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A culture of contempt

Kevin Marsh

is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

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The News of the World hacking scandal will clearly have consequences for News Corp, the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission and - of course - the individuals concerned. But as all lame pieces to camera end: 'only time will tell'.

The timing couldn't be worse for Murdoch pere et fils, what with their current strategic headache over News Corp and BSkyB. The risk must be high that voices more influential and less polite than their Lordships begin to wonder more than they already do about whether it's a good idea to ladle half the UK's news audiences into the bowls of the people who brought you Goodman and Mulcaire and Edmondson and ...?

A company whose senior executives swore blind to MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that Goodman and Mulcaire were 'rogues'; but whose inquires to test that thesis were "far from 'full' or 'rigorous'"; and who were "struck by collective amnesia" when MPs asked them about their reporter's crimes.

The Met - in particular, DAC John Yates - has some explaining to do, too. It's reassuring now that 'no stone will be left unturned'. But, an inquisitive journalist will inevitably wonder why there wasn't a bit more stone-turning when the Met was given the keys to the rockery four years ago - in spite of the "strong indication both of additional law-breaking and of the possible involvement of others" that MPs detected.

And the PCC? Is it curtains for press 'self-regulation'? The PCC's critics will surely now argue that its failure to show any ethical leadership on phone-hacking - and on the McCann multiple libels, for that matter - has shredded the tiny amount of credibility it had. And those critics will remind us what the CMS select committee said about the PCC and the McCanns:

"In any other industry suffering such a collective breakdown ... any regulator worth its salt would have instigated an enquiry. The press, indeed, would have been clamouring for it to do so. It is an indictment on the PCC's record, that it signally failed to do so."

But there's another group of people who should be taking stock - and that's us journalists.

We have to accept that most of the public we claim to serve don't like us. And they don't like us because we don't serve their interests and our brand is toxic. Look at the polls, if you will. Or at the way journalists are invariably portrayed in soaps and dramas - a rough and trivial indicator but an indicator nonetheless of how we're viewed.

It doesn't matter that most of us have never hacked a phone. Most of us have never set-up a victim; egging them on to commit the very offence we're purporting to expose. Most of us have never bribed a policeman, a DVLA clerk, a doctor's receptionist. Most of us have never hired a 'private investigator' to give us deniable access to properly private information and data.

Most of us don't make up interviews and quotes. Most of us check our facts. Most of us go into a story looking for the facts that will overturn our prejudices as well as those that might confirm them. Most of us don't routinely, and without overwhelming reason to do so, pretend to be who we're not to get our story.

But our whole trade is poisoned by those who do some or all of these as a matter of routine - and sneer at those who don't. And by editors and executives who deny or forget that they happen.

We know that there's a culture of contempt in too many newsrooms - contempt not just for power and celebrity but for the public that we journalists claim to serve. Why else would any of us think it's OK to tell them less than the truth as a matter of routine?

John Lanchester captured it like this in his review of Nick Davies' Flat Earth News. Commercial and corporate pressures are partly to blame for the lamentable values of some in the British press, but journalists are also:

"... indifferent to their own best traditions of independence, recklessly indifferent to the central functions of reporting and checking facts ... and in far too many respects, simply indifferent to the truth. There is a growing, industry-wide failure to be sufficiently interested in reality."

While Nick Davies himself comes to the view in Flat Earth News that his book is:

"a snapshot of a cancer. Maybe it helps a little to be able to see the illness. At least that way we might know in theory what the cure might be.

But I fear the illness is terminal."

And so it may turn out to be. 

There are many things wrong with the press and other British news media, but there isn't the slightest hope that this illness will prove other than terminal unless journalism sheds its culture of contempt and begins to realise at every level - newsroom and boardroom - the damage that culture does to the public.

Unless it learns afresh, in other words, what it means to genuinely serve the public interest.

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