The newspaper industry
Nobody loves us, everybody hates us, going down the garden to eat worms...
It's open season on the Press. Two of its most powerful figures are on trial at the Old Bailey. The country has just spent millions on a public inquiry to bring it into line.
At the same time readers are deserting newspapers for the internet, as happy to glean their information from passers-by with an iPhone as from journalists trained to sift the truth from the propaganda. Have we ever been so hated? So disrespected? Is there any road back into public favour?
The picture above is of George Crabbe, a poet born in Aldburgh, Suffolk, in 1754. His narrative verse voiced disapproval for the rotten nature of 18th century governance, the ill-treatment of the poor and other social failings. The story of Peter Grimes - turned into an opera by fellow Aldburgh resident Benjamin Britten three centuries later - was the work of Crabbe, an element of his masterpiece The Borough.
A commentator on social issues to rival Dickens, Crabbe wrote in 1785 about what he saw as a new threat to the culture of society: the Newspaper. The date is interesting because The Times was first published on January 1 of that year. The date is not, however, particularly significant. For Crabbe had his sights on papers established since the 1750s, likening them to swarming insects, 'a base but constant breed'.
"I sing of NEWS and all those vapid sheets
The rattling hawker vends through gaping streets...
"Like baneful herbs the gazer's eye they seize,There were even harsher words for the Sunday Monitor, first published in 1779 by Elizabeth Johnson, owner of the British Gazette. The paper was just like the daily, apart from a religious column on the front page, but Crabbe was not persuaded and his words could as well be describing the 'I made my excuses and left' journalism of two centuries later:
Rush to the head, and poison where they please:
Like idle flies, a busy, buzzing train,
They drop their maggots in the trifler's brain..."
"Then lo! The sainted MONITOR is born,Crabbe bemoans the influence of the 'serpent-critic', notes that puffs are given more space than the arts and mocks advertisers who 'pay to be read, yet find but few will read'. He accuses the Press of damaging people's lives, of having too much influence on government and, most of all, of peddling lies and slander.
Whose pious face some sacred texts adorn:
As artful sinners cloak the secret sin,
To veil with seeming grace the guile within;
So moral Essays on his front appear,
But all is carnal business in the rear;
The fresh-coin'd lie, the secret whisper'd last,
And all the gleanings of the six days past."
"Such are our guides, how many a peaceful head,So our card was marked from the very beginning. And moving forward to the 20th century, we find that even today's upheavals are nothing new. Without the phone hacking, perhaps, but we've seen everything else before, including three royal commissions that each led to new regulatory bodies.
Born to be still, have they to wrangling led...
"With clews like these they thread the maze of state,
These oracles explore to learn our fate;
Pleased with the guides who can so well deceive,
Who cannot lie so fast as they believe."
The demise of the News Chronicle in 1960 was as sudden and dramatic, in its own way, as that of the News of the World. A liberal paper that opposed Eden over Suez, the Chronicle was caught and swallowed whole by the rightwing Mail.
It was soon followed to the graveyard by the Daily Herald, which resurfaced briefly as a broadsheet Sun before the title was bought and relaunched as a tabloid by Rupert Murdoch, and the Daily Sketch, another morsel sacrificed to feed the Mail's voracious appetite. All three victims were selling more than a million copies a day.
There are a surprising number of books charting the rise and fall of the industry through the last century, so it's a case of 'you pays your money and takes your choice'. Roy Greenslade's 2004 book Press Gang goes back to the end of the Second World War and Beaverbrook's period of overwhelming influence and forward to the Wapping revolution.
|Lord Beaverbrook. Photograph: The Guardian|
Where today Rupert Murdoch's intimacy with government ministers and influence in Whitehall is under scrutiny, William Max Aitken's role in state affairs was taken for granted in the 40s and 50s. This passage from Greenslade's book could have been written - and, indeed, was by other authors employing different language - half a century later with a single change of name:
"The importance of Beaverbrook was the way he came to personify a form of newspaper ownership, however outdated, which had profound effects on the public perception of the Press.
It also affected the views of journalists and politicians. The insistent calls from 1945 for restrictions on the power of proprietors and a brake on the growth of media monopolies were largely traceable to hostility to Beaverbrook. He was the lightning rod for every complaint about Press misbehaviour...Beaverbrook was seen as Britain's own Citizen Kane, a role he appeared to enjoy.
