No Kelvin, journalism isn't just "a knack"; our trade does have an ethical basis
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)
Even the plumbers of today have to have ethical standards; they have to be conscious of health and safety when installing gas appliances or connecting a kitchen tap to the water mains. Likewise journalists should not forget the nuts and bolts of reporting: for example, quotation marks should mean what they indicate, that the words reproduced are those which were used and that the quote does represent an honest account of what was said.
MacKenzie has serious form when it comes to what I believe has become one of the most corrosive shifts in journalistic standards. In the early 1980s he ushered in what I consider became the "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster" school of journalism which has produced a generation of journalists who are ready to embellish quotes and even to fabricate them in order to manufacture exclusives stories.
While I readily accept that journalists down the ages have taken advantage of anonymous quotes and justified them with formulations along the lines that their source was someone "whose probity cannot be questioned", there is no doubt that the lack of attribution has become far more commonplace in recent years.
When I did my time on the local and national press in the 1960s, news stories required quotes from named individuals. While a greater degree of freedom was allowed for columnists and investigative reporters, the news pages were sacrosanct: stories without identified sources stood little chance of being published.
My one disappointment when reading The Ethical Journalist, was to find how quickly Harcup skated over the insidious culture of the anonymous quote. His chapter on journalists and their sources -- "Can I quote you on that?" -- provided a wealth of background and perceptive insight, for example, into the events surrounding Andrew Gilligan’s infamous broadcast on weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent failure not only of the BBC but also of the wider journalistic community to protect the identity of Dr David Kelly.
Harcup cannot be faulted on the soundness of his advice: all journalists should reflect on the importance of taking and keeping good notes and their responsibility not to betray confidential sources. But although he agrees that a reduction in the use of anonymous quotes might help increase the trustworthiness of journalists among readers, viewers and listeners, he does not explore the reasons why reporters have become so pressurised that on some occasions they seem to think there is no alternative but to make it up.
Whether it is the ubiquitous "insider" who is being quoted or one of the legion of anonymous sources in and around Westminster and Whitehall such as "Downing Street aide", "Whitehall official", "cabinet colleague", "close friend" or "senior MP", the tell-tale signs are pretty obvious; the quotes all have an uncanny knack of having been tailor-made for the story line and the lack of any attribution whatsoever suggests a fertile imagination might have been at work.
Why is it that trainee journalists from universities and colleges slip so easily into the world of the anonymous quote? My own hunch is that all too often reporters are denied the opportunity to leave the office and rarely get the chance to make their own face-to-face inquiries. Instead they have become tied to the telephone and computer keyboard and, in their struggle to meet ever-pressing deadlines, opt for the safety of non-attribution.
My heart sank when discussing these pressures with newly-hired reporters on a suburban free sheet. The latest edict from their editor was that instead of having to have two named residents to substantiate a local story, one resident would do and identification was not required. Is it any wonder that a generation of journalists have no hesitation when writing the line "an onlooker said…"?
More power to Tony Harcup’s elbow. He should strive to keep The Ethical Journalist updated and if he does venture into the world of broadcasting he might like to ponder on my own anecdotal experiences. When I began preparing reports for BBC television news in the mid 1970s I was struck by the meticulous way in which the editors stuck rigidly to the time sequence in which the material had been filmed; arrivals shots or something similar invariably came first followed frame by frame by subsequent events.
When I asked why packages produced by our competitors often opened with the newsiest pictures first, I was told that the BBC always tried to tell the story in the sequence in which it had happened, even thought this might not be the best way to grab the viewers’ attention.
As events would show, increased competition and tighter deadlines put enormous pressure on production teams, especially in edit suites out on location. In the rush to meet a live transmission, the nearest and most appropriate shot would have to do; there was no intention to deceive, the aim was simply to make sure that the best and most-up-to-date material got to air. I admit having succumbed myself to these very same pressures.
There was no BBC conspiracy during the 1984-5 pit dispute to show the mineworkers in the worst possible light. If, as alleged at the time, shots of baton-wielding police and picket-line strikers were in the wrong order, I am convinced it was an entirely innocent mistake; the pictures were still a faithful representation of the story line.
Nonetheless while the BBC might get away with putting striking miners and the police in the reverse order, the same cannot be said about the Queen. Yet again we are back to the nuts and bolts of our craft: if quotation marks appear in print they should have been used honestly and the same goes for the time line when reporting for television or radio.