MEDIA: Must Do Better ; the British Public Doesn't Trust Journalists. and If Newspapers Don't Raise Their Game and Change That Perception, Curbs on Press Freedom Will Be Inevitable, Argues IAN HARGREAVES
Hargreaves, Ian, The Independent (London, England)
When Edward Gibbon sent the second volume of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the Duke of Gloucester in 1781, the easily bored aristocrat is said to have responded: "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr Gibbon!" Although it is tempting to add that more people have reason to value the life of Mr Gibbon than that of the Duke, I can't deny the pertinence of the sceptical question about my coming book on the state of journalism. At a time when whole publishers' catalogues are devoted to assessments of one aspect or another of the media, what's the case for adding yet another title to the array?
In my case, the motivation is simple. I wanted to get at the question that has troubled me for all my working life as a journalist: namely, why is it that so many people feel so uneasy about the way journalists go about their business? Is their unease justified? Does it demand a response? Or is it largely the self- interested muttering of the vested interests that good, probing journalism is intended to unsettle?
I am not among those who subscribe to the view that the news media, or indeed the media in general, have spent the past 20 years on a headlong descent into "dumbing-down". In reality, there's no evidence that the public is less well informed than it was, and today's ubiquitous, global, always-on media can't easily be compared to what was on offer even two decades ago. But only the most complacent journalist can ignore the growing tide of concern about the news media, not least since much of the critique comes from journalists themselves.
In the United States, a movement of "concerned journalists" says bad journalism is undermining the American constitution's guarantee of free expression, replacing "independent news with self- interested commercialism posing as news". A recent book by the editor of The Washington Post tells hair-raising stories of the ways that advertising departments increasingly dictate to the newsroom on local and regional newspapers.
According to some polls, a majority of Americans today thinks the press has too much, not too little, freedom. Meanwhile, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin still holds and plays the aces in a dirty TV-news power game; and in Italy, the Prime Minister doubles as the country's pre-eminent media owner.
In Britain, it is a long-established feature of opinion surveys that journalists are considered only marginally more trustworthy than purveyors of snake oil, a ranking they share with the politicians they so assiduously wrestle in the mire. In last year's Reith lectures, Dr Onora O'Neill, principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, accused journalists of "poisoning the wells of public discourse" with their slipshod sensationalism, and called for a rethink of the market-based, free-press philosophy that was forged in 17th- and 18th-century England and underpinned radical democratisation on at least two continents.
Today, we are a long way from such passionate optimism. In Parliament, yet another select committee is examining news-media intrusions into privacy, and the Communications Bill, which primarily concerns electronic media and telecommunications, may yet be hijacked in the House of Lords to apply pressure to a Press Complaints Commission that has few admirers outside the boardrooms of the newspaper industry.
When you talk privately to people in Britain today, whether it's to scientists, writers, sports people, business executives, academics or politicians, you realise that their personal feeling about the news media oscillates somewhere between fear and disdain.
Some of their fear, to be sure, is exaggerated and, indeed, based on self-interest. Governments, businesses and pressure groups spend vast sums of money endeavouring to bend the media to their own ends. People in powerful positions often wish to avoid examination in public, or to be examined only on their own terms, which is an option unavailable in a democratic society. …