Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Journalists: working for the clampdown?

A slight variation on my Spaekalation column from The Shetland Times of 4 October

Journalists. According to various polls, right down there among the least trustworthy members of society, along with social workers and prostitutes.
And sometimes the most cavalier with the truth, too. Especially those traders in tittle-tattle and loose-mouthed opinion, columnists. Take that 'according to various polls' phrase in the first line of this article. I have no idea what those polls are, or were. I was told that stuff about journalists and social workers in the pub, and it stuck in my mind. I added the prostitutes in for effect. 
This, however, being the age of internettism, I can Google 'journalist+trustworthy+poll' and discover that a survey by the Royal College of Physicians, no less, found in 2009 that journalists were considered the least trustworthy creatures on earth (well, in Britain), even less than politicians.  Most trusted were doctors, funnily enough. They scored 90 per cent against the hacks' 19. But as I'm married to a doctor, I reserve the right to average out our score. Even though Susan may object.
So, that was 2009, long before the grisly horrors revealed by the Leveson Inquiry. Goodness knows how low public opinion of reporters has now sunk. And this week, it all got a whole lot worse.
The Daily Mail – for which I have, I will admit, written in the past – is one of the last newspaper success stories, widely bought and read in print and online, making money, employing large numbers of staff. Yet it is despised and derided in left-to-liberal circles as a cruel, prurient, sexist, racist, hopelessly biased organ of the right. And most hacks would give their right arms for a job there. Members of the NUJ? Hell, yeah. 
It's always filled me with both amusement and despair, that the National Union of Journalists would strike to the last sub-editor sitting to defend the employment rights of its members, some of whom work happily or unhappily for organisations with the toxic morality of not the gutter, but the sewer. In the case of the Daily Mail, with its 20th century past including Hitler-supporting Nazi sympathy, its present-day,borderline racism, its ghastly, preening self-satisfaction, I look back on my freelance news-gathering self and am appalled that I ever had anything to do with it. But I needed the money. Proprietors? It wasn't our job to worry about proprietors. They were all The Forces of Evil, after all. We took the money and, err...undermined the system. Man. In a subtle, intellectual fashion. World War Two Bomber Found On Moon!
But there are other papers, worse ones and better, and there are, as well as evil journalists, plain bad ones, wilfully careless or personally vindictive. Good ones too, and sometimes good ones working for bad editors or against scary subs. I have the dubious distinction of having both written a front page splash for The Sun (headline, not mine, SCABNOST! about blackleg labour unloading reefers at Shetland Catch) and being the subject of one, the result of a vicious, anonymous letter sent by a well-known Shetlander.
In the latter story's case, the fact that it was untrue ('we know it's not, Tom, but my editor says I have to write something') did not stop the Sun's management from splashing it with addition of the word 'slur' to keep things 'honest', in red-top moral terms. If you've forgotten, it was to do with the supposed existence of gay orgies in the village of Voe involving various weel-kent Zetlanders.
Now, as at the time I was hosting a national daytime radio show, this was the kind of rubbish I suppose I should have been able to shrug off. Not that it matters, but it was all invented, vindictive nonsense. However, my elderly father, despite being quickly warned about the whole business, was upset and confused. For him newspapers still had power, still had authority. The idea that they might print something untrue was anathema to him. Even The Sun. Even with 'slur' in the headline.
My assorted bairns just thought it was funny. But the anger really took hold when I thought of my father, filling his car with petrol as The Sun's disposable headlines blared across the forecourt, and his pals gossiped.
Lately, I've watched one of my own offspring navigate the celebrity waters with remarkable assurance. Not that it owes anything at all to me. The tabloids have never been anything but kind. Only one newspaper has traduced him, inventing quotes and misrepresenting his views to reinforce what was obviously journalistic bias. And that was a Scottish 'quality', one apparently proud of its broadsheet past. So that's all right then.  
This week, Ed Miliband had to read the most scurrilous, pathetic vicious portrayal of his late, eminent  father's views in the aforementioned Daily Mail. He hit the roof. And on his behalf, we had the fantastic spectacle of Alistair Campell returning to full-on Malcolm Tucker Terminator mode on Newsnight, ripping the Mail and Lord Dacre apart like pieces of soiled tissue. Gone was the cuddly, calm Campbell we have learned to live with on Twitter and telly. Tony Blair's Rottweiler was back, and for once he had the moral high ground.
True, Ed and the Labour Party had political capital to make, especially during a Tory Party Conference which has seen the Conservatives portrayed, or portray themselves, as frankly and happily repellent in policy and style. But my heart was with Ed. And I wondered about the reporters who had to work on the Mail stories, the anonymous newshounds digging through poor old Ralph's memoirs, the  kid researchers on work experience or Bank of Mum and Dad subsidy, the desperate hackers at the newsface, harangued by newdesk dictators, trying to hang on to their jobs, holding fast to the Mail line.

          And I thought: journalists? Prostitutes? Which is the less hypocritical profession?

Anyone done a survey?

Copyright Tom Morton/The Shetland Times 2013

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