For fifty years he virtually ruled the fortunes of Fleet Street, holding sway over other owners, mixing and meddling in their activities. Similarly, in his ubiquitous roles as political fixer, adviser to prime ministers and confidant of the business and political elite, he exercised enormous influence behind the scenes. Or to be precise, he seemed to do so. With Beaverbrook it was difficult to tell the difference between appearance and reality...
Beaverbrook rarely meant what he said. He flattered his enemies. He wrapped praise inside criticism. He ruthlessly exploited people he called his friends. He indulged in random acts of kindness to people he hardly knew...there is perhaps no better short description of him than a single sentence by Bob Edwards, twice editor of the Daily Express: 'He was kind, brutal, considerate, selfish, honest, eccentric and a bit mad, but utterly sane in his judgment of newspapers.'"It was that judgment that led him to appoint Arthur Christiansen as editor of the Express at the age of 29. Christiansen has been hailed as one of the greatest editors of the last century and Greenslade identifies the collaboration with Beaverbrook as one of the most successful newspaper partnerships:
"It worked because Christiansen, who had not the slightest interest in politics, was happy to let Beaverbrook do as he wished in that sphere. As he was later to say 'I was a journalist, not a political animal; my proprietor was a journalist and a political animal. The policies were Lord Beaverbrook's job, the presentation mine'...
But it wasn't anything like as harmonious as it sounds...Beaverbrook intervened in every area of the paper, including staffing features content, deciding which writer should take which assignment, even deconstructing the way stories were worded. He was a hard and relentless taskmaster.
This 'torture' had the effect of destabilising the paranoiac Christiansen...There is anecdotal evidence to show that 'Christiansen was a toady'. As Chris once confessed 'All I ever want to do is make Lord Beaverbrook happy.' This may appear weak-kneed, though it should be seen as pragmatic acceptance of reality.
Christiansen, like all the editors whose jobs depended on the whim of Fleet Street's Lord Coppers, would not have survived without bending the knee to his owner. He recognised that Beaverbrook owned the trainset.
Here, then, comes the lesson: as privately owned commercial enterprises and, having developed from personal political platforms, most newspapers were not democratic institutions. There was no public service ethic embedded within them, demanding independence or neutrality.
Owners might pay lip-service to such an ethic in order to assert their own independence from the state or other vested interests. They might even claim that they had a public purpose as part of their sales policy, a pretence to attract readers. Editors might shout loudly about having complete independence from their owners; they, and they alone, made decisions about what went into their papers. But it was all a masquerade. Ownership conferred rights on proprietors which allowed them to do as they wished."
Raymond Snoddy, probably our most respected media correspondent, also made the point that criticism of the Press was nothing new in his 1992 book The Good, the Bad and the Unacceptable. He notes that a Gallup Poll across six EC states found that public confidence in the British Press had dropped from 29% to 14% in the decade to 1991, while in the other countries it had risen from 32 to 35%.
The British Social Attitudes surveys over the years have produced more heartening numbers, but an equally sorry decline. This year's poll of 950 adults showed that 27% thought our Press well run, the lowest since 1983 when the figure was 53%. This jumble of numbers may simply prove that statistics should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but the trend is undeniable.
What isn't changing is the fundamental argument in trying to strike a balance between the right to privacy and the need for a free Press that is allowed to monitor and investigate. Snoddy could have written this next passage last week:
"Almost from its earliest days there have been allegations of inaccurate, irresponsible, scurrilous and sensationalist reporting. Of course, these accusations often come from those in positions of power or with something to hide, but the history of the Press is littered with scandals, forgeries, blatant political bias and, at least until the early years of the 19th century, the payment and acceptance of political bribes.
It is also peopled by journalists who have made a contribution to society: who have exposed injustices; championed individuals, causes or freedom of speech; changed laws - and sometimes ended up in jail for their pains.
During the last 50 years, concern about everything from concentration of Press ownership to the invasion of privacy has led to a series of royal commissions and inquiries...that this concern was debated with a new intensity in the late 1980s can be shown by any available measure of unease - the number of complaints to the Press Council, the large sums awarded in libel settlements, pressure in Parliament for legislation, and warnings from journalists themselves about the state of their craft.
If the complaints came only from politicians they would deserve to be treated with scepticism...but when some of the most illustrious tabloid journalists of the last generation issue dire warnings about the state of popular journalism, it is clearly time to listen."
In searching for a solution, Snoddy quotes Henry Porter of the Observer, who wrote in 1984:
"Ultimately we must hope for some benign intervention from the proprietors, who are still the strongest influence on the national Press. Cynics will suggest this is a vain hope; in the past they have displayed a greater concern for the commercial viability of their products than their integrity.
