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Steven Barnett

On the road to self-destruction

British Journalism Review
Vol. 19, No. 2, 2008, pages 5-13

Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster and is currently special adviser to the House of Lords select committee on Communications for its enquiry into News and Media Ownership (to be published in July). He is also a member of the BJR editorial advisory board.

Contents - Vol 19, No 2, 2008

Editorial - Food for thought 3

Trust and the media

Steven Barnett - On the road to self-destruction 5

Adrian Monck - Dangerous obsession 14

Cal McCrystal - Knighthoods errant 19

Patrick Collins - In a different league 25

Peter Preston - Always on a Sunday 33

William Horsley - Europe: media freedom in retreat 39

Damien McCrystal - It's more fun on the 'Dark Side' 47

Glyn Mon Hughes - Wales: local heroes 52

James Anslow - Myth, Jung and the McC women 58

Press photography

Michael Brennan - Dangermen 66

Victor Davis - Blame it on Blow Up 72

Sue Ryan on remarkable lives of Bill Deedes 79

Colin Jacobson on ReutersÂ’' world 82

Jonathan Fenby on Murdoch in China 85

Derek Jameson on Ian Skidmore 87

David Aaronovitch on Robert Fisk 89

Bill Hagerty on Fleet Street: the inside story 91

Quotes of the Quarter 32

Ten years ago - The way we were 46

Letters 94

  A new BJR survey shows public confidence in journalism is still falling. A prominent academic explain why — and why journalists should be worried.

It has not been a good year for journalism. Express Newspapers’ payout of more than half a million pounds to the McCanns for its papers’ unspeakable allegations about their part in their daughter Madeleine’s disappearance was the culmination of 18 months of scandal about lies, fakery, incompetence and downright criminal behaviour throughout the media. Not all of it featured journalists, and some of the problems bore no relation to journalism at all. But the scandals reflected badly on the press and broadcasting institutions that are associated with journalism, and the fallout has taken its toll on the public mood. The BJR’s own survey suggests that journalism’s reputation, never particularly high in the league table of public esteem, has suffered massive damage over the past five years.

Before analysing the figures, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the catalogue of disasters and unsavoury revelations during the past 18 months. Even the most sceptical observers of British journalism were shaken by the imprisonment of the News of the World’s Clive Goodman in January last year for his role in intercepting the mobile phone messages of, among others, three members of the Royal Family. In a widely-reported denunciation, the sentencing judge described his behaviour as “intrusive, sustained criminal conduct”. His editor Andy Coulson resigned immediately.

Goodman’s carting off to the cells followed swiftly on the heels of two devastating reports by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, which recorded some of the “widespread illegal trade in personal information” being pursued in the name of journalism and revealed by “Operation Motorman”. The second of these even named the guilty publications (though not the 305 individual journalists involved). Thomas estimated that his first report, detailing the massive scale of this muckraking, “reached an audience of more than 30 million” through various news outlets. Those 30 million will not have been impressed by the integrity of British journalism.

That set the tone for the rest of the year. In broadcasting there were premium-rate phone scams, where competition entrants calling premiumrate numbers had little or no chance of winning or of having their votes registered. Channel Five were fined £300,000 by Ofcom, followed by £2million for GMTV, £1.5million for Channel 4 and, last month, a record £5.7million for ITV for problems on some of its most popular programmes, such as Saturday Night Takeaway and Soapstar Superstar. Each revelation, fine and subsequent eating of humble pie reverberated around the press and the blogosphere.

Hang out the dirty washing

Then there was the BBC. In the midst of all the negative reports and head-shaking about the unacceptable face of television greed came the revelation that the BBC had asked a child on a studio tour to stand in as winner of a Blue Peter competition after a phone fault. Not a hanging offence, and a deception designed to keep the show on the road rather than make money – but a deception nonetheless and a hugely symbolic breach in the BBC’s reputation, with enormous publicity fallout and the Corporation’s first-ever fine (albeit a token £50,000). Following Director-General Mark Thompson’s plea to hang out any other Corporation dirty washing, half a dozen further breaches emerged, with both Comic Relief and Sport Relief caught up in allegations of phone rigging.

Then came “Crowngate”. Misleading your audience is one thing, but misrepresenting the Queen is quite another. Once it emerged that BBC1 Controller Peter Fincham had inadvertently described the Queen as storming out of a photoshoot in a BBC documentary when she was actually going in, it didn’t matter that the erroneous editing had actually been done by an independent company, or that the documentary had yet to be transmitted. The front-page storm meant Fincham had to go, and the BBC’s reputation for straightforward truth-telling was tarnished once again. And barely had that story calmed down before another catastrophe emerged: Blue Peter (again) had rigged a telephone vote over the naming of its cat, rejecting the first-placed name Cookie for the second-placed Socks. The grounds for this unilateral rejection of the popular vote remain obscure, but probably centred on a colloquial interpretation of the word Cookie (around 0.1 per cent of the population apparently use it as a euphemism for female genitalia. Ergo, the nation’s children would have been traumatised).

There was Gordon Ramsay fessing up to the “inaccurate impression” that he had personally speared a sea bass for one of his cookery programmes. There was the great outdoors adventurer Bear Grylls unmasked as an overnight resident in luxury hotels, rather than wind-battered tents. There was The Sun splashing pictures of a Great White Shark seen terrorising the