“The Murdoch-Dacre Generation Has Had Its Day”
Thank you for asking me to do this. If this visiting professorship was meant to be an honour, it can’t have been because of my time as a student. I didn’t set this place alight academically, though I am pleased I did languages, which stood me in good stead for three careers – journalism, politics and now a rather odd mix – which have all relied on the role of words in shaping events.
I have titled the lectures “A Life At The Nexus Of Media and Politics”, because that is where I have lived it. I intend to ask and seek to answer two questions – today “why journalism, and why it matters in a world of flux?” And tomorrow, feeling that a Cambridge lecture ought to have grand sounding themes, “Journalism and Democracy: grounds for optimism in the face of the future?” The written version, lest you consider me naive, includes a question mark.
One of the most powerful critiques of modern journalism came from The Guardian’s Nick Davies. In his book Flat Earth News, he detailed specific acts of press distortion, manipulation and lying. But more, he made a convincing analysis that the corporatisation of the media is what has led to its decline in trust and accuracy. He calls it a cancer and argues it is beyond cure. I hope he is wrong, but three things are clear:
- first, those who have created the cancer cannot cure it. The Murdoch-Dacre generation of owners and executives, let alone the so-called regulators at the PCC, have failed, cannot change their ways, have had their day.
- so second, hope of recovery has to rest with the next generation; the next generation of journalists, to bring a more honest and serious approach; and the next generation of technology, new forms of media which can break down old and corrupt power structures.
- third, we need a new system of independent self regulation as proposed by Leveson which, contrary to the lies told about it in their papers, should give journalists little to fear, and much to like, if their interest truly is good journalism having its place at the heart of democracy.
From my first day on the Mirror training scheme – not least because that is the day I met Fiona 33 years ago – I loved being a journalist, and it is partly the journalist in me that hates what the Murdoch-Dacre leadership has done to British journalism and its reputation.
I think the pace of change has been greater during our lifetime than in any other period in history, and nowhere more so than in the media; papers, radio and TV active 24 hours a day, deadlines and regional borders effectively gone, news and comment largely fused, trends accelerated by social media which did not exist when I left Downing Street, let alone when I started. Mark Zuckerberg, 29, not even born when I set out on the Daily Mirror.
For all its faults, journalism is an exciting place to be. Amid the trivia, there are big stories – climate change, demographic change, the shift of power from West to East, the debate in and about Islam, the Middle East, inequality between and within nations, food security, water security, energy, terrorism, the advance of technology. Journalism has a vital role to play in all these debates. A lot of it happening in specialist, often academic circles, often on the web, rather than in what we call the mass media. But as the balance between mass media and new media continues to shift, the debate can improve. See what I mean about optimism?
It was pre-Cambridge, as a child, that I tasted my first sense of the power of newsprint to captivate, stirring my own answer to the question “why journalism?” Like many exiled Scots, my parents had the Sunday Post, an institution in Scottish media, posted down every week. It was a curious mix of news stories with a drop intro, columns, cartoons, most famously the Broons and Oor Wullie, and exceptional coverage of Scottish football. And I read it from cover to cover. I was fascinated by the way headlines fit. I was intrigued by how many perspectives on different subjects could be in the same column. I liked the way it could form the basis of discussion in the home. I liked the feel of the paper. And I sensed its values, a philosophy, that gave it a unique sense of its own being; it was unrelentingly positive. Newspapers must have a character to succeed, and the DNA of this often eccentric paper played a part in exciting my interest in journalism.
I was OK at my job but not a great journalist. My only award was the Cudlipp award, and given Robert Maxwell was a judge and one of the articles was about his heroic role alleviating famine in Ethiopia I am not sure it counts. I could do shorthand, learned newspaper law, wrote clearly and quickly, didn’t fear asking questions. And I held various jobs, including news editor of the now extinct Sunday Today in my 20s – with an over promotion nervous breakdown to show for it – and political editor of the Mirror.
I was better at my second career than my first and that is because at heart I was always more a political journalist than a political journalist.
