Saturday 21 July 2018

Will the 'Free Press' Be There When We Need It? - Weekend Essay

A few years ago it was possible to be pretty depressed about the state of investigative journalism in the UK.  At one end of the spectrum there was, for example, the mighty FT which fell significantly short of what ought be one of its raisons d’ĂȘtre – to break stories about financial wrongdoing.  It scarcely even pretended otherwise.  When the Enron meltdown occurred - the biggest financial collapse that had ever happened until then, in a company much lauded for innovation and achievement - it completely blind-sighted the FT (amongst others) which then spent weeks mournfully breast-beating over its manifest failure even to recognise, still less to report what was going on.  Just once in a while the Economist might essay something mildly controversial.   

It was easy to guess that an overly nervous attitude towards the reaction of big advertisers lay at the root of much of this indolence and cowardice – and not much about the easily-observed conduct of (e.g.) the Telegraph or the Murdoch media suggested otherwise.   Another cause was manifestly the deep cuts being made to the numbers of fulltime journalists employed by ‘Fleet Street’ – and to their expense accounts.

[So pathetic has been financial reporting that when this modest blog started to gain traction, the good Guido asked if we would become the financial arm of Order-Order, to do for the City of London what he does for City of Westminster.  We felt he’d missed a rather important point about companies’ willingness to litigate …]

At the other end of the spectrum was the decline in once-proud regional newspapers.  Time was when the Yorkshire Post had a dedicated Westminster team; a conceit, perhaps, but dozens of big-city papers would reckon to be able to mount proper investigations on issues of local concern.  Over the years, however, the local press become commoditized.  Owned for the most part by a small number of chains, they became depressingly formulaic productions under a cost-cutting imperative.  To fill out the gaps between advertisements, these rags would typically carry a dozen stories under a single “reporter’s” by-line every issue, this hard-pressed hack mostly re-hashing spoon-fed press releases: they no time to get out onto the streets and find out for themselves.  And avoiding the controversial had the added benefit of minimsing the risks of legal costs and upsetting advertisers.  The ease, and increasingly the ultra-low cost, of running photos in newspapers completed the descent into vacuity.  Breaking a story?  Only if it involved a photogenic kitten - with all material supplied gratis via email by someone with a digital camera.

To cap it all, we had the menacing pincer movement of, on the one hand Leveson, seemingly bent on grinding the press into craven submission; and on the other, social meejah that were (a) breaking stories, true and fake, with minimal cost or regard for the consequences; and (b) eating the MSM’s advertising revenue for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  How would any mainstream outlet find the balls to take on controversial material?  We seemed to be left with Michael Crick, Guido and a handful of others hacking away at the relatively easy targets: individual slimeball politicians who are poorly placed to retaliate.  Little wonder that purposefully generated fake news overwhelms truth in so many quarters.  And with so many universities reduced to gibbering jelly by the contagion of “identity politics” and its flagrant disavowal of reason and objectivity, well might Pilate’s challenge ring out again:  where is truth?  

 But lo! - out of this depressing state of affairs has come something of a turnaround.  At the national and international level, triggered by the really big wikileaks-type of mega-revelations, a newly rediscovered taste for seriously disruptive journalism has been given a significant boost.  By way of a symptom of this:  for some years Private Eye had allowed the 'Paul Foot' awards (for investigative journalism) to lapse.  But they were revived in 2017; and this year saw a shortlist of finalists that was pretty impressive.

Equally heartening, there is a new phenomenon arising out of – yes – regional journalism.  The newspaper chains that dominate ownership of local papers, notwithstanding their unimaginative, ad-laden hard-copy and websites, have started to support pooled teams of reporters from across their multiple titles – and given them mandates and resources to go after stories that actually require diligent research and a bit of patience.  And at all levels, it seems, when the proprietor permits, the hack still hankers after breaking the big scandal.

All this leaves me slightly more optimistic about the health of investigative journalism right now, which seems to be appropriately rude – even if operating as a small fleet of vulnerable vessels in an ocean of craven dross.

