Journalism at Your Service?
International Journalism Festival, Perugia, 1.4.2009
Two questions should trouble the journalists of Britain, Europe and America as we work through what will be a terrible year for the world economy. Why, during the boom years, didn’t we do more to investigate what was really happening in the financial markets? And are journalists in danger now of being deflected from the task of holding our governments, banks and institutions to account? Journalists can play their part in serving the public interest by investigating what went wrong, by scrutinising what the politicians are saying, and by helping to ensure that rigorous controls are introduced to prevent the damaging financial speculation of the past. But my fear is that the news media of Britain is in danger of being diverted by the quick fix of trying to find scapegoats. So much of our recent coverage has concentrated on the seemingly constant demand that those who are responsible – be they politicians or bankers – should be required to say “sorry”. Often that pressure has been reinforced by calls for all financial bonuses to be returned. A witch-hunt can grab the headlines and a running story of this kind is ideal for the news channels of 24/7. Yes, perhaps such stories are more entertaining than the serious task of analysing why mistakes were made, but they are an easy form of journalism both for the press and broadcasters. And, my concern is that by following such story lines we are in danger of playing into the hands of political spin doctors and others who seek to manipulate the news media. Journalists might like to think they are serving the public good by forcing public figures to apologise but recent British experience points in the opposite direction. Indeed the word “sorry” has become so devalued when uttered by politicians and bankers that we should expose it for what it is: an empty device that can be cynically deployed to deflect journalists from the issues which really matter. Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair – aided by the spinning of his press spokesman Alastair Campbell – became a serial offender and he repeatedly used the trick of saying “sorry” to close down stories which were troubling his government. Unfortunately we as journalists have become addicted to the idea that obtaining an apology is some kind of victory when often it is nothing more than a meaningless cosmetic. I have to acknowledge immediately that the British press is only too willing to use the power of publicity to punish people. Public figures regularly get demonised and all but destroyed. But is this urge to exact retribution merely encouraging and sustaining a herd mentality among journalists? When we slavishly follow such narratives are we making life harder for those journalists who want to engage in serious investigative work and who consider that a public apology is nothing more than a cop out? British experience is not very encouraging. For weeks now there has been a sustained media offensive demanding that the Prime Minister Gordon Brown should be forced to say “sorry” for the failure of the system for regulating the financial markets. Our Financial Services Authority was devised and established by Brown himself, more than a decade ago, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer (the finance minister under Tony Blair). The closest the Prime Minister has got to apologising is to declare that he takes “full responsibility” for his role in the banking failures which led to the recession (Guardian, 17.3.2009). He says he wished he had done more in the late 1990s to mount a popular campaign to demand better regulation of the world’s financial markets. So far he has managed to survive this offensive and he has actually avoided having to say the word “sorry”. Indeed he says he has nothing to apologise for. But the British tabloids have not given up their pursuit of the Prime Minister and in the meantime they are relishing the task of hounding the bankers. “Scumbag Millionaires” was The Sun’s headline on the day after four “shamed bank bosses” went before a House of Commons committee and said ‘sorry’ for the economic crisis” (Sun, 11.2.2009). The Sun’s headline was a brilliant word play on the title of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire and few can beat its flair once the paper’s journalists get their teeth into a “villain”. When the following week it was revealed that one of those four “Scumbag Millionaires” had been awarded a pension fund worth £16 million, he came face to face with the full ferocity of the British tabloid press. Sir Fred Goodwin, the disgraced chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was probably hoping he might be able to retreat quietly from the public eye and enjoy his multi-million pound pension pot, despite having clocked up the biggest annual loss in British corporate history. But there was no chance of that happening once it was revealed that he had instant access to £3million of his pension fund and that even though he was only fifty years old, he would benefit from a pension worth nearly £700,000 a year. The Sun was first off the mark and immediately started a readers’ petition demanding that he be forced to give back the pension money (27.2.2009). Not surprisingly Sir Fred has disappeared from public view; it’s thought he and his family have left the country. We now see how the hounding of Sir Fred is driving the story, deflecting journalists from keeping up pressure on the banks which the government has rescued in order to ensure they get back to the vital job lending money. First there were placards outside Sir Fred’s home in Edinburgh: “Scumbag Millionaire” Jail Him! (The Times, 