The past few years have not been good for the reputation of journalists in the UK. The first hacking scandal stories breaking, to the collapse of the News of the World, to Leveson and the truth behind ‘The Truth’.
The general public don’t see us as the givers of truth or as inquiring minds who uncover political skulduggery, they see us as a bunch of phone-hacking, sleaze-selling blaggers and crooks.
In fact, The Week reported this week that journalists are one of the least trusted professions (along with politicians), behind bankers and estate agents. Out of 2,000 people surveyed, journalists were trusted by a paltry 7 per cent.
We carry around the chains of a previous generation, like Jacob Marley if he’d learnt shorthand.
So what does that mean for aspiring hacks? Well it isn’t good news.
After months of dredging the waters from the murkier side of journalism, Lord Leveson is soon to make his recommendations on the future regulation of the press and, no matter what they might be, they will completely change the way hacks of the future work.
Speaking to me yesterday, blogger and tabloid journalist Fleet Street Fox gave the following prediction:
“Whatever Leveson’s recommendations – and however they are accepted or ignored by politicians – there will be an increasing pressure upon journalists to prove their morality.
It’s a virtually impossible thing to do, and very subjective, and also quite long-winded because the only way you can show that is by example. It makes it harder for young reporters starting out.”
It’s a scary idea. Young journalists having to defend themselves from a public whose prejudices will be handed down. It’s like the Biblical problem of ‘original sin’ – wannabe hacks come into the industry having to prove they aren’t like a few bad eggs from journalism’s past.
I asked people on Twitter how people responded to them when they introduced themselves as journalists. There’s a recurring theme:
@ChrisCrumble – “During audience banter my friend told a stand-up she’s a journalist. Entire room hissed. Predictable phone-hack joke followed.
@OliiiB – “’Ooooh, like phone hacking and that?’ one painfully unfunny supervisor asked me when I appeared in court.
I’m sure that 99 per cent of wannabes can tell a similar story. Of course, there are a lot of people who don’t straight-up assume journalists hack phones, etc, but the years of negative coverage don’t do us any favours. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been castigated for my career choice. I also got spat on and called “scum”, but that’s a different story – hopefully most of you have managed to avoid that level of ignorance, no matter how hilariously ironic.
The phone-hacking scandal proved how easy it is to shoot the messenger. It took weeks of investigative reporting, thousands of column inches and hours of VTs to uncover the scale of what had happened. I put that to everyone who makes a snarky phone-hacking joke and nearly all of the time I’m met with “Yeah, well, I guess so.”
Most journalists come into this career with the best of intentions, but it only takes a bad decision by one to bring down the reputation of us all and cover up the countless good we also do.
As Ms Fox put it:
“Of course journalists get things wrong – but the habit people having of hating hacks means they are quick to blame us for being scumbags rather than presume better motives, poor execution, or consider their own part in making a mess.
“Jimmy Savile moaned about dirty journos sniffing about and I know of plenty of instances where the high-profile subject bemoans the intrusion or libel while quietly failing to sue, [contact] the PCC, or properly deny the story they are complaining about.”
We’ve been burdened with a tainted history and moving past it doesn’t have any easy or quick solutions.
The best possible way out is to remain the same. It might seem paradoxical, but journalism thrived when reporters did what they have always tried to do – ask the right questions and tell the truth.
In much the same way that there have been people who abuse the benefits system, politicians who fiddle their expenses, police who are a little over-keen on exerting unnecessary force and bankers who play casino games with public money, there will always be bad journalists.
The best thing that the rest of us can do is work like we always have. The public may never truly trust us, but as long as we are doing them a service and following the rules, we’ll never have to lose sleep over it.
As a beardy communist might have put it:
“Journalists of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
UPDATE – STEWART: “It may not be long before grubby toes are once again dipped in murky waters”
Following the publication of this piece, I spoke to ITV newsreader Alastair Stewart who gave the following predictions on Leveson’s recommendations and the future of the press.
“We are yet to see the final take of Lord Leveson and the debate within the political class, as evidenced by the differences between Michael Gove and Ken Clarke, is strong,” he said.
“The revelations which prompted the enquiry and the evidence garnered have already been impactful. The public revulsion is tangible and the red top press already much cowed.
“I think commercial interests will dictate a greater sensitivity in the short-term but the public memory is fickle. It may not be long before grubby toes are once again dipped in murky waters. Leveson may go for statutory regulation but the PM is opposed. His Lordship is an astute ‘judge’ and won’t want his report to gather dust.
“I suspect a beefed up regulatory framework with an element of self-regulation surviving but I may be wrong. In short it means future journalists may need to be more cautious and editors more sensitive until such time as the public once again hankers for more salacious fare.
“My dream is that future journalists will bring their own morality to the fore but I may be an idealist. Commercialism, in print , is all. Ratings in broadcasting matter whether you like it or not. But our judgement and self-restraint has served us and our viewers well.”
Stewart also added his views on the Jimmy Savile scandal which, he says, begs two questions. “Why did the rampant red tops not get him? Why, as seems to be the case, did the BBC protect him for so long?”
“Good investigative journalism by ITV came sadly late for many victims.”
What do you think? Will the public ever trust journalists? How can the industry move on? Let us know! Tweet us @WannabeHacks or comment below.
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