Reforming the conjecture, innuendo and spin of popular journalism
In 2009, before News of the World phone hacking burst off the pages of the Guardian and fizzled into the national consciousness, the public already considered journalism the least trustworthy of any profession.
Of course, unlike myself, not all hacks have contributed to that crisis, but try explainingthat next time you're rapping fruitlessly on a news subject's front door.
Undoubtedly, industry reform is in the air. And with the News of the World now six feet under, its tabloid brethren, having paused to raise a glass in sympathy, have turned their attention to limiting the scope of that reform. 'The PCC has a future,' the editorials declare, 'our free press must not be shackled.'
Of course, somewhere between the tabloid assurances that the boil has been lanced and the politicians demanding a tourniquet be gruffly applied to the whole industry awaits a suitable middle ground.
An external statutory framework is sadly vital, simply because without it the likes of Richard Desmond can bite his thumb in the direction of the new system in the same way he has the PCC.
But for now, while the battle lines are still being drawn, there are some changes that tabloids should make to their internal practices - not only to appease the decision-makers but to take the first steps to restoring the public trust that has been recklessly obliterated.
The key word here is transparency. It's one of the longer terms in the tabloid lexicon, but it gets banded around liberally. Be it of politicians, institutions or even celebrities, journalists are first to demand they live glass-walled existences.
Yet tabloid folk are very reticent to apply that same standard to their own practices. As anyone who has ever tried securing an interview or even a response to a query from a tabloid editor will know, they are perpetually 'unavailable'.
But the arrogant days of printing dubious stories and then ducking into their offices until the storm blows over simply must end. If you publish it, stand by it. As part of their jobs as editors, they should face the music and publicly explain their decisions, just like executives from any other business.
Newspapers make mistakes. That's alright: no-one expects them to be perfect. But, as was described to me recently by a victim of red-top aspersions, getting an apology shouldn't be a six-month ordeal akin to "pinning s**t to a wall".
Related to this is the idea of journalism as dialogue. The advent of social media means the public want to be part of the debate, and so they should. Tabloids are behind the curve on their broadsheet counterparts when it comes to engaging their readers. TheGuardian, for example, often asks its journalists to contribute to the comments thread beneath their articles. This is a wholly absent practice in the tabloids.
Impossible in print yet a no-brainer online is the use of hyper-linking. Broadsheets are slowly catching on, yet tabloids make no effort to cite their sources to allow readers to assess the evidence for articles' claims. At times sources are confidential, and of course that should be protected. But often they're simply reports, press releases or other journalist's work.
Which brings me neatly on to plagiarism. It's absolutely rife on Fleet Street. Foreign reporters are frequently up in arms about their content turning up unattributed in British newspapers, while local journalists, magazine writers and bloggers also suffer. This is not limited to tabloids but, yet again, they are the worst offenders.
If they have nothing to hide, tabloids should have nothing to fear from greater transparency. But of course they have much to hide. The lack of proper sourcing, referencing and openness to scrutiny is what has allowed much populist journalism to become a bitter cocktail of spiteful conjecture, grubby innuendo and cynical PR spin; all topped with the occasional investigatory cherry to justify the price.
But the game is up. Unless the industry is prepared to reform, both internally through greater transparency and externally through regulation, the gangrene of mistrust will infect the whole industry, undermining the vital power-checking and watchdog functions of our Fourth Estate.
Consider this: when the public trust reporters less than those they are suppose to be holding to account, the very act of journalism is fatally undermined.
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