4.3.2009). Then windows were smashed and windscreen of his car was damaged. There is now a price on his head: a picture agency says that one of the tabloid papers would probably pay £30,000 for an exclusive picture of Sir Fred enjoying his £16 million pound pension (The Guardian, 23.3.2009). The hunt for Sir Fred and the demand that he should pay back the money regularly makes the headlines in television news and is debated by callers to radio phone-in programmes. The attack on his home led the news bulletins. Goodwin has become a symbol of the greed and incompetence of the credit crunch. The story line is a perfect illustration of what the New York Times columnist David Brooks says is “made-for-television hysterics” (New York Times 20.3.2009). Brooks believes the pursuit of such stories is a distraction and reflects the inability of many journalists to focus on the issues which really require the media’s attention. Coincidentally the hue and cry around the demand for a 100 per cent tax on bonuses worth $165 million awarded by the failed AIG insurance group prompted a New York Post front-page headline which was more than a match for the Sun: “Not So Fast You Greedy Bastards” (New York Post, 18.3.2009). Many of the bonuses were repaid as a result of the publicity surrounding President Obama’s attack on the AIG management. It was a good story and American journalists might feel some satisfaction as a result, but are our governments privately relieved when the media pack chases after a headline-grabbing story like that? Increasingly politicians understand how to feed journalists story-lines which might divert our attention and deflect our focus from what really matters. Once there has been an apology, there is a greater chance that journalists will abandon the story and look for another target. A witch-hunt against Sir Fred -- the “Scumbag Millionaire” -- has helped to take the heat off Gordon Brown and his Chancellor Alistair Darling as they struggle to prevent Britain sliding into a depression. They are quite happy for the “Scumbag Millionaires” to take the blame. However, what we as journalists have to acknowledge is that our mindset can be exploited. While we are busy chasing bankers are we perhaps overlooking the failings of the Prime Minister and his government? The great value of Alastair Campbell when he was appointed Tony Blair’s press secretary was that he understood how to tame the herd mentality of journalists. He became a master of orchestrating the trick of saying “sorry” when he wanted to close down unhelpful stories. He knew that if he could deliver a spectacular apology it might well draw a line and put a stop to embarrassing reports. Six months after he became Prime Minister in 1997, Tony Blair was in trouble for accepting a £1million donation from the Formula One motor racing boss, Bernie Ecclestone. Because of the suspicion it was linked to Formula One’s continued ability to take tobacco advertising, Ecclestone’s gift undermined the Labour Party’s carefully-constructed image that it was a “sleaze-free” political party, unlike the previous Conservative government. Campbell was desperate to find an escape route. In advance of publication, he briefed the Sunday newspapers that Blair would use a television interview that day to say “sorry”. Even before the Prime Minister had apologised, it had become the lead story: “Blair goes on TV to say I’m sorry” was the banner headline across eight columns of the Sunday Telegraph’s front page. The Observer’s headline was equally on message: “Blair: Sorry, we blundered”. To be fair, Blair did actually say the word “sorry” but what he apologised for was the way news of the donation had been presented to the members of the Labour Party. He did not say “sorry” for taking the money and his high-profile apology had no effect on Blair’s future conduct behind the scenes when it came to persuading wealthy benefactors to donate money to the Labour Party. Indeed in his final few years as Prime Minister, Blair was dogged by the media’s coverage of an abuse that became known as “cash for honours” – the scandal about rich businessmen being rewarded with honours like peerages in the House of Lords in return for donations to the party or for Blair’s educational projects. In my opinion the trick of saying “sorry” became a stain on Blair’s premiership but it seemed to work every time. In October 1998 after one of Blair’s cabinet ministers was robbed at knife point at a notorious homosexual haunt, he was forced to resign and had to apologise for embarrassing the party. Campbell insisted he had to say “sorry” – and the minister, Ron Davies, was so anxious not to forget when being interviewed on television, that he scrawled the word “sorry” on his wrist as a reminder. (The Sun, Daily Telegraph, 31.10.1998). There was an equally contrite apology by one of Campbell’s most trusted aides Jo Moore after she hit the headlines in 2001 after sending out the infamous email that suggested that 9/11 – the day that the World Trade Centre was attacked – was “a very good day” for the Labour government to “bury” bad news. But again her “sincere” apology (The Times, 17.10.2001) had no long-term effect on the culture of spin in Blair’s government. Only last month Labour Party spin doctors in the Prime Minister’s office were caught red handed manipulating the publication of official statistics on knife crime. Alastair Campbell’s role as a puppet master for apologies reached its nadir in 2002 when Cherie Blair gave a tearful performance in admitting mistakes over her investment in the purchase of two flats. “I am not Superwoman – I am sorry” was the headline on the front page of The Times (11.12.2002). But the apology did not stop Cherie