However, they may be able to recognise something which their editors have conspicuously failed to do; that unless newspapeers improve their standards they will at some time indubitably become the subject of legislation which will permanently injure the freedom of the Press."Snoddy says the point was right and suggests that 'a small number of men' had the power to improve standards almost overnight if they chose to. He names Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and Lord Stevens. They and Mirror Group Newspapers, he writes,
"control 90% of the British Press and close to 100% of the problem."Snoddy also agrees with Greenslade that the notion of an editor's freedom to edit is a myth:
"They have as much freedom as their proprietors are prepared to allow them, and editors who turn out not to be in general harmony with their proprietor's view of the world tend not to last long."The sentence that follows concerns editors' role in setting standards expected of their journalists. It is common sense, but probably best not to reproduce it just now while That Trial is going on.
The Henry Porter quote came from his book Lies, Damned Lies and Some Exclusives, which examined the state of the Press in 1983 - the last year that British confidence in our journalism was at low as it is now. I'd quote from it further if I could find my copy, but it's disappeared, so all I can do is recommend it; as with Snoddy and Greenslade, it is sadly as relevant today as it was when it was published.
Another book from the past that sheds light on the way the industry works in a most readable and engaging manner is My Trade by Andrew Marr, published in 2004. Any journalist could legitimately buy this for their partner - and then pinch it back to read for themselves. The chapter headings alone are a delight: Snobs and soaks; What is news?; The dirty art of political journalism; Lord Copper and his children; Into the crowded air and Two aristocracies (foreign correspondents and columnists).
He writes a little of his own career - we all know him from his Sunday morning television programme and may remember that he was the BBC's political editor, but we may have forgotten that he was a political correspondent under Tony Bevins when the Independent was launched in 1986 and later its political editor. He even edited the paper, briefly and unsuccessfully, in the 90s.
But this book is essentially about people, about the characters of the trade, the way they operated, the moods of their newsrooms. The section on David Montgomery's time in control of the Independent will make interesting reading - and certainly ring a few bells - for the journalists going through the turmoil of his Local World revolution. I couldn't resist putting the middle paragraph in bold.
"Montgomery had relaunched the mid-market Today newspaper with catastrophic consequences and been booted out by Rupert Murdoch as a result. He wanted to prove that his original vision, a Yuppie paper full of stories for and about expensive, ambitious people, preferably being mugged for their Rolex watches in Mayfair, could still work...and he wanted that paper to be the high-minded Independent.
He thought it could be produced at a fraction of the cost of an ordinary paper, with relatively little ordinary newsgathering journalism, but plenty of rewriting, and big-name columnists to fill up the spaces.
He had a ruthless management style...one of the excellent editors he sacked said 'what he did showed a breathtaking disregard for keeping his word and a merciless savagery unheard of even by Fleet Street's bloodsoaked and hypocritical standards', though some of us would put it a little more strongly than that."My Trade is so full of snippets and quotable passages, that it's hard to stop. Marr tells us, for example, that the Times veteran Philip Webster reckoned he had to maintain 160wpm shorthand to keep up in the Commons - and trainees still struggle to reach 100! Suffice to say that anyone with any interest in journalism just has to read this book. But for the time being, here is one final taster on modern news values:
"With fewer murders and sex crimes to lavish attention on - paedophilia being the glaring and controversial exception - editors believe that the British today are most interested in their number one leisure activity: buying stuff. So shopping mad have we become that the adverts...are now becoming the news.
Take the London Evening Standard on Monday 17 March 2003, the momentous day when diplomacy to avert a second Iraq war finally collapsed and Robin Cook resigned from the Cabinet.This is professionally, if briefly, reported on the front page, and well reported later in the paper. But page three was devoted entirely to new bikinis and tops being sold by Marks & Spencer.
The 'story' was as think as the see-through top used to illustrate it - simply that M&S had bought space in the fashion magazine Vogue to illustrate the new line."Marr is as chirpy as he is dismayed in his analysis, but the ever-stern, ever-intense John Pilger was portentous five years earlier in expressing concern about what he saw as the failure of journalists to question hard enough or to dig deep enough.
His book Hidden Agendas ranges across the world from Australia and America via Burma and Vietnam, and across issues from the Cold War and disarmament to Liverpool dockers and popular journalism. He is not a happy man.
