Nick Jones

Media Ethics

Nicholas Jones, 18 October 2007 

Iain Dale is to be congratulated for highlighting the woeful failure of the left of centre in British politics to exploit the blogosphere. Of the top twenty political blogs featured in the Guide to Political Blogging 2007-8 , fourteen are from the right of centre and only two from the left.

Of even greater concern is the absence of any defining figures on the mainstream left to bridge the gap between "blogging and the traditional media".

Dale’s guide ranks the top 500 political blogs and as he observes with some justification, the "right of centre blogosphere" is in "a rude state of health" with not a single left wing blog having a mass readership anything like the size of the top seven or eight on the right.

The Ethical Journalist,

By Tony Harcup.

Sage Publications, £18.00.

Review by Nicholas Jones

After all the anguished soul searching of the summer months over the alleged faking of television and radio programmes, the obvious title for Tony Harcup’s next book must surely be The Ethical Broadcaster. With commendable clarity he has pulled together an invaluable compendium of the numerous ethical dilemmas which every journalist will probably face at some point in their careers, a timely reminder, if one was needed, that public trust in the news media is hard won and easily lost.

While the argument over the need for an enforceable code of conduct will continue to ebb and flow, journalists cannot ignore the fact that our behaviour and ethics are under greater scrutiny than ever before, not least because of the continuing explosion in ways of communicating and accessing information.

Our integrity is on the line as never before and while I agree with the likes of Kelvin MacKenzie that journalism cannot claim to be a profession, he must not be allowed to get away unchallenged with his most recent definition of our trade: "It is a knack, a skill or a talent - like plumbing". (Sun 2.8.2007)

 

August 1, 2008 

When the Democrats’ eight candidates for US President took part in a televised debate answering questions posted on the video-sharing website YouTube, they contributed to an event which was a first for American political campaigning and which will inevitably be copied and developed further by broadcasters and political parties in the United Kingdom.

New forms of media are opening up new ways of participating in politics and Britain, with its rich history of robust electioneering, is well placed to take advantage of the rapid growth in the use of the web and what has already become a highly-innovative form of communication.

But while welcoming new opportunities to engage with a section of the electorate which has been notorious in the past for its low levels of voting, there is no certainty that future turnout will be higher, nor is there any guarantee that the world-wide web will provide fairer or more accessible forms of political reporting.

Nicholas Jones explains how the growth in non-attributed quotes and stories based on anonymous sources is eating away at the probity of British journalism:

My heart goes out to that unsung hero who never falters when faced by journalists desperate for an eye witness quote. Once I see those three all-important words -- "an onlooker said..." -- I know I wont be disappointed.

Indeed I have become the "onlooker’s" greatest fan. And, anorak that I am, I have started keeping a file on what the "onlooker" says.

Speech to political and parliamentary correspondents, Bakhu, Azerbaijan. 20.9.2006 

British political journalism is livelier, more sensational -- and potentially more dangerous for politicians and governments -- than in most other European countries. The main reason is that the British newspapers are very political in what they say and extremely powerful when it comes to deciding what is news and influencing their readers. The press does often dictate the political agenda and there is no doubt that if the Prime Minister of the day is unpopular and has lost the support of the main newspapers, then that can sometimes be enough to ensure that the government of the day is defeated.

Unlike much of Europe, Britain does not tend to have coalition governments; our elections tend to be clear cut, either the party in power is defeated or re-elected. Only very rarely do we have what we call a hung Parliament where no party has an overall majority. Our newspapers thrive in this volatile environment and the newspapers often change sides: one year they might support the government, the next the Opposition and this can be very significant because our newspapers have far larger circulations than comparable newspapers in the rest of Europe. We have seven newspapers which sell more than a million copies a day. Our nearest neighbouring country is France which like Britain has a population of around 60 million people, but it does not have a single newspaper selling a million copies, the biggest sale is only half a million.

Speech to Press Intergroup, European Parliament, Strasbourg, 27.9.2006

British newspaper front pages for the 19th of July 2003 tell the story of the tragic suicide of Dr David Kelly, who at the time of his death was Britain’s leading authority on biological warfare. I believe Dr Kelly was perhaps the most significant confidential source of information in British journalism in recent times, at least in the years I have been a reporter. But behind the front-age headlines, there is another untold story, of a black day in British journalism.

What we witnessed in just a few weeks was a collective failure by the British news media to protect a source of information whose importance I suggest stands alongside that of Mark Felt, the former deputy director of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, who a year ago finally admitted he was the celebrated "deep throat" in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Remember, that affair brought down President Nixon. And, yes, with the hindsight of recent political history, I am seeking to make out the case that if the journalists of the BBC had adopted that same considered, step-by-step approach which was followed by the reporters of the Washington Post, then who knows, Dr Kelly’s insights during the early months of 2003 might well have been enough to have triggered the downfall of Tony Blair. Yes, a British Prime Minister might also have suffered the same fate as an American President.

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