October 26, 2012 7:11 pm

Beyond press freedom

Democracy and independent journalism depend on one another but their interests are not always aligned
William Hague (centre) and George Osborne questioned by the BBC’s Nick Robinson (right)©Alpha Press

Conservatives William Hague (centre) and George Osborne questioned by the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson (right) near Downing Street, just days after the May 2010 general election

Live From Downing Street: The Inside Story of Politics, Power and the Media, by Nick Robinson, Bantam Press, RRP£20, 434 pages

There is No Such Thing As a Free Press ... and We Need One More than Ever, by Mick Hume, Imprint Academic, RRP£8.95, 187 pages

Can Journalism Survive? An Inside Look at American Newsrooms, by David Ryfe, Polity, RRP$24.95/£17.99, 256 pages

Democracy and independent journalism are generally thought to go together like horse and carriage, and it is true that societies with competitive, pluralistic politics and strong civil societies always have news media that are permitted to criticise the government and reflect a wide range of opinion.

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But freedom to report is just the beginning: beyond that are issues such as the influence of proprietors, the veracity or mendacity of the reporting and the appetite of the public for serious journalism. Further, the media can stand accused of suppressing information that belongs in the public arena or even in the courts – as now, in the UK, the BBC is accused in relation to the alleged paedophilia of the late Sir Jimmy Savile, who was one of its biggest stars from the 1960s until the 1990s. At the same time, the Leveson inquiry into newspaper ethics, convened in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, is preparing to report. Within weeks it is expected to give a detailed account of how deeply Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and other British tabloids violated individuals’ privacy.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, lives at the busy intersection between journalism and politics, and directs much of the traffic. In his new book Live From Downing Street, he comes across much as he does on television or radio: never at a loss and able to deliver not just the news, but a definitive judgment on it, wrapping up often confused and disparate events in a phrase that conveys – as the late Walter Cronkite used to say on CBS News – that “that’s the way it is”.

 

In a tough field, Robinson stands out for the professionalism of his work. An active Conservative in his student years, he insists that he underwent – as his student-Marxist predecessor Andrew Marr once put it – the required lobotomy of his political views when he joined the BBC, and he convinces on that. He has adapted with good humour to the corporation’s liberal-leftish culture, while insisting that the gods of its news are neutrality and objectivity.

This embrace of the BBC ethos comes at a price: a belief, largely unexamined, that the more the BBC (and journalists as a whole) command the way in which the political process is conveyed to the public, the better it is for democracy. Robinson notes, more in sorrow than anger, that the postwar Labour prime minister Clement Attlee hated television, saying, when pushed to comment: “I think there’s a good deal, you know, to the public meeting ... you can’t heckle on television”. That seems to me to be a profoundly democratic statement, but Robinson finds it quaint.

In the latter and most lively part of the book, when he enters the fray, Robinson writes of government anger over reporting, especially of the war in Iraq. He instances politicians’ objections to the work of such prominent BBC correspondents as John Simpson, Fergal Keane and Rageh Omaar as self-evidently misguided, without giving examples of what these reporters said or showed.

He does think that the BBC’s management was wrong to protect Andrew Gilligan, who reported in 2003 that the government had deliberately misled the public in making its case for the Iraq war. But the major blame for that, Robinson believes, lay with Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s director of communications, whose complaints over the years had been so bitter and numerous that the BBC could “no longer distinguish between those which had merit and those which were merely vexatious”.

Yet governments will and should push their own view of events hard: what other vehicle do they have, other than the media? A public broadcaster sure of its facts will and should at times confront governments, which are always partial. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the government’s partiality is always self-interested and mendacious.

There are flashes of doubt. Robinson admits that TV is bad at analysis and explanation, privileging emotion; and that he has at times spent too long on spin, scandal and splits, and too little on substance. He recounts how in 2007, when the then prime minister Gordon Brown went to India on an important visit and gave a thoughtful speech, Robinson was constrained to ask about the “insult” offered to Indian Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty by the late Jade Goody on Celebrity Big Brother. If the BBC falls into this pit, what hope for the others? He does not pursue that doleful path.