"Hidden Agendas is about power, propaganda and censorship...I have become convinced that it is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers, without understanding the hidden agendas of the message the myths that surround it.
High on the list is the myth that we now live in an 'information age' - when, in fact, we live in a media age, in which the available information is repetitive, 'safe' and limited by invisible boundaries.
In the day-to-day media, much of this is the propaganda of Western power, whose narcissism, dissembling language and omissions often prevent us from understanding the meaning of global events."
Pilger quotes Michael Parenti's view, expressed in the 1993 book Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, that journalists rarely doubt their objectivity as they 'faithfully echo the established political vocabularies and prevailing orthodoxy'. They cross no forbidden lines, so they are not reined in and are therefore probably unaware that they are on an 'ideological leash'. Thus, Pilger continues:
"The true nature of power is not revealed, its changing contours are seldom explored, its goals and targets seldom identified. This is counterfeit journalism because the surface of events is not disturbed.
It is ironic that, while corruption among the system's managers and subalterns is at time exposed by a small group of exceptional journalists, the wider corruption is unseen and unreported."You may not share Pilger's outlook or care for his attitude. But he is definitely right about one thing: we seem to have forgotten that our role is to question.
Looking back over previous SubScribe posts, that failing is at the heart of almost everything that goes wrong or ends up looking silly. The notion that a couple of hotdogs will kill you, the Mensa handouts about the precocious kids with IQs 'higher than Einstein's'.
What's stopping us from taking a moment to do a bit of our own research when we all have the world's knowledge at our fingertips? Are we that short of time? Are we that afraid of knocking down a story and displeasing our news editor or chief sub? Fear not, we may find a better one on our travels.
These are the sorts of things exposed by the Guardian's Nick Davies (he of the hacking saga) when he dared to break the rule 'dog doesn't eat dog' and put the microscope to media practices in his book Flat Earth News.
Davies points to the story of Paul Hucker, an England football fan from Ipswich, who spent £105 insuring himself for £1m in case he suffered emotional trauma during the 2006 World Cup - he was, he said, particularly worried about penalty shoot-outs. The story was reported by PA and within 24 hours found its way into papers and on websites and radio and TV stations across Britain; within 48 hours it had reached Australia, America, Malaysia, India, Canada, Zambia, South Africa, China and beyond. The Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Scotsman, Mail, Washington Post and Sydney Morning Herald all published it either in print or online.
For Davies, the story was preposterous. Was any football fan that neurotic or greedy? Was any insurer daft enough to issue such a policy. He turned to Google.
"It took only a minute or two to find out that this was not Mr Hucker's first appearance in stories about insurance. A year earlier he had popped up in a story in the Daily Mail, as a member of the public buying a house and looking for the right policy to cover his mortgage. Luckily, he had found 'just the right one, which has saved me £600 a year'.
And he had helped out, too, with a story on an insurance website as a member of the public celebrating the comfort of being covered against losing his job...
In both these cases that so pleased Mr Hucker, the policies were sold by a Mr Simon Burgess of Braintree, Essex, who also turned out to be the managing director of britishinsurance.com, which had created the policy for Mr Hucker in his state of anxiety about English football.
At the same time Google revealed that Mr Hucker is a marketing director who specialises in promoting web-based companies, including those of Mr Burgess, with whom he has shared several business ventures.
So within five minutes it was clear that this was a publicity stunt...five more revealed that the story was not only unreliable, it was old.
Mr Hucker had appeared in exactly the same story before - as the football fan insuring himself with the same Mr Simon Burgess for fear of the same emotional trauma in the run-up to the previous World Cup in 2002...even the quote was similar: 'I'm scared that one day I'll be pushed over the edge - especially if there's a penalty shoot-out.'"
Nick Davies's book was published in 2009. SubScribe would be failing in its duty if it didn't take a moment or two to google Mr Hucker to see if he tried to repeat the stunt for the 2010 World Cup. He doesn't appear to have done - but that hasn't stopped his previous 'investments' being cited repeatedly in stories, factboxes and Q&As about 'weird and wacky insurance policies' in print and online.
Davies started work on the book after the controversy over Saddam Hussein's supposed stash of WMD, but he found himself going off at tangents and came to a worrying conclusion:
"I had no idea how prone we are to fail to tell the truth. I'm not talking about journalists making mistakes. Mistakes can be honest. I'm not talking about the individual dishonest hack scumbags who bring our whole profession into disrepute. There are still good, brave, honest people working in this industry.
