Journalists don't tell The Truth? In that case, neither do estate agents.
“People forget the News of The World stories weren’t lies. They were telling the truth,” philosophised Paul McMullan last week from beneath his ubiquitous beige-suit, its increasing ill fittingness suggesting even linen is now distancing itself from his warped rationalisations.
“I cannot tell a lie,” bristled hackette blogger Fleet Street Fox recently, claiming legal checks and editorial hierarchy had now left tabloid folk trapped in some sort of Jim Carrey themed hyper-reality.
Yet behind the arguments of both these tabloid apologists is the idea that not lying is synonymous with telling the truth; which is like claiming not stealing from collection tins is an act of charity. In fact, swirling between the concepts of not lying and telling the truth is a semantic maelstrom in which all journalists at times dip their toe. But for tabloid hacks it’s a bit different; some days are an act of full-body immersion.
Firstly it is important to recognise that The Truth is not a definite article; there are multiple ways in which differing true accounts can be given of the same event.
Take Andy Coulson’s arrest on Friday. The Sun reported: “David Cameron’s former PR chief was released after a nine-hour grilling by detectives probing phone hacking and bribes.”
They could have given an equally true account claiming: “The Sun’s former showbiz editor was released after a nine-hour grilling by detectives probing phone hacking and police bribes. Our chief executive could be next.”
Of course, they didn’t. But what it models is the journalistic process of selecting which true statements best fit into the desired narrative of the publication – and excluding, or at least sidelining, the true statements that don’t.
In recent article “The Whole Truth” philosopher Julian Baggini wrote: “An estate agent may be technically accurate when she describes a property as being 307 metres from the local shop, but it would be more accurate to point out that the direct route is blocked and so it is a half hour walk away.”
Here Baggini draws a distinction between a “moral” sense of truth and its “legalistic surrogate”. He explains: “Legalistic thinking asks only; ‘what am I permitted to do?’ Whereas truly moral thinking asks; ‘what would be the right thing to do?’”
When Paul McMullan or Fleet Street Fox claim they can’t or don’t lie they do so wholly in reference to this legalistic type truth telling. Perhaps neither can be blamed. After all, moral truth telling has been so long lost from tabloid newsrooms it was last seen languishing among the typewriters and smoke-stained office ashtrays.
If phone-hacking and corruption are the noose of humiliation that has left the tabloid industry gasping, the daily contempt shown toward moral truth telling are the tiny shuffled steps which have unwittingly led them to the gallows.
The public don’t feel merciful, and nor should they. The cynical banishment of moral truth has long undermined not just our journalistic canon, but social dialogue, justice and democracy.
This loss of moral truth is what allowed a story about two Muslim councillors refusing to applaud a St George’s Cross winner to be published in The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Star.
These stories ticked each box of truth telling in a legalistic sense, yet, by omitting the true statement that many other Muslims were present and did applaud, they fell shamefully short in a moralistic one.
Certain true statements were deliberately removed so to shoehorn the story within the desired narrative: Islam and Britishness are incompatible.
I am not attacking the reporters in question. I’m sure they squirmed in their seats like I did when they backspaced into oblivion everything they’d learnt on their journalism courses about balance and fairness. They had little option. Including true statements contra to the pre-ordained narrative is regarded as “not grasping the news line”. Paint outside those lines often enough and you’ll be eyeballing a P45. Welcome to the hack conundrum.
For too long editors and proprietors have been given scope to demand newsroom intolerance to moral truth, profiting from it’s perverting effect on social debate.
And for too long as a society we have allowed the parameters of truth to be dictated by a press clique who want it caged within a legal realm where they possess both knowledge and power, and away from a moral realm where they possess neither.
Yesterday the Daily Star Sunday used the front page to declare it’s “a paper you can trust”. Well, until The Truth starts being respected rather than manipulated I won’t be trusting any tabloid. Perhaps you shouldn’t either.
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