One of the tragedies of the current News of the World scandal (which, for once, seems too mild a word) is the law of unintended consequences.
I have argued many times on this blog for outside regulation of the media – particularly the printed press. Repeated intrusion, misrepresentation and other infringements seemed to stem from a sense of unaccountability and invincibility on the part of some journalists and editors. I have questioned the professional self-respect of some journalists in relation to what they refer to as their ‘craft’. I have failed to understand why the press can demand external regulation for (for example) MPs – who surely cannot be trusted to behave ethically in respect of their expenses – while demanding that they be privileged with internal regulation. So, now we have Rebekkah Brookes & Co. maintaining without a hint of irony that they should be treated differently and be allowed to investigate themselves for ethical failures. Let’s have a minute’s silence to think about that withour either laughing or weeping.
In discussion of these themes I have always listened to the argument of certain journalists who have argued for (a) the need for a free press and (b) the importance for a mature democracy of an independent scrutinising press. I fully agree with both counts.
But, the arguments for self-regulation have been rubbished by journalists themselves. The need for external regulation, an enforcable ethical code and proper redress for ‘victims’ of infringement hardly needs to be argued in the light of this week’s revelations. Maybe, just maybe, the tide has turned and popular tolerance of newspaper scandal has been dimmed.
And the law of unintended consequences? First, we need a free press which takes seriously the vocation to hold power to account and identify (and pursue) the questions most of us don’t think about). Second, all journalists get tarred with the same brush – even if most would rather drink poison than sacrifice their self-respect by working for a paper like the News of the World – and that damages the reputation, standing and professionalism of those who deserve better. (And, before anyone whinges that such tarring is unfair, just look what happens when one dodgy vicar gets the rest of us slagged off as pervy, too.)
Somehow in all this mess we have to protect (or define and promote) the independence and freedom of the press – and affirm their responsibility to play their part in shaping our society. This means journalists dropping the fantasy that they only report or observe; they are players in the game. Maybe the best start to this would be for journalists themselves to take responsibility for establishing the best in journalism and telling the rest of us what standard they are working to.
Because, when all is said and done, journalism is discovering this week what the rest of us have experienced for ever: that those who hold others to account must, themselves, be held to account not only for what they write, but how they write it.
I’m not sure how, but we now need a campaign for good journalism and the promotion of good journalists.