Robinson’s path, and that of the corporation, is a great deal less doleful than that stretching before most newspapers, at least those in the west. In Britain, one reason for this is the phone-hacking scandal. This past week, allegations of phone-hacking at the Daily Mirror put the newspaper in the dock alongside the News of the World. The Leveson inquiry, set up last year by David Cameron – a large can of lively worms that the prime minister must now regret opening – is expected to say much on this. Journalist Mick Hume knows what its theme will be: it will lock in place a liberal-inspired political correctness designed to tame the tabloids’ natural and welcome ferocity, and thereby gravely wound press freedom.

 

Hume once edited the house magazine of Britain’s Revolutionary Communist party, a now defunct organisation whose leading lights have lately embraced a libertarian position under the aegis of the Institute of Ideas; in the conferences and publications that it sponsors, these commentators reserve their greatest ire for what they see as a nannying state and establishment. In There is No Such Thing as a Free Press, Hume predicts that Leveson will “signal the moral inferiority of the masses by lambasting the standards of the media that they consume”.

He singles out an article I wrote for a collection on the phone-hacking scandal, where I said it was absurd to argue, as the Press Complaints Commission’s code does, that freedom of expression is in itself a public good. I would stand by that: such freedom can encompass the incitements to violence against Tutsis made on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines before and during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Freedom of expression is certainly a bedrock of our liberties; but it is not a public good when it does public harm.

As the book progresses, Hume’s libertarianism becomes even more pronounced. The Leveson inquiry is likened to the Salem witch trials, though it’s unlikely that Leveson will recommend anything more than a statutorily based Press Council with some investigatory powers. I would argue against such a body – mainly because to regulate the press when it is being swallowed by an ungovernable internet is a Canute-like endeavour – but I cannot believe it would do much harm to a journalistic culture that will remain feisty. Hume’s belief that the tabloids’ very popularity renders them beyond “elite” criticism is itself a lurch into a kind of populist authoritarianism, which makes you question how deep the libertarian impulse goes.

 

A more substantial threat to democratic societies is the decline of newspapers – the theme of David Ryfe’s Can Journalism Survive? Ryfe does give an answer to his question, but one that will have limited appeal to mainstream journalists. They – we – have assumed the role of filters, gatekeepers through whose trained minds and routine practices all events must first be designated as “news”, reported neutrally and displayed in a hierarchy of importance with sources named and balance struck. This view of journalism is “imbued by the filtering concept [and] ... also informs the attitudes and actions of sources, who work hard to manage how their information and views are portrayed”. Ryfe is right to question how far this model is now tenable; but all depends on what alternative he offers.

A scholar of journalism who was never a journalist, Ryfe spent many months in newsrooms for his research and was a sympathetic ear to this defence of journalism’s traditional role – but he sees it, essentially, as Luddism. Instead, he argues, we should embrace a large cultural shift. Journalists – except those in certain high-priced outlets whose readers demand straight news – must cease to regard themselves as Olympians and become “engaged”. They must realise that crowds will be their sources and that they are part of them; only together can they “perform the democratic functions once performed by journalists alone”.

Ryfe recognises that many of the experiments in “public journalism” have failed, but he argues that networked journalism could succeed, because “journalists, working in collaboration with members of their communities, would produce news so that citizens could act on the public problems they collectively face. This would truly be a revolution in journalism.”

It truly would: who pays for it remains the question. Part of the answer, a shaky one, is provided by the funding that US institutes, universities and individuals provide for public-interest journalism. It is shaky because most of the not-for-profit start-ups have been told to get profitable when their grants expire, and most can’t – and because universities, some of whose journalism faculties are now developing journalism for general consumption, must use either state or benefactors’ funds, and these too cannot be counted on. As journalism professor Clay Shirky noted, the old is dying before the new appears, and there is not much we can do about it.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and director of journalism at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute

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