March 18th, 2013

Fair Trade

An Unearthly Child

I believe in a free press. Totally and absolutely. Those in authority need to be criticised and the public need to be made aware of what is happening in the world around them.

So what do I think about the whole Leveson thing?


The simple fact is the vast majority of stories put out by the press are awful. The glory days of the investigate reporter are long behind us. Since the 1980s we've seen a systematic dismantling of our journalistic set up. A free press is a noble idea when those given that freedom use it wisely. So, do they..?

The journalism department at Cardiff university analysed every domestic news story put out by The Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, representing the four quality news papers and the biggest and most influential mid-market title.

Over 2 random weeks every single domestic story put out by these outlets (2,207) was examined. With the help of the Guardian news desk then also attempted to capture all incoming material that was passed to reporters. When in doubt they attempted to contact the reporters themselves to verify the stories. So, how did these papers use this freedom? And don't forget, these are the *quality* titles, so I'm sure we can all expect a little bit more from them.

60% of stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material
20% contained clear elements of wire copy and/or PR material
8% they were unable to be sure of sources
12% could be guaranteed to be generated by the reporters themselves.

The same group found smiler, though slightly reduced, numbers for mainstream broadcast stories.

Lets move on.

We all know about the phone hacking scandal. Of course we do! It was all we could read about for a few weeks in 2011 and it meant that The news of the World, a 163 year old paper, was closed down. And that's why The Leveson report was commissioned in the first place. But why 2011? We can go back even further. 8th March 2003 Steve Whittamore, a PI, had his house raided. The list of stuff found was immense. From 2000 alone the Information Commission found that 305 different journalists had asked for 13,343 different items of information. But that's ok, surely? Reporters are busy, they can't do all the leg work... Of that 13,343 1,998 were to vague to allow any definite conclusion, but the remaining 11,345 were all classified as being either certainly or very probably in breach of the Data Protection Act. This went to Blackfriers Crown Court in 2005 with Whitamore and 3 others. The prosecutor was laying out the case against these 4, saying how they had received payments from papers which included the Sunday Mirror, the Mail on Sunday and the News of the World when the judged stopped and asked a pretty obvious question: Where were the journalists? There wasn't really an answer given... So what happened to the 4 people? Due to a technicality all 4 got a conditional discharge.*

After this trial Whitamore could still faced another charge. The Information Commission had been working on another two year case. It failed. Why? Cost. It would have cost hundreds of thousands and even if found guilty it was possible the defense lawyers would argue the sentence would have to fall in line with the previous sentence: Conditional discharge. Along with Steve there were 5 others.

2006 another case fell apart in Devon.

There was some good news. In a forth case John Gunning, a private investigator, was convicted at Salisbury Magistrates Court when he was caught trying to blag information from BT. He was fined £600.

Let's look at the numbers:

Cases: 4
Defendants: 14 (Several appearing in more than one case)
Final result: £600
Fleet Street: 1 story. The Guardian web page reported the end of the Blackfriers case.


So yeah, screw you Fleet Street! You want freedom, you use it properly!

I'm being a bit unfair. I don't even think of it really as the reporters fault. Since the early 80s the whole thing has become more and mroe about profit. What is known as 'Churnalism' is now commonplace. Reporters are getting laid off all over the place. The networks that used to exist have just disappeared. Reporters no longer know their 'patch'. They just don't have time to get out from behind their desk. They're to busy creating copy. Simply put there are not enough reporters for us to enjoy the glory days of investigative journalism. Go click on a new web site. The front page *will* have 'stories' that are obviously PR copy. It's harder to know what stores come from the Press Association, Associated Press or Reuters without seeing the wire copy, but those will be there too.

People don't get into Journalism to press Ctrl + P under their name, but because we as consumers are happy for to read this garbage it's what the companies trying to make money are going to put out.

The National Union of Journalists are pretty much a joke, as is the Press Complaints Commission. Journalists needed to do *more* for us if they now want the public to give more than a fart in the wind!

Ok, realistically the idea that there can be a political body overseeing the press is shocking. It's a bad idea, badly thought through and it upsets me. We really do need a free press. But we *also* need an accountable press. We should have had hacks facing real punishments for crimes that, as far as I can tell, we're pretty much an open secret. That didn't happen. It wasn't just the journalists who failed us. So did the police and our law makers. Both of these groups were far to close and cozy with the people breaking these laws. And now the politicians want to be shown to be independent because they are worried about losing votes. It may have cooled down now but for a while journos and bankers were the only people hated more than them! So not just dangerous, but pathetic too.

Of course, now the big players are losing money as people check out blogs, news feeds, social media and other sources for their news. If they had those networks that used to exist, with reporters knowing the local courts, getting information from their local police and civil servants rather than from a PR hand out the difference would be obvious. But this false economy, this stripping down of noble profession is now underlining how shortsighted they were.

Sadly I doubt it will ever be rebuilt.

*The judge clearly had wanted to do more but couldn't.