Journalism, not 'churnalism'
Guardian journalist Nick Davies arrives at some damning insights in his new book, Flat Earth News. Many will share his wrath at the "sloppy" and "morally bankrupt" British press - too much of the British press is as bad an anything anywhere else in the world. But he might have come to the right answer for the wrong reasons.
If you haven't caught up with the book yet, the headline to his Guardian article captures one half of his tale crisply: "Our media have become mass producers of distortion", it reads.
The reason, he argues: while the number of journalists on most papers has increased, the space they have to fill has increased even more quickly. Davies reckons the average national newspaper journalist now has to fill three times the space he/she used to... as well as the greedy pockets of owners and shareholders.
Result, he goes on: journalists are now forced to shovel unchecked drivel from PR firms straight onto the page or onto the airwaves - "passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists."
And because journalists don't have the time to do their jobs properly, he argues, - and this is where the threads go ping - some cut corners and resort to snooping, bugging and bin-trawling.
I'm not sure about this route from ‘gradgrind exploitee’, through dereliction of journalistic duty to moral bankrupt - too many newspaper journalists have been too content for too long to run massive moral overdrafts without any pressure from corporate bosses.
It's true that journalists have more time/space to fill - even more, incidentally in 2008 than in 2006, the last year that the Cardiff researchers looked at - and that's a concern for anyone who cares about journalism and what it does.
Nick Davies is right when he warns against 'churnalism' - news as process... but I just don't believe that the former royal reporter of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, illegally bugged royal phones (and he was not alone in that kind of activity) and went to jail because he and his paper were drowning under the weight of press releases to process.
Nor do I believe pressure to produce is the real reason why too many journalists couldn't stir themselves to check the facts of the Etireno "slave-ship" a few years back or of the Romanian "child traffickers" in Slough a few weeks back. (Though BBC and Guardian journalists did. Both.)
Nor was it why some political journalists connived at becoming little more than the publishing arm of No 10 in the Campbell era.
These are all questions of personal, moral and ethical choices. If a journalist chooses to abandon the principles that all journalists claim to hold (commitment to the truth, independence, acting in the interest of the public) then he or she can blame no-one but him/herself.
At the BBC College of Journalism, we place the ethics and values of the trade, along with safeguarding the trust of our audiences, far above any technical or editorial skill... one reason why trust in broadcasting remains much higher than that in the press.
The truth is, too many British newspaper journalists have for too long confused verification with impact, independence with arrogance and the interests of the public with the basest interests of some sectors of the public.
As the respected Guardian veteran and blogger Roy Greenslade describes, most senior, thinking journalists welcome Nick Davies' book as something to be taken seriously. Let's see if journalists - and not just editors - do take it seriously.
The trouble is, though, the British newspaper journalist has no history of taking criticism well... or working out what it is that needs to be done to turn a dysfunctional, distrusted press into something that performs a useful public purpose.