Great journalists for me were people like Mirror colleague Paul Foot, whose loathing of injustice emanated from every pore and every word. Harry Evans was a hero because under him the Sunday Times made investigations that mattered and he committed the time, resources and leadership needed. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were heroes, and more of them tomorrow.
Then those who remind us journalism is also a matter of life and death. Terry Lloyd of ITN, killed in Iraq. Rupert Hamer of the Sunday Mirror, killed in Afghanistan. Marie Colvin. And not just war correspondents. If you need any further evidence of the celebritisation of the media, let me tell you the sad story of paparazzi Chris Guerra, killed while chasing … Justin Bieber.
When I was a trainee, if you had asked me my ambition, I would have said “editor of the Mirror“. Not now. I would struggle with the overwhelming celebritisation of tabloid life. It was always a bit like that – my first Mirror story was about the stunt rider Eddie Kidd. But now it is the general diet not the occasional entree. A whole Star front page covered with a picture of Cheryl Cole’s tattooed backside. Indeed, a whole magazine called Celebrity Tattoos. Today, broadsheets and broadcasters also fear that if they fail to run big celebrity stories, they will get their balance wrong. So Michael Jackson’s court case got 50 times more TV coverage than events in Sudan, including both Darfur, where as many as 400,000 people died between, and as the trial started, the fighting in Eastern Sudan.
As veteran BBC war correspondent then MP Martin Bell said in 2004, “the culture of celebrity, like an army of ants, has colonized the news pages, both tabloid and broadsheet”.
The impact of “tabloidisation” has created two perspectives: the first camp champions celebrity culture as a populist force for democratisation, classlessness, engagement with serious issues through reality TV. The second camp sees a lament for cultural decline, where TV and press conspire to create fabricated personalities, and political debate is reduced to the emotive, personal and trivial.
We see a parallel rise in both the “celebrity politician” and “political celebrity”. When Tony Blair went on shows like Des O’Connor, we would argue we were responding to the dumbing down, critics that we were leading that process. And just as politicians feel they have to reach out to the celebrity world so celebrities now find it easier to get coverage for political issues than most politicians do. Russell Brand and his multi-million YouTube hit interview with Paxman. Bono and Bob Geldof have a higher profile on development than development ministers. Stephen Fry tweets a protest about Russia and David Cameron invites him for a chat in a pub. But the issues are important with or without the celebrity, and how frustrating it is for charities and communities to toil away, and the media pays not a blind bit of notice, until Angelina Jolie turns up.
But perhaps a more relevant question than “do I see myself as a journalist now?”, is this – If I was starting out again, would I consider journalism, and if my children wanted to be journalists, would I welcome that? The answer to both is yes. Partly because it does matter. Partly because it is the media age, and anything which defines an age is a good place for that generation to be. And partly because it will be for their generation to get journalism to a better place, and political debate won’t improve without that happening.
Of course the question – who or what is a journalist? – is a live one, made real by social media. Look how many stories now refer to Twitter. And when an accident happens, or a police raid, or an incident involving famous people, before a trained journalist can get there, people are filming on phones, and media are begging for material, much in the way police do. Does that make them journalists? No. But have they changed the nature of journalism? Certainly.
Take the death of Ian Tomlinson. The G20 protests got enormous coverage, largely for violence by protesters. The Tomlinson story began as a piece of sceptical reporting by Paul Lewis, but, realising it was weak, he used Twitter to reach an audience beyond the Guardian. People started sending through their own digital evidence not to the police, of whom perhaps they were suspicious, but to Lewis. It turned out a US-based fund manager had captured the moment a policeman assaulted Tomlinson just minutes before he collapsed. He sent it to Lewis. We know what has happened since.
When Parliament published the expenses claims of MPs, as part of greater transparency post the Telegraph expose, the Guardian, unable to cope with the deluge, posted 460,000 documents on their website and within a couple of days a virtual newsroom of 23,000 ‘reporters’ ploughed through them, flagging up interesting facts or lines. So the future of journalism could be mutual; not old vs new media, but collaborative. The key decisions are still being taken in newsrooms and editorial meetings, but the outside influencers have grown. That is grounds for optimism too.
More video content is uploaded to YouTube each month than the three main American networks broadcast in their first six decades. It is not all journalism, but it is media. It is why I believe, around Leveson, there should have been a debate about what constitutes a professional journalist. Until there is a truthful debate within the media about the media, the standards expected of it and agreed by it, then they will in my view continue to decline in terms of respect and with it, a positive role in shaping change.
George Brock, head of journalism at City University London, said of the detention of Snowden journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow, that an odd theme kept recurring. Is David Miranda a journalist? Why does it matter? Because of well-intentioned but muddled law, he said. Controversial journalism happens at the junction of two colliding rights: the right of a state to keep things secret to keep a country safe; and the media’s right to disclose matters that inform public discussion, something I will address tomorrow. Brock suggested a way of managing this is to give journalists a special legal status. It is an interesting idea, though it doesn’t resolve the Miranda question, nor how to differentiate what would be a legally privileged class from millions of semi journalists with an iPhone and a twitter account. But good journalism surely needs the concept of the professional journalist to take hold.
Education is key. In the 1970s the proportion of graduates to non-graduates entering journalism was 30:70. By 2000 the trend was reversed. However, only 2% of graduates had done an undergraduate course in journalism and only 17% had a postgraduate qualification in journalism.
My old boss Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City, says: ‘A university education is far better for journalists – and for journalism. It sharpens critical faculties. It provides a grounding in basic skills. It is so good that many graduates are able to step straight into national papers.’
Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie reckons he’d close down all journalism colleges, proclaiming: “There’s nothing you can learn in three years studying media at university that you can’t learn in just one month on a local paper.” Old generation.
Nowadays, UK journalists are being trained and educated with little cost to the industry in which they are going to work. Journalism education is too important not to be seen as such by the industry itself. If journalism has value to democratic society that makes it more than another form of commerce, then licensed or not, it has the qualities of a profession. The good news is that most journalism courses are way over subscribed.
But if education is important, so are the moral choices individual journalists make, and that notion should be part of their training. Journalists have to own their journalism, see it as something with codes of behaviour. So that when a news editor instructs them to harass, or write what amounts to lies, or twist the facts to suit a pre-ordained line they cannot support, they say, “No, I won’t,” just as a good doctor would not knowingly prescribe the wrong drugs or a good lawyer would not knowingly misrepresent the law. It takes courage to stand up to a boss, but courage is what leads to change, and there has been too little of it bottom up, from people saying “this is wrong, not what I came into journalism to do”. The impact of this kind of conscience intervention – only Richard Peppiatt ex of the Star springs to mind as a recent example – could frankly be greater than the impact of regulation.
The scale of the media means we need more not fewer good journalists. Back in the ’80s, I didn’t really have to write before 5pm. Journalists today have less time to write more stories, fill more space with fewer colleagues. They have to tweet, blog, write for the online edition, possibly film too.
News reporting used to be about checking. A major incident. The news desk would send reporters and photographers. Now you would first have to tweet – major incident, checking with Scotland Yard, details sketchy. Then TV goes “whoosh – breaking news”, filling time by saying how little they know, and reporting every piece of information as it comes in. Then finding eye witnesses, or eye witnesses are finding them, and what we see is the process of news gathering, visible, live, and it is part of the journalist’s job to make it exciting.
The birth of Prince George: even in Princess Diana’s day, photographers would have relied on motorbike riders to get film back to the office, or get back themselves, work in a dark room, go through the laborious process of turning the images they clicked into prints for the paper. Now they can be live instantly. The TV reporters back then stood above the fray, presented the tabloids as over excited, themselves as purveyors of an important constitutional development. Now we have Kay Burley on Sky News running up to complete strangers screaming, “It’s a boy,” the human equivalent of a 1950s billboard for an evening paper.
On Sky Sports News – could anyone have predicted, back when QPR was the only team ever on the news because their ground was near BBC White City, that one day we would have 24 hour dedicated sports channels, showing every goal in the Football League within an hour of the final whistle? Good Murdoch legacy! On transfer deadline day, people tune in not just for the news but for the manner in which it is brought to us, by an increasingly frenetic Jim White, who can make a loan signing from Norwich to Watford sound as exciting as the second coming? It is journalism, just not what we knew journalism to be.
So why did I become a journalist, and why would I be fine, for all the criticisms, if my children followed suit?
The first answer is that it seemed like great fun and it was. A big part of the fun is the privilege that being a journalist represents – it is your job to ask questions, and to expect answers. I remember when the Queen, at her golden jubilee, came to Downing St. She and TB faced the cameras together and after, Tony looked troubled. “I couldn’t believe it?” he said. What? “They shout at her the same way as they shout at everyone …. How you feelin’ Ma’am?” They know she’s not going to answer. But most people do, and on that simple basis, ask a question, get an answer, journalism works.
Why does virtually every organisation in the world have some kind of press office function? Yes, at the corporate and political end because they want to shape image and shape events, but also because when the press do come calling, in an open society they know they have to say something.
So fun, interesting, it matters, at its best it makes the important interesting. It is the lingering journalist in me that still gets a kick learning something new and passing it on. Did you know that last year there were more nappies sold to adults in Japan than were sold to children? There go on, admit it, that was more interesting than saying we have an ageing population.
Power – that is another answer to the question “why journalism?” It is bad when press power is abused, as it has been. But the press as a check on power is not a bad thing per se. What is bad is when the power of the press is such that politicians feel reluctant to challenge it, when deep down they know they should. It was one of the few things TB and I fell out about. I felt we should have acted to deal with what we knew to be a problem. He felt we had bigger priorities than ‘the feral beast’. He also knew – as Ed Miliband is finding out – that if you make too many media enemies, it is harder to get your message through. But it is changing, and Ed was right to press for Leveson, and right to go for the Mail when they smeared his dad. Politicians derive strength in different ways. Often the test is set by the media. In this instance, it was about the media. The determination he showed to do the right thing, in the face of an interest to which too few have stood up, took guts, not just after phone hacking, but since, to see it through.
Journalists do not have power to make laws, but they have influence over who it is that makes those decisions, and the terms in which decisions are debated and made. But as the public know more of the way the press operate, so their power weakens, and politicians can represent the public interest not their own or that of the media.
The quality press has always had influence through reach to the elite, not to be underestimated. But it is at least arguable that the influence of tabloids has been greater, certainly culturally, perhaps politically too. There are many big lies that run through modern journalism – the myth of non interference for political and commercial ends, widely promulgated at Leveson, is one of them. Murdoch is not the first and unlikely to be the last of his kind, though he might be the last to get away with as much as he did, in so many jurisdictions, for so long.
Here, an earlier wave of change is relevant. As literacy grew during the interwar years, the total of national daily newspapers sold more than tripled from 3.1m in 1918 to 10.6m by 1939. Businessmen with an eye on power were not slow to spot the significance. Much of the British press fell into the hands of a few families – the Harmsworth brothers, among them Lord Northcliffe, who launched the first million-selling daily, the Mail, in 1896 and was once described by Keith Murdoch, Rupert’s father, as the “Chief of all Journalists”, and who would boast that he ousted Asquith and shepherded in Lloyd George. Then there was Beaverbook, who stated without apology that the central purpose of his newspapers was propaganda. In my own time, Robert Maxwell and Tiny Rowland saw their newspaper ownership as an extension both of their egos and other commercial interests. Working for Maxwell, we could persuade ourselves that we managed him and minimised interference, but we cannot deny it existed.
Owners and editors trooped before Leveson to say they strove to tell the truth. But it is their version of the truth, their selection and distortion of facts which suit their agenda, their assessment of what readers want. In contrast to TV viewers, readers see the product, not the process. The papers are generous to the point of ridiculous with their favourites, or where their own interests are concerned, vicious and disproportionate about hobby horses or people who cross them. The same approach is moving into TV. Fox News. Fair and balanced my backside, and a good reason why whatever the criticisms of the BBC, it should be supported, remain central to our culture and having had the Murdochisation of the press, we should resist the Foxisation of TV news, which this government almost allowed, and certainly wanted to.
And for me, the real evil of narrow concentration of press ownership by a clutch of wealthy right-wing men, most of whom do not pay taxes here, is that it leads to a narrow set of values and interests within the news agenda. It is why for all the concerns about privacy, online bullying and the rest, I welcome the impact of social media in breaking open the agenda setting of a self-serving political and economic elite.
Alongside the myth of non interference we have the myth of press objectivity. It is possible to strive to be fair, neutral, impartial. But in every striving there are enormous cultural and specific judgements being made, and many of them are necessarily subjective.
Unemployment falls – Mirror reports on those still out of work, Mail and Telegraph say Britain is booming. The facts are the same, how the papers spin them is down to their view of the world, as is their choice of splash, as are choices of omission, a distorting factor all of its own. And of course broadcasters take this “objectivity” even further, so that news becomes here is an announcement, Tories say this, Labour say this, independent “expert” says this, here is a summary. The truth is in there somewhere but it is too complicated for that formula. The BBC strives, broadly successfully, to be impartial. That is not the same as objective. It does not say vote Labour, or vote Tory, in the way papers can. But it is influenced by politics, and by other media, and it is made up of people making judgements which can strive to be fair, but that is not the same as objective.
Nowhere is this more the case than over education. Most senior media people live in London, earn way more than MPs, never mind readers, and the vast majority send their kids to private schools. They have a vested interest in running down state schools, or campaigning against measures to widen access to places like Cambridge: naked undeclared self interest of middle aged journalists horrified that a state schoolchild might deprive their child of an Oxbridge place because of a policy of giving, say, an AAB offer to somebody who hasn’t had the advantage of dedicated Oxbridge tutors in a school which exports half its kids to Cambridge every year. Oxbridge – sort out fair access for state schools please. Frankly, it has barely moved on since I was here, which suits the editors, but harms Britain’s claim to be meritocratic. Bugbear point made.
The war in Kosovo was where pseudo-fairness and pseudo-objectivity became a real problem for us. NATO is a collection of democracies, its leaders expected to set out facts before legislators and public, and explain their decisions. Belgrade was at the time a dictatorship with control over its media, and therefore huge influence on western media too. The Serb agency, Tanjug, would report that we had dropped napalm on a primary school. We knew we hadn’t so said so. ”NATO denies using napalm on a school.” Thereby lodging a thought that maybe we would, and in Serbia, the denial was not covered. These stories were true, in that one side said a, the other side said b, and both views were covered. But the truth on the basic question – did we use napalm on a primary school? – was attainable and the answer was no. And in today’s competitive media world, where speed is of the essence, the temptation is always to take what you’re told, and of course in situations like that, it is impossible to check. They won’t let you travel. Or the story is being covered in London anyway, because the paper or broadcaster cannot afford to send.
Of course as the Prime Minister’s spokesman, this was at times an advantage, to me. My briefings were often the means by which we made announcements, shifted the agenda. If I said something newsworthy, the imperative of the journalist was to get it out there, quickly, ahead of rivals. Now I was a legitimate source and, at the heart of Downing St, an authoritative one. But I was only one source as well, more attached to the truth than my opposite numbers in Belgrade, or later in Kabul, for all the controversy since, Baghdad. But a source nonetheless.
Here we come to an important point about why journalism and why it matters. It has been reported that there are now more PRs in Britain than journalists. This reflects the media age. Reputation is vital, and has a value. Politicians, government departments, companies, charities, celebrities – they do not hire PR teams out of vanity. They know that protecting and nurturing their reputations is vital if they are to be able to meet their objectives. That is why PR is becoming a professional service, not miles away from legal or financial advice.
The job of the press is not just to cover but to challenge what they say. The reason why newsrooms should not be seen as factories, why there should be spare capacity, why there should be time to check and challenge, is precisely because the balance has shifted, that the faster rhythm of news, and the greater sophistication of PR, has increased the power and influence of the PR at the expense of the journalist.
Not always though. If Kosovo was one of our most difficult foreign policy crises, perhaps the worst domestic crisis was the fuel protest of 2000. If students want a good case study of how the media can, unwittingly and/or deliberately, play a role in creating a genuine crisis which almost brings the country to a halt, and the government PR machine feels helpless in the face of media-fuelled public anger, this is the one. Petrol prices rising. Small protests at refineries; but with a wonderful communications network, namely 24 hour news channels, refinery by refinery, from Grangemouth to Milford Haven, reporters doing pieces to camera saying passers by were honking their horns in support, when suspiciously it looked like the same two or three cars driving up and down behind them. The newspapers sensed a popular uprising, and wanted to be on the right side. The headlines started – ”will there be panic buying?” So there was panic buying, the reporters moved from refineries to garages where nice old ladies sat in Ford Fiestas saying why they were stocking up, and by the next bulletin, as viewers saw this panic buying by these nice old ladies, the queues got longer.
The scandal of the MMR vaccine coverage was another, where the hatred for the government meant sections of the media ignored overwhelming scientific opinion in favour of a maverick, and created a measles epidemic with their scare-mongering. There are many reasons I would like to debate with Paul Dacre. His attempted bullying and intimidation. His cowardice. His abuse of power. His lies and twisting of facts. His hatred of anything which doesn’t conform to his bizarre view of the world. And his role in creating a measles epidemic. How wonderful the irony though, as I shall make clear tomorrow, that in the manner he has resisted change to the PCC he part controlled, he has made such change more likely. But I really do wish a Parliamentary select committee would conduct an inquiry into MMR/measles, with him as first witness.
This all leads back to the most important answer to the question why journalism – it matters. It matters more than ever, because the world is both more interconnected and more complicated, and journalism has to be part of debating and deciding the big choices, with the public genuinely informed. When I was a young journalist, the defining big story was the Cold War, the battle between capitalism and communism. It was scary at times, but it brought a kind of balance to the world. I find those issues I listed earlier – whether climate change or global terrorism or water and energy security or geo strategic shifts – a lot scarier.
Something else. Most days we don’t have contact with banking, the law, medicine, accountancy, but every day we have contact with journalism, frankly whether we want to or not. That is kind of exciting, to be part of that.
Here are five names. Alistair Carmichael. Teresa Villiers. Owen Paterson. David Jones. Jonathan Hill. Know who they are? They are all Cabinet ministers. Now let me ask you. Who has heard of Piers Morgan, Polly Toynbee, Arianna Huffington, Trevor Kavanagh or Robert Peston? You see, they are spectators, but players too. The best known journalists are better known than ever, and better known than most politicians. Right or wrong, it emphasises the extent to which in the never ending struggle between politics and media, it has tilted towards the journalists. Too much? Possibly. But certainly it has tilted in a way that should increase the responsibility journalists feel about what they do, and their role in society.
The post Leveson debate suggests owners and editors believe they are above politics. They have shown themselves to be totally divorced from the public opinion from which they claim to derive their authority, and divorced from central pillars of journalism – commitment to the truth, at least an attempt at fairness, and a meaningful understanding of their role in democracy. Tomorrow, in addition to addressing inter alia (there has to be Latin in a Cambridge lecture) the issues of regulation, ownership, social media, Snowden and Wikileaks, I try to suggest why, despite it all, I remain an optimist about public debate, starting with the very good news that this generation of leadership, the Murdoch-Dacre generation, has had its day. Thank you.Tagged in: alastair campbell, feral beast, leveson, media ownership
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter