chasing the big stories? Or is it the inevitable consequence of a liberal free-market when it’s both highly competitive and shrinking fast? Professional standards, it is claimed, have been thrown out like ballast from a plummeting hot-air balloon.
Like all good myths, there may be a little truth in some of that. But I’d like to posit another cause of the malaise and it is very simple: rot sets in when something dies. It is, literally, corrupted.
We are accustomed to very modern usages of the word “corruption”. We speak of software being corrupted by a virus. And journalists – irony dies here – are meant to investigate corruption in high places.
“Dung and corruption”
But the more archaic usage of corruption was all about decay and putrefaction. When Chaucer’s Pardoner speaks of “dung and corruption”, he was talking literally and naturally about what humans produce, not their illicit deeds. When Shakespeare has Hamlet tell his mother that her bed-sheets are “stewed in corruption”, he doesn’t just mean that she’s late with laundry day (and therefore a slut, geddit?) but that his father died between them.
Lifting this etymology into our own times, we could say newspaper journalists have been corrupted because the internet killed them. There’s a stench about journalists. Similarly, the expenses scandal of 2009 emerged because MPs were, metaphorically, the maggots and flies on the corpse of an expired parliamentary democracy. Bankers? It’s not called late capitalism for nothing.
My point, again, is that something has to die for it to become corrupt. And we should be getting used to smelling it when it happens, from the whiff of big-money sport, to Church abuses and, yes, to corrupted journalism. And as any cook will tell you, if it smells off, then it is off.
Corruption, in this ancient sense, is a natural function of end-life. The question is whether something fresh and transformative can grow from its compost, like the honey-bees in the lion’s carcass in Samson’s riddle. For that to happen, there is a policing issue to manage into the future. But we must also look back, unsentimentally and without those ink-tinted specs, to decide not just what the values of journalism are, but also to decide essentially what the practice of it is.
That means establishing what the character of a journalist is – and whether she has moral imperatives and, if so, what they might be. We need to identify not only what journalism has done wrong, but what it does right. Moreover, whether it sometimes has a right to be wrong. This is not about codes of practice, but about understanding what the job is. And why it’s a job we need done. This will be the remit of this new series of blogs.
We start from an assumption that the reputation of today’s journalism is low. But the journalist as reprobate is nothing new. Samuel Johnson coined the phrase “last refuge of the scoundrel” in the 18th century and ascribed it to patriotism but, as with any epithet that relies on economy of words for its appeal, it has been applied to an assortment of human constructs, including politics, the Church and, of course, journalism.
New Grub Street
Dr Johnson himself suited his own first and last refuge well. Forced in penury to leave the University of Oxford, he was an early tenant of the very real literary slum, Grub Street in London, which, a century later, the social novelist George Gissing turned into New Grub Street, where the literate but often penniless eked out livings as essayists and columnists and either prospered or starved.
From this milieu, journalism was never likely to emerge as a socially respectable occupation, more a contemptible but necessary trade serving the well-to-do, like chimney-sweeps.
True, it became gentrified (like Grub Street itself, now London’s fashionable Barbican) in the economic booms of the second half of the 20th-century, which followed the end of newsprint rationing and which fed the classified and display advertising markets in newspapers. For a while, it even attracted journalists from Oxbridge – more Boris Johnson than Samuel – who had actually completed their degrees.
But by its habit of holding the rich and powerful to account and, in doing so, asking all the awkward questions, journalism has never been widely considered, except perhaps in fashionable liberal circles, as a living for those of sound character.
Yet there are always those who will romanticise the great old days of newspapers, within living memory the press barons’ circulation wars between the very real world wars, for instance, or that post-Second World War boom. The practices of today’s journalism, it is suggested, would have made journalists of such a charmed generation spin in their graves (though more likely is that this golden age got spun into their memoirs).
Seven deadly sins
A more plausible narrative is that modern journalism had done everything it could to honour the seven deadly sins. Pride as senior journalists began to believe the propaganda of their own importance; Greed as salaries and expense accounts bloated; Lust as celebrity “curves” being “shown off” on beaches replaced a legitimate news agenda; Envy as property-porn and rich-list supplements did the same; Gluttony as hours passed in the company of the powerful and their PRs at Glyndebourne or Ascot; Wrath when the unaccountable power of the self-entitled press was challenged; Sloth as editors and their favoured columnists ordered another bottle of champagne on expenses at 4pm, the better to discuss the indolence of immigrants.
But this is not the only perspective on journalism, nor its only truth. There is a danger that the concentration on journalistic process around the Leveson Inquiry into the culture of journalism following the phone-hacking scandal forced a call for the reform of press regulation at the expense of any commensurate re-examination of what journalism is meant to do and, consequently, how it is meant to behave.
That means we’ve concentrated on downstream external regulation, at the expense of upstream internal governance. The trade has become so entangled in campaigns from pressure groups such as Hacked Off, arguments over statute versus self-regulation, the prospect of Royal Charters and the origin of Max Mosley’s funding for the first post-Leveson approved regulator, Impress, that we have forgotten to ask what journalism is for and what it is meant to do. Never have so many factions within an industry told each other – and with such a variety of meanings – to mind their own business.
The effects of this for the future of journalism are potentially chilling and made all the more alarming by the new digital matter that has filled the moral vacuum. The public sphere abhors a vacuum and so long as we ignore the societal necessities of good journalism then the more that space will be filled with the kind of false idols that we have witnessed over very nearly the first fifth of the 21st-century: click-bait, “fake news” and content theft.
It’s time to take stock – take a long view, from the best and worst of journalism’s past to the prospects for its future. The next blog in this series will look at some origins for the ethics of journalism as a human function. It’ll go back a little further in moral philosophy than Dr Johnson, to Aristotle, to argue that good journalistic practice is less about principles than character.
This article is by George Pitcher. George advises Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, on ethics and the future of journalism and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. He formerly held senior editorial positions at The Observer and the Daily Telegraph. @GeorgePitcher
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Dow Jones or the LSE.