Journalism should be about making the world a better – not a worse – place
On Friday, the BBC led their bulletins with an uncritical report of a speech that Nigel Farage made as he launched a new pro-Brexit political party. In it, Mr Farage urged his supporters to put the “fear of God” into MPs who would not comply with their wishes. The comment dismayed, among a great many people, the members of the family of the murdered MP Jo Cox, who accused Mr Farage of inciting people to be abusive, if not violent, towards their elected representatives. It prompted Patrick Howse, a long-standing BBC journalist who had reported from war zones for the corporation, to write an open letter to Lord Hall, the director-general of the BBC, in which he said that their coverage of the event had made him feel ashamed to have worked for the corporation. At the heart of the argument about the BBC’s coverage of this particular event – as with so much to do with Brexit – is the extent to which it was in proportion to the support that Mr Farage’s organisation actually has. Today, we make no apology for reprinting a controversial speech that Gina Miller made to senior journalists and editors when she presented the Charles Wheeler Award to Michael Crick at the University of Westminster last summer. Now, more than ever, journalists need to recognise that “everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, but not to his/her own facts.”
I would like to begin by asking all the journalists in this room a simple question: why did you get into the business in the first place?
It’s become the fashion to be cynical about journalism these days, but I would guess most of you got into it because your idealistic younger selves wanted to do some good, you wanted to keep people informed, tell the stories that would shape the world that we live in.
Above all things, I suspect you wanted to defend the powerless against the powerful.
But real life often comes to make an unhappy bedfellow with idealism. Over time, it’s all too easy, with a mortgage and responsibilities to your families, with the environment in journalism tougher now than it’s ever been, to find yourselves waking up one day not to be writing or broadcasting what you believe, but what the powerful owners of your organisations believe.
Does every single journalist on the Daily Mail or the Sun or the Telegraph believe, for instance, in Brexit – and really subscribes to the view that anyone who voices concern, or asks legitimate questions about it, is nothing more than a ‘traitor’?
Is Today giving all sides a fair hearing?
Is everyone at the BBC – particularly on the Today show – confident that they are giving all sides in this debate that is so fundamental to the future of our country a fair chance to put across their points of view?
It appears to me an extraordinary thing that freedom of expression is, in the one business that should prize this right above all others, all too often being surrendered.
It is an extraordinary thing, too, that so far from putting the best interests of their readers, viewers and listeners first, journalists at so many news organisations now appear to be putting the best interests of their owners first.
The decision to abandon the second part of the Leveson inquiry – the part that may well have shed new light on the misinformation that was retailed as news during the EU Referendum – shows, I would submit, that even our Government fears evoking the anger of these media moguls.
What was it Theresa May said on the steps of Downing Street when she first became Prime Minister? Oh yes, now I remember.
“The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
The real metropolitan elite
In this brave new Brextremist world of ours, too many journalists – like too many politicians – are taking the line of least resistance. We are talking here about the real members of the metropolitan elite – BBC stars such as John Humphrys on salaries of £600,000 or more – and they are failing the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society by allowing Brexit to waste time, energy and public money – our money – and for debate to be reduced to the level of an hysterical cult.
Not so long ago, I walked through the newsroom of the Sun after meeting with the team to resolve a complaint I had made to the press watchdog IPSO, and, as I looked around at the journalists pounding away on their keyboards, a song from the musical Bugsy Malone – one of my childhood favourites – played out in my head: ‘We could have been anything that we wanted to be.’
I don’t doubt that the people in that newsroom – when they started out perhaps on local papers – did want to make the world a better place, that they wanted to be on the side of the little guy against the big strong guy, and certainly I can’t imagine a single one of them consciously started out wanting to make the world a worse place.
But on so many issues we have faced in recent years – Iraq, Islamophobia, and, yes, Brexit – they must know in their hearts that they have already – or are now in the process – of making things worse.
I suppose if I speak passionately about this it is because I have always really been at heart a journalist myself. Ask anyone in the investment and pension industry, or who works for one of the big charities, and they will admit through gritted teeth that, long before Brexit, I was among the first to ask the awkward questions about where the money is going in those various sectors.
There are still heroes – and heroines – in journalism
It is therefore wonderful for me to celebrate people who have dedicated their whole lives to doing the very best they can in journalism, and, yes, asking the awkward questions and holding the powerful to account, often at great personal risk. People who say that there aren’t heroes in the business any more just don’t know where to look. Maybe they can’t accept that these days they’re often heroines. Lyse Doucet, the brave BBC foreign correspondent, has rightly been honoured here. The murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has also rightly been remembered here.
So many of the journalists breaking important stories that we all talk about are women. There is also Amelia Gentleman, who brought down a government minister in Amber Rudd with her revelations about Windrush in the Guardian. Madison Marriage, who broke the story of the President’s Club for the Financial Times.
Let’s acknowledge, too, the Observer‘s Carole Cadwalladr – whose impact on the share price of Facebook with her dogged reporting about the misuse of data was a palpable consequence of the information she put into the public domain and that story has been dominating the debate in politics now for months. As well as the revelations on dark money and forces in her story ‘the Great British Brexit Robbery: how our democracy was hijacked.’
These are the sort of great stories that should be on the front pages and dominating the news shows on the airwaves. What should not be there are shouty headlines telling you, day after day, what the owners of these newspapers happen to want us all to think. There is a place, of course, for comment in newspapers and on the airwaves, but the facts should come first, always.
Journalists should keep in mind what I always consider to be the definition of a really great story: it’s what someone who is rich and powerful – or maybe a whole group of rich and powerful people – emphatically does not want to see on the front page or leading a news bulletin.
We must all remind ourselves of the words of the American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ‘Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, but not to his/her own facts.’