And with the newly serious prospect of a Corbyn/McDonnell government in the air, it’s timely.  If this ghastly contingency ever takes place, I think we may confidently predict an all-out attack on freedom of the press as a flanking maneouvre to protect their malign endeavors.  We know that the already-powerful EC dreams of making disrespect of the federast project an offence - and the euro-wallahs are at least somewhat restrained by due process.

I tremble for free speech at the hands of a C/M regime coming to power in anarchic conditions.  We shall need journalists with a determined bias for the truth, working for organisations with serious institutional balls.  We shall need them like never before.  Will they be there?  The question stands. 



Matt said...

The short list for the Paul Foot award is like a SJW bed time reading list. I know it's Private Eye sponsoring it, but do all of them have to be pet leftie subjects?

david morris said...

Won't demand & supply come into it ?

Bill Quango MP said...

Interesting piece.
I read F;at Earth news. A book that describes the collapse of Journalism into Churnalism. Flat Earth News.
That book was explaining the changes over the previous decade that led to the situation you describe.
But that book was written 10 years ago. And didn't really touch on social media.Paywalls. Begging letters. Paid for puffs content. Avoiding bad news for big advertising spenders and online only moves.

Brexit seems to be a good source of content for the factionalised papers. But the shouty, doom or rosy utopia visions haven't done anything to help the process. Or the country.

As it ever was.

dearieme said...

There was a time when my wife would write press releases for research projects. Her opinion of journalists was low: many just reprinted her words verbatim. Alas, those who had the integrity to try and write up the work in their own words always got the details wrong and sometimes got the gist of the work wrong too.

I don't remember her ever telling me of a journalist phoning her with intelligently critical questions.

dearieme said...

If there is a lesson from my comment above I suppose it is that journalists should devote their efforts to hunting down fools and knaves, because they - the journalists - are quite useless when it comes to intellectually serious things.

Anonymous said...

A serious omission in my opinion is Andrew Norfolk of the Times. This quiet and understated man broke the Rotherham grooming gangs;

Raedwald said...

Good points.

Agree wholly about the benefits of local papers - not only keeping a check on local democracy and giving a voice to communities, but as a training school for jounalism and really quite importantly a shaper of cultural identity. It's all about Burke's 'little platoons' - and facebook will never in a million years do what a local weekly paper can.

As you say, the chains have been greedy. As always. Newsquest. Archant. Trinity Mirror. Tindle. Johnston. Not for the better. And local councils that produced their own Stalinist propaganda rags on our taxes, but robbed advertising revenue from the real papers, just because they couldn't control the editorial line of the local press were just as responsible for the failures.

I thought there was a glimmer of hope when I heard the BBC would be diverting 'substantial' payments fro the licence fee to local papers, but it was mostly bollocks. They're giving away just £8m a year of their £4bn income - 0.2% - and only to members of the IPSO scheme. Well, at least it wasn't Mosley's IMPRESS. This means most of your licencepayers cash goes to, yes, Archant, Trinity Mirror ...

However, This is a germ of a good idea. If the government legislated to require the BBC to spew up 5% a year of its income to be distributed to a free, independent local press via a truly independent distributor, we might just have a chance of rescuing grass roots journalism.

Nick Drew said...

Ah yes, IMPRESS. More on them in another post ...

Anonymous said...

Does the FT do investigative financial journalism any more? I know they report on other people's investigative journalism, but all I can remember lately is the shocking revelation that wealthy and drunken City types will try to get a bit handsy with pretty hostesses with legs up to there.

And the most interesting thing about that report was the name of the pretty, long-legged and nubile reporter - Miss Madison Marriage, who is surely born in the wrong time for such a name - should have been the agony aunt on Women's Own circa 1953.

Electro-Kevin said...

The problem is that I've had several personal experiences with the press - the Daily Mail in particular (a recent event in the last week) where their facts are woefully incorrect and a witch hunt has taken place.