Blair’s craving for buying houses and she and her husband have built up an impressive property portfolio. What these apologies indicate is that saying “sorry” can be an empty gesture but still be one which seems to satisfy journalists, giving us the illusion that we have held politicians to account. Alastair Campbell’s skill was in knowing when an apology would have most impact and therefore when would be the best chance of deflecting journalists from the underlying issue. Public figures who are without the advice of a spin doctor can pay a terrible price if they fail to divert the media pack as it moves in for the kill. Again the inherent danger in witch-hunts is that they can be a diversion and fail to address to what is really at stake. Britain has a dreadful record when it comes to teenage pregnancies, the tragedy of broken homes and the lack of a stable environment for the children involved, so many of whom are at risk. The case of Baby P – who died after being tortured and abused – is a text book example of how a newspaper like The Sun can exact retribution but fail to support and encourage the social workers whose job it is to protect vulnerable children. Last year it began a petition calling for the dismissal of the social workers who had failed to protect Baby P. The principal target was Sharon Shoesmith, the head of children’s services in the London borough of Haringey. When over a million people had signed the petition, it needed six of the paper’s journalists to carry the sacks full of petition forms to the Prime Minister’s office (The Sun, 30.11.2008). Within days the government had intervened and three of the care workers were suspended. The following week – when the total of signed petition forms had reached 1.4million -- Sharon Shoesmith, the head of children’s services was dismissed without compensation and without the £1.5 million pension she might have expected. There was nothing the government could have done: the Sun had helped to dictate the outcome. “AT LAST” was the bold headline on the Sun’s “Baby P Victory” issue (9.12.2008). But the organisation for social workers has complained. It says the Sun’s campaign of vilification has done immense damage to the well being and morale of those whose job it is to care for vulnerable children. Haringey had to appeal to other local authorities to provide relief staff. I have singled out The Sun because it launched the petition, but the demand that the director be sacked grew into a common story line across the news media. Journalists’ herd mentality had clicked in. Yes Sharon Shoesmith was sacked but the question we have to answer is whether the media’s campaign will achieve lasting help for children at risk? The Sun would have dearly liked to have mounted a similar campaign to identify and vilify the heads of care services in Austria for their failure to stop Josef Fritzl from repeatedly raping his daughter Elisabeth who was held captive with her children. Austrian journalists have acknowledged that if the Fritzl case had happened in Britain, newspapers like The Sun would probably have identified and named those officials who should have taken the blame. There is no doubt there would have been a campaign to get them sacked. While The Sun could not achieve that, we do know that many Austrians have been horrified by the intrusive nature of British newspaper reporting. Austria’s codes on protecting victims from identification and harassment meant nothing to The Sun which is the only British paper to have obtained and published a picture of Elisabeth since her release. Across two pages it published the “First Pictures of Fritzl’s freed dungeon daughter”, the incest victim with her own daughter Lisa (The Sun, 9.2.2009). Their faces were pixillated but the damage had been done: Elisabeth and her children had to be moved from the house where they were starting to rebuild their lives. They had no alternative but to return to the psychiatric clinic for safety and security. Pictures of the house where she had been living have appeared in several British newspapers and so has the name of the village which it is hoped will become the family’s home. Perhaps it is no surprise that British journalists have been dubbed the “Satan reporters” by some Austrians because of our scant concern for the protection of the victims of crime. Whether it is the credit crunch or child abuse we know all about media witch-hunts in Britain. The 24 hour news agenda plays its part in fuelling and sustaining such stories. Once a campaign begins to pin blame on incompetent officials; once there is a hue and cry for politicians to say “sorry” or for bankers to return their bonuses, the narrative can become compelling and we can all get swept along by the story line, perhaps not realising that in our determination to demonstrate effective journalism, we might be failing to serve the public interest. We can unleash a lynch mob, but what do we achieve? As a former broadcaster with the BBC I have to plead guilty as well. I too in the past have sometimes become ensnared in the campaigning story lines of the tabloids, just like my colleagues in Britain’s highly-respective quality press. Indeed our position could be considered somewhat hypocritical. As impartial broadcasters we like to think we would not have engaged in the kind of intrusive behaviour adopted by newspapers like The Sun. But in reality we are often only too keen to climb aboard once the story gets going and to exploit the fall out and potential embarrassment of the politicians or public figures whose behaviour is under attack. Once the public’s appetite has been whetted, we know there will be audience for what we are reporting and we too want part of the action. END