A matter of honour
Posted July 10th, 2011 by debritz
In common with millions of people around the world, I have been stunned, again and again, by the revelations made about the extent of phone-hacking and personal intrusion by private investigators and journalists hired by The News of the World in Britain. We are told that there are more, worse revelations to come, and that there are allegations to be made involving other newspapers.
As a journalist, and one who has spent much of his working life at News Corporation titles (including a very brief stint at The News of the World), it’s extremely painful for me to see the profession I love being dragged, yet again, through the mud. Journalists consistently rank lower than used-car salesmen in polls about trustworthiness; now there is concrete evidence to back up those public suspicions about our integrity. This time, it’s entirely of our own making – or, at least, the making of a few journalists who were prepared to do anything to get a story and of management that, at best, turned a blind eye.
It’s about now that I should rattle off all the good things that journalism does. It can bring down dishonest governments, it can expose corruption and hypocrisy, it can keep people informed about issues important to them, and it can keep them entertained. Sadly entertainment, or more to the point, titillation, was the News of the World’s main stock in trade. It shifted the news agenda away from what really matters to what’s happening in the bedrooms of the rich and famous. Was it, as The Jam noted in their song News of the World, a matter of the public getting what the public wants, or the public wanting what the public gets? (A lot of other factors, the rise of the internet being one of them, are involved but it’s interesting to take a look at the correlation between newspaper sales and the extent to which revelations have become more salacious and intrusive.)
Now to my main point: A lot has been said and written about journalistic ethics over the past few days and weeks, much of it by people taking the high ground even though their own ethics have undoubtedly been compromised. The fact is that there’s not one journalist I know who has not taken what other people, in other industries, might interpret as a bribe. A free trip, concert tickets, a meal and more than a few drinks – we’ve all taken them, and I’ve had my share over the years. Now, of course, we don’t call them bribes, we call them hospitality that’s part of the job. If somebody wants to give me a drink, of course I’m going to take it. Who wouldn’t?
For the record, I believe I have always acted within the industry’s ethical guidelines and so have the vast majority of my journalistic friends and colleagues. I’ve accepted hospitality and travel relevant to my round, but always on the basis that I would be free to write it as I saw it – for the benefit of my readership – not just regurgitate a media release. From memory, I only ever once actually asked for concert tickets – and that was on behalf of a superior – and when I really wanted to see a show, I bought my own tickets.
However, I know of one entertainment journalist who always tried to “blag” tickets for himself and often his friends, who had no involvement in journalism and who were, therefore, occupying seats that the promoters could have otherwise sold (or used for actual promotional purposes). Other individuals I have met in the course of my work would routinely try to organise free holidays for themselves and their friends, hoping to “pay” for it through the newspaper columns. (On more than one occasion, much to my delight, these attempts were thwarted by a vigilant travel editor.) These journalists see freebies as not just a perk of the job but an entitlement. To me, that attitude is distasteful and an embarrassment to the profession. (What has also become apparent is that many journalists believe they are entitled to use any means necessary to get whatever story they want, however trivial it may be and regardless of who may be hurt in the process.)
But it can get worse than that. What if this hospitality was offered purely on the basis that a story was written in a certain way, or that certain facts went unreported? When I worked in China, I was shocked to learn about the system of “red envelopes” offered to journalists. A friend who works in PR and was organising the opening of a bar in Shanghai was told that, along with free drinks and food (so the guests could sample and write about the bar’s offerings), she would have to pay the reporters just to turn up. Worse still, I was told that, in some parts of that country, journalists would rush to the scene of a tragedy, not to get the story but to take a bribe not to report certain details of the story (ironically, it was usually those aspects that involved corruption). I know there have been great efforts in China to clean up this sort of abuse – perhaps they are doing a better job of it than the bumbling British officials have over the phone-hacking scandal.
In a perfect world, the media would pay its own way – they would buy the tickets to the theatre and pay the airfares, the hotel bills and everything else associated with getting a story. The reality is that this won’t happen. PR people know their story will go unreported or underreported unless they offer hospitality, and they have a budget to do this. For journalists, it’s a matter of understanding their code of ethics and to know the boundaries of decency and public interest.
When all journalists behave honourably – and are seen to behave honourably – then we might, one day, make it higher up that list – at least higher than used-car salesmen.