- my blog was quoted incorrectly

- police incidents I was involved in were reported incorrectly

- railway issues are reported scantly and incorrectly in order to fit an agenda

They posted one of my colleagues doing a Nazi salute (allegedly.) It was nothing of the sort. Preposterous !

The frequently get railway stuff totally wrong. Like GWR trains going to Norwich.

So what else are they getting wrong ?

I don't care about the free press anymore. Like I don't care about the Tory party anymore.

I'm out of caring about politics now so wtf do I care about what a politician I'm never going to vote for does ?

Prepare for Corbyn.

K said...

@EK I've had similar bad experiences working with the media.

The media (including Guido) will ignore an issue because there's no "personal story". Then a year later they're suddenly concerned after it's too late to change the law because they now realised it's also going to affect single mums and their dodgy Instagram businesses (probably the editor's wife).

Just look at the Paul Foot list:

- Russia
- Dead orphans
- Bankers groping women
- Charity workers paying for sex
- Facebook stealing your data (I've never had a personal Facebook account but do have a developer account for work - I've actually read the terms and always knew what CA did was possible, hence my lack of a personal account)

4/5 are "personal" or "family/women's issues".

andrew said...

I am conflicted about this as EK and others state.

I have had occasional minor involvement with the press on pensions and financial services issues (no byline and no attribution :( - that grates)
The quality of reporting is pretty abysmal in areas I know about.

... but if you do not engage with them how will it get better?

and most people will not read 1000 words on HMRC's latest choice dreckstruck not least as it is v.v.v. boring to them.

Has the press ever really been free?
Going back to the time of 'scoop', the news agenda was always controlled by the elites.

In some ways I am hopeful as some people with a hobbyist interest in something can shine an early light on a subject that should be more widely known


I just wish the mainstream would pick up on these a bit faster.

dearieme said...

I forgot to compliment our blogger for the brilliant "blind-sighted" and to chide him for "Free Pess".

Nick Drew said...

Corrrected - thanks

K said...


> no byline and no attribution :( - that grates

Richard North often complains that the media doesn't believe an issue exists until they've reported on it. I even had a 20-something Telegraph writer take credit for the work of two VAT specialists I had put together. She was completely unapologetic about it on Twitter too.

I would say your experience is the same. Journalists are too insecure to give credit to anyone outside their bubble.

@john cheshire

I know that "far right" blogs like Gates of Vienna were posting about rape gangs way back in like 2008. But as previously mentioned, the issue was ignored until someone inside the media bubble started talking about it and taking credit.

Old F Carlisle said...

I notified my local newspaper Cumberland News of the malpractice o United Utilities in charging for surface water drainage whilst an estates system is un-adopted. They do offer the chance to claim for relief by completing a complex 'form however the Company has published a plan showing that they are aware that surface water is dealt with by a separate system which is the responsibility of the developer until adopted.

The newspaper did not ring me back. This 'fiddle' is probably general at Least with UUU but probably with the rest of the water companies. I thought it was a story with 'legs' nationally.

L fairfax said...

It says something about the Paul Foot awards that Breitbart was not nominated for breaking the story about the rapes in Cologne 31st Dec 2015.

If our investigate press were any good they would have reported the grooming gangs years ago.

Anonymous said...

"What is truth?" said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer." (Sir Francis Bacon) Not "where is truth", please.

As for the Presidents Club scandal, one should bear in mind that the Financial Times editorial pages might as well be in the Guardian. Perhaps that's why they print it on pink paper.

Nor were the guests at the dinner from the City of London; they were from the West End. Hedge fund bosses, property dealers, advertising men, sporting and showbiz personalities, media types -- yes, we're also looking at you, BBC, and your fake news reporting of the story.

Apparently some of the young ladies who have attended these events over the years -- presumably the ones who sat on the gentlemen's laps and sipped their champagne -- regarded it as a job interview, and managed to secure glamorous full-time jobs in that part of town.
The City of London wouldn't be quite their style.