Journalists in the US are fighting the problem. In the UK they are the problem
Most people in this country view what’s happening in the US with amazement and horror. A shallow, corrupt president, happy to advertise his contempt for the truth, the law and the constitution, is recklessly throwing his weight around. It’s an appalling spectacle.
But if we’re tempted to feel superior we should be careful, because in one very important respect, and despite all Trump’s transgressions, the Americans are far better off than we are.
Their journalists, or at least most of them, are standing up for democracy and the rule of law. Ours are doing the opposite.
In Britain the bulk of the national press is on the side of the wreckers. Far from striving to hold power to account, our big papers are pushing and dragging the government into ever greater outrages – while refusing to report what does not fit their agenda.
But the problem does not stop with the corporate national press. The contrast between the behaviour of most American and most British journalists over the past year has been simply breathtaking.
In the United States the electoral success of a serial liar prompted deep soul-searching among those responsible for reporting the campaign. How could it have happened, they asked. How did we fail to make him accountable for his untruths? Why did we let him distract us and blind-side us?
Fundamental questions were raised, to the point where even the century-old dedication of journalists to the ideal of objectivity was called into question. (Believe it or not, many American journalists feel they ought at least to try to show fairness and balance.) If you doubt this, have a look, for example, at the recent output of the Columbia Journalism Review or the Poynter Institute.
The effect of all this appears to have been a reinvigoration of the industry in the US. Papers and television stations have rediscovered their mission to challenge and inform, and the public seems to be responding.
In the United Kingdom, however, we have experienced a referendum in which many, many lies were told by both politicians and the press, followed by a period of national division of unprecedented bitterness in which the lies continued to flow. Now we have a general election that is no better – and yet journalistic soul-searching is conspicuous by its absence.
If there is a single leading national journalist, in broadcast or in print, who is seriously concerned that modern British journalism might itself be an important problem, and might be contributing to our national troubles, he or she is keeping quiet about it.
The Mail, the Sun and the Express lie and distort on their front pages today to a degree that would have astonished Lord Beaverbrook or Lord Northcliffe, the most swaggering and thuggish press barons in British history. The journalists doing this are a disgrace, but they are beyond hope: nobody expects them to change.
The people who are really failing the country and failing journalism are the rest of the trade, the journalists with platforms who are not under the yoke of the proprietors – at the BBC and ITV, the Guardian and the Financial Times, the New Statesman and Huffington Post.
They will tell you proudly that it’s their job to speak truth to power. But ask them to speak some truth about the wrongdoings of the power that is the corporate national press and they will just look shifty.
Two excuses are made. The first is that British journalism is in existential crisis because of its failure to find a working business model, and so nobody has the time to think about ethical failures. And the second is that it wasn’t me guv.
Both are inadequate. if British journalism is in trouble, one of the chief reasons is surely that it is so reckless with trust. Put it another way: if they were doing a better job maybe more people would be ready to pay for their product.
As for blaming the industry’s wrongs on the other guy, that is both cowardly and misguided – cowardly because journalists are supposed to be in the business of highlighting failure and wrongdoing, and misguided because by refusing to expose and distance themselves from the liars, honest journalists simply taint themselves.
American journalism has problems too – in fact many of the same ones – but they don’t habitually use them as an excuse to ignore corruption and failure in their midst. Nor, when they fail in their job, does everyone in the industry blithely pretend that they haven’t.
So next time you are watching Trump’s antics in America, remind yourself of this: they may have terrible problems, but at least they have lots of mainstream journalists who are vaguely self-aware, who are conscious of their responsibilities and ready to talk about them, who do not instinctively turn a blind eye to their industry’s shortcomings, and who are working hard to show things as they are. Can we say the same?
(If you agree or disagreee with this, or if you would like to hear more, I will be speaking on a panel at the Byline Festival in three weeks’ time. I hope to see you there.)