The phone hacking saga just gets more sordid by the day. Some informed commentators have claimed throughout that the trail won’t stop at News International – and now Hugh Grant has openly accused the Mail on Sunday of hacking his phone. Of course, as he admits, this might be speculative; but, if they didn’t get their information from his phone, where did they get it?
We don’t need to go on about this as the stories will just keep coming. But, we do need to remember that the people indulging in this criminal and (by any standards) unethical behaviour justified their activities on the spurious grounds that there was a ‘public interest’ in the stories that emanated from private communications. In other words, unethical means were supposed to be justified by ‘ethical’ ends. These guardians of the public morality exercised a total lack of morality in the pursuit of their trade. And in doing so, of course, they have brought into massive disrepute a profession that is vital to a free and democratic society. (The best response to this recently was Alan Rusbridger’s excellent Orwell Lecture.)
It is easy to forget that it wasn’t the other guardians of civil society and the rule of law – the police, lawyers or the self-regulating press itself – who rumbled this shameful story; it was a dogged journalist who epitomised the best in journalism – Nick Davies of the Guardian. Despite being fobbed off, threatened and deterred, he persisted until the story couldn’t be suppressed any longer.
The problem we now face is that journalism is diminishing at every level. Newspapers are in crisis and desperately trying to find new business models for the digital age. Local journalism involves a good deal of reproduction of local PR stuff – leaving aside the proper scrutiny of power (local government, for example) because sufficiently qualified specialist journalists can no longer be afforded or recruited. This represents a real democratic deficit. We need good journalists.
Which is where the contrasts come in.
This evening I helped convene a reception at City Hall in Bradford for members of the very many faith communities in Bradford. Welcomed and hosted by the Lord Mayor – a Muslim woman who is doing a superb job – we brought together over 100 people to have an honest conversation about how to work for the common good in Bradford. The Leader of the Council was also there, even announcing his atheism in a very good speech. In my address I differentiated between (a) interfaith conversations that addressed the ‘content’ of our faith (world view and practice) and (b) the question of how, despite our differences, we live together and serve the common good together. Loads of creative group work gave everyone a voice and substantial energy and goodwill were generated throughout the evening. We will now plan constructive engagement and cooperation for the whole of 2012.
And the ‘contrasts’?
Almost universal contempt for the media by people who spend their lives trying to live morally and not misrepresent those who are not like themselves or their community.
I made the point (during some feedback) that Bradford’s local newspaper The Telegraph and Argus is actually a very good media organ and that, in contrast to many others I have known all too well, is open to good news stories… if we can supply them and write them well. Yes, the front page has to grab the attention and no, fluffy bunny stories don’t do it – but, there is a genuine commitment to telling the stories that matter. And some of the journalists I know here should be proud of their profession.
The danger is that all journalism will be tarred with the News International brush. But, credit needs to be given where it is due and encouragement needs to be given to those whose job it is to scrutinise power and tell the truth.
Bradford gets a bad press. People who live here are simply fed up with TV companies doing ‘documentaries’ which tell a story already conceived before any evidence has been examined or any researcher even arrived at the station. You don’t have to be here long to hear the anger against those who constantly do the place down. But, as I have argued locally, it isn’t always wise to amplify the negative stories by complaining about them. Instead, we need to challenge the laziness of the sensationalists who can’t be bothered with complexity. And we need to find ways of facing our challenges and telling our stories ourselves.
This evening I heard time and time again – from a number of religious communities – the desire to have honest conversation about the challenges we face within our own communities and to reach those who currently do not participate in civil society. We want to serve the common good in Bradford together, to identify our allies in this task, to encourage each other to deal with reality, and to face down the nasties whose only interest is to create division where it doesn’t exist.
It is a privilege to be here and to be involved in such work. And it will be interesting to see how we best develop the initiatives we have begun. Media representation will be both encouraged and challenged – we don’t mind the truth, but we won’t stand for lazy misrepresentation. We are looking for examples of good journalism, both locally and nationally. Ethics matter.