The story is dead
Another week, another book about journalism.
Anyone interested in British journalism should read it - not because it gives the right answers to its title: it doesn't. But because it asks the right questions. And at least it's been written by someone who's actually worked in a newsroom.
Prof Monck's purpose is unambiguous: "What I aim to do in this book is burst the trust balloon. I want to question just why it is we want to trust the media and lay out why that will never be possible."
Two things: one, he portrays the BBC's promotion of trust to value number one as an act of choice, not the (welcome) inevitability it is for a publicly funded broadcaster. Two (for different reasons and by a different route) he's joined me in diagnosing 'the story' as the malignancy in journalism's sick body.
Journalists want to be trusted, broadly in inverse proportion to the trust in which surveys say they're actually held. But there's a missing proposition in the question normally asked. Trusted to do what? Portray the world as it really is? Not possible - any account of the world can only ever be a subset of all the facts. Trust resides in the journalist's motivation in selecting the facts he/she does and in the realisation of that motivation.
Prof Monck tells us that "trust is not important. Not being trusted never lost anyone a reader or a viewer". And, he adds, it's journalism's job to aggregate facts and "get the entertainment values right". This may well be a description of the current state of journalism: but it's not much of an aspiration for the institution of journalism that - still - plays the defining role in the public sphere.
And it's simply not tenable for a publicly (and more or less universally) funded broadcaster like the BBC to accept Prof Monck's lowest common denominator description without some aspirational pushback. Nor is it possible for the BBC to be in the same game as the commercial press which can, say, choose its facts to suit its readers.
Even if it wanted it - and it doesn't - the BBC can't choose to make its way in the world by mimicking the exhausting diurnal anger of the Mail ('woe that the 1950s are gone') or the hand-wringing of the Guardian/Independent ('woe that global warming/capitalism is taking us to hell in an organic hand-basket').
But the really big thing in Can We Trust The Media? is this: journalism itself isn't the problem. The problem is journalism's fetish - 'the story'. And so it's no bad thing that 'the story' is dead... or dying.
That's an awkward paradox. 'The story' - in the sense that journalists mean it rather than the broader idea of narrative - is the source of all that's great in journalism and all that's vile in it.
On the credit side, you can go from Russell of the Crimea through Hersh of My Lai, Woodstein of Watergate to Peston of Northern Rock. In all of these, 'the story' has been the only way journalism could happen. The only way of handling the information asymmetry, the inevitability that power has information and journalists (on behalf of citizens) have to spanner it out, chunk by chunk.
On the debit side, all those things that make journalists seem untrustworthy. Why this story and not that? Why these facts and not those? The lure of the unusual, the rogue (and unreliable) data? Sensationalism, half-truths, self-fulfilling prophecies.
'The story' can easily become the journalist's way of evading responsibility. 'It's only a story' equals 'I don't need all the facts or even the best selection of them'. 'The story' can be no more than waypoints in a convincing narrative... convincing, so long as the reader looks no further than 'the story'.
Which is why 'the story' is dead. The people we journalists used to tell our 'stories' to, with a 'trust me' wink, now routinely look beyond 'the story'. And we help them. Websites like the BBC News website are built on the basis that users will look out their own subset of facts, context and background.
More than that, news websites blur the distinction (a distinction that was only ever really relevant to journalists) between 'news' and 'information' while news aggregators make no assumptions about any individual's news agenda in the way that 'the story' has to.
In other words, the process of selection that used to be the province of the journalist - the process we used to call 'storytelling' - is now the province of each member of our audiences. Good.
This is where Prof Monck and I are in total agreement. He doesn't quite put it this way - but the death of 'the story' is part of the answer to the trust conundrum. Now journalists can get on with increasing the access of the people formerly known as the audience to the information they need and in the way they need it.
And that hand journalists once used to polish 'the story' can instead be held out to guide readers, listeners and viewers through their selection of facts, context and background and not ours.