I'm talking about the fact that almost all journalists...work within a kind of professional cage which distorts their work and crushes their spirit. I'm talking about the fact that finally I was forced to admit that I work in a corrupted profession."All right, all right, I hear you cry. This is supposed to be a Christmas list. Where's the cheer? We know the problems, stop looking backwards and tell us the good news. Where are the modern publications offering solutions?
Chris Frost has for many years been trying to help with his book Journalism Ethics and Regulation, whose third edition was published at the start of 2011 - before the hacking scandal erupted and Leveson, but after the jailing of Clive Goodman. Of that he writes:
"That some journalists at least feel obliged to push the limits of ethical nicety was underlined by the Goodman affair...the part played by his editor, Andy Coulson, who quickly resigned, and other NoW executives will probably never be fully known, thanks to what the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee described as collective amnesia in its 2010 report."Well not everyone can be clairvoyant. Even with the fallout from Leveson and the prospect of a new editorial landscape with well-defined topography, Frost's book offers commonsense, practical guidance for the journalist who has to make small ethical and moral decisions every five minutes. This will never go out of date.
The final two books in this section look to the future, focusing not only on ethical issues and the ramifications of Leveson, but also on the journalistic and economic challenges presented by what they each describe as the 'perfect storm' of falling circulations, rising print costs, the supremacy of the internet and social media networks, and the proliferation of citizen journalists.
Unfortunately, neither George Brock's Out of Print nor Bournemouth University's Journalism: New Challenges is able to offer a happy ending. But nor do they predict unhappy endings; they spell out the sequence of events that brought us to this point and consider possible routes away from it.
The Bournemouth book is a training aid put together by Karen Fowler-Watt and Stuart Allan, featuring 30 essays by writers including a clutch of academics plus Sandra Lavalle of the Guardian, and Kevin Marsh and Ceri Thomas of the BBC.
Each essay - subjects include radio interviewing, photojournalism, live blogging and reporting on disasters - sets out the situation as the author sees it now, poses four 'challenging questions' and suggests avenues for further reading. It is intended as a book for academic study, but the issues tackled make it suitable reading for those outside of the classroom.
Brock's work is also academic, as befits a professor of journalism. It is wide-ranging geographically and technologically. He considers evidence from India, America and continental Europe. He examines statistics on internet use, the demand for news and reader engagement. On almost every level he finds overcrowded markets, with the biggest problem uniformity. There are just too many suppliers offering potential customers the same thing.
"This slow convergence happened because of pressures on reporting resources, laziness and the common herd instinct to imitate success. But most of all it happened because it could; readers didn't know or care about the diminishing differences between news media because they never compared one with another...
Jonathan Stray chose a story reported by the New York Times tracing the responsibility for hacking American company computers to two technical schools in China. He analysed 121 separate versions of the story; seven of them were based on original reporting and the rest were rewrites involving paid effort but with little or no value added."
Time, says Brock, for journalism to rethink itself again. The professor's central belief appears to be that the trade has always been in flux, probably always will be - but that it will survive. He even concludes that while print is in rapid decline, that decline may still not be terminal.
"Human beings like reading words from paper. For many, paper is both optically more attractive and carries greater authority....
Newspapers are very reluctant to die. they may cut staff, hollow out their content, be a shadow of their former selves and change their readers - but actual extinction, taken as a whole across developed societies, still remains rare.
Printed newspapers will be a lower and less important layer of the news system in many countries, but it is not likely that they will vanish entirely...
One key reason...is the wide understanding that print has long been a main carrier of news not published elsewhere. Television is, and will remain for some time, the dominant news medium by reach...the internet will often carry the widest-ranging and quickest comment...
Newspapers - printed or online - have specialised in trying to produce news that no one else has. The ability to see a story - to frame selected facts readably - produces bad results when it goes wrong. But at its best, it sharpens the attractions of information."Exactly, exactly. The whole point of professional journalism (in the sense of experience and expertise, not that journalism is a profession) is that it is carried out by people who - for all their faults and foibles - know what they are doing. People with the ability to gather and assess information and then to disseminate the most important elements in the most appropriate manner.
If every citizen can now be a journalist, then every trained journalist must now be an editor.
Next time SubScribe will be looking at some of the stars of the trade - the great reporters.
A new SubScribe website with archived blogposts and new features is being prepared and should be ready to make its first appearance early in the new year. If you have any ideas of elements that should be included - or avoided - please get in touch via Twitter, Facebook or email. Thank you.