Sunday, 12 July 2009

Who Watches The Watchmen

Who Watches The Watchmen
By Ian Dunt

We all know there's something deeply wrong with Britain today. A sense of dissatisfaction and dull resignation haunts the country. For months now we've savaged politicians. That problem is still very, very far away from being fixed. But it's unfortunate we've isolated our anger in one area.

Today's Guardian allegations about an apparent culture of law breaking and privacy invasion at the News of the World could give us the opportunity to look closely at the British media, and ask ourselves how it is failing us. We'll be lucky. The trouble with scrutinising the media is that it's the media who have to do the scrutinising. And people tend to not to defecate in their own backyard.

As the recent movie posters for the Watchmen blockbuster put it: Who Watches the watchmen? An unwritten and unmentioned rule exists in Fleet Street, and has done ever since journalists set up offices there. You don't attack a fellow hack. For years, commentators would write nosey, judgemental stories on politicians' sex lives while pursuing highly dubious embraces of their own. But who would write about it?

Only themselves. And they were the last people who would. But now things are infinitely worse. The media failings are legion. Too many Westminster journalists accept small exclusives in exchange for good behaviour. Too many of them are genuinely friends with those they report on.

The decline of newspaper sales has crippled mud-raking journalism, with fewer and fewer journalists producing more and more stories. The only way to do that, of course, is to be at your desk, and we are now in the position where many of the stories journalists produce are based on press releases or one of the news feeds, like Reuters or the Press Association, rather than their verified account of an event.

The public have become part of the problem. There is outcry at the increasingly populist subjects covered by broadsheets, but editors don't commission work which doesn't sell. I have personally felt the sinking feeling in my stomach as a serious political story I spent hours working on was outperformed ten times over by a fluffy piece I scribbled up with the word 'celebrity' in the title.

The ownership of media companies has become a silent national scandal. How can we possibly treat media ownership as if it were any other commodity? It is not equivalent to milk, or racing cars, or DIY tools. It is the means by which the issues of the day, and the public's opinion on them, are framed. Very recently, Lord Carter's Digital Britain review suggested top-slicing the licence fee. Rupert Murdoch hated the idea - not because he loves the BBC, but because it helped out his rivals at ITV. And, predictably, his newspapers began to trot out precisely the same line we know he believes in. From America's unspeakably appalling Fox News, to Australia's suitably titled The Australian, to the UK's Sun and the Times, Murdoch must be considered one of the most powerful men in the world. Where is his democratic legitimacy? It is non-existent.

And finally, there is the puerile attitude of the media, which focuses endlessly on trivial nonsense with only the most cursory attempt to pretend it's of any genuine interest at all. After the editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, lost the Max Mosely case, he told reporters: "It was of legitimate public interest and one that I believe was legitimately published." The sexual mores of the head of Formula one is not a matter of public interest. It is something which is interesting to the public, which is a different matter entirely. There are pitifully few criteria upon which to say that someone's sexual habits are any of our business. Promoting celebrities to the status of role models - as in the case of Kate Moss - is usually preposterous, almost as preposterous as pretending a supermodel taking cocaine is remotely noteworthy.

Where MPs especially, or those in the public eye in general, partake in behaviour which explicitly runs against statements they have made, or positions they hold, that is in the public interest. But the standards should be strict. Even in the case of footballers, who are undoubtedly role models to many, it seems childish at best to pay any attention to their sexual habits, or even their drug use. This attitude - typified by the Mosely case - represents one of the most puerile, unpleasant aspects of the British character: the twitch of the curtains, the nosey, snickering interest in other people's personal lives. On the whole the British are far more progressive than this, and as a nation, we believe fiercely in privacy. But most tabloids seem obsessed with bringing out the worst part of our character.

That we should have editors arguing for the legitimacy of this kind of journalism when serious political coverage is lying dead in a ditch is deeply humiliating to my profession. The case against the media is so severe it appears conclusive. We desperately need to give it the kind of scrutiny politicians receive. But will we, as an industry, be brave enough to do it? There is hope. And that is the curious irony of today. It took decent, investigative British journalism, from the rather remarkable Nick Davies, to uncover a story about bad, unpleasant British journalism. All is not lost. But it will be, if we don't start doing something about this situation now.

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