The Absence of Trust

Posted on July 12th, 2011 by Jackie Harrison

When James Murdoch made his MacTaggart speech entitled ‘The Absence of Trust’ in August 2009 he criticized regulatory constraints in the broadcasting sector for creating unaccountable institutions such as the BBC Trust, Channel 4 and Ofcom.  In his view ‘the provision of independent news, investment in professional journalism and the growth of the creative industries’ would be far better served by ‘embracing private enterprise and profit as a driver of investment, innovation and independence’.  How hollow those words now sound after the events surrounding the closure of the News of the World and further allegations about the practices employed by different parts of the News International group in pursuit of readers.

While the repeated calls for statutory regulation of the press á la broadcasting are far too draconian and unnecessary, there is a more serious question underpinning these events, which is – what is the best route to take to ensure that free and independent journalism, without fear or favour, establishes the right balance in its relationship with non-civil society institutions such as the police and politics (and for that matter religious institutions, science and so on)?   Getting that balance right is crucial for the quality of reporting, levels of public trust in the news media and arguably the depth, breadth and quality of public reasoning.  Ed Miliband’s stance against the Murdoch empire seems to be the first sign of a realignment of this crucial balance, as is mobilization of public opinion via groups such as Mumsnet and comments on twitter.

It would be easy to become misty eyed at such a moment and to claim a sea-change is inevitable, but this will only occur if the judge-led inquiry into phone hacking has real bite and politicians do not turn to their desire to score political points off their opponents rather than tackle the very difficult task of setting up an independent public institution, in place of the PCC, that still allows what Michael Schudson calls ‘an unlovable press’ to flourish.  Such an institution would need to ensure that the best and sometimes some of the worst attributes of the news profession – integrity, accuracy, honesty, curiosity, scepticism, fearlessness and tenacity and a determination to investigate a story can exist alongside a moral and ethical compass.  But there is also a need to ensure that when the need for ethical practice is invoked it does not attract derisory comments about one’s naivety about the real and inevitable nature of the newspaper business, the state of the news market, the need to meet the needs of an ever more demanding public with stories that have to push relentlessly beyond the boundaries of taste, decency and legality and a publish and be damned mentality.

There does not need to be statutory regulation to achieve this balance or to address the culture of irresponsibility now evident in some parts of the print media. The Guardian newspaper has for several lonely years investigated the News of the World story without paying for information and without using private investigators (very rarely and never without the Editor’s direct permission), but the values and practices of news organisations such as the Guardian need to be the norm regardless of the story.

Arguments that it is a happy day for paedophiles, corrupt politicians and loose living celebrities do not have any weight as they conflate the different types of news journalism as practised today.  A story that serves the public interest by revealing something that may protect the public or expose criminal wrong-doing or injustice in a broadsheet or tabloid newspaper is qualitatively different from celebrity gossip or that which preys and feeds on public grief and distress.  In the first instance a public interest defence could be invoked for the use of legal but intrusive methods, in the latter case such a defence crumbles as it is based only on a desire to interest the public.  In this vein it is interesting to see how ‘the public’ with its apparent desire for ever more salacious stories has been invoked by some News International journalists as the driving force for some of their activities and as relieving them of their responsibilities – a case of ‘if the public didn’t like it they wouldn’t buy the paper’.  Notwithstanding the lack of real empirical evidence available that would prove or disprove this claim, the newspaper journalists themselves should also reflect on the possibly specious nature of this claim.  As T S Eliot said in his evidence to the Pilkington Committee in 1962 ‘those who aim to give the public what the public wants begin by underestimating the public taste; they end by debauching it’. While Eliot’s elitist comments may appear outdated today they are still evident in some of the implicit assumptions and practices that are apparent in some parts the news media industry itself. First, is the view that ever changing audience preferences leads inexorably to the need to produce lowest common denominator content and second, that increasing competition in the news media environment, which has led to harder-fought battles for readers, requires an approach to reporting that appeals only to a primitive mind.  It is no wonder that James Murdoch’s title of his MacTaggart lecture now seems so prophetic.

Jackie Harrison
Professor of Public Communications
Department of Journalism Studies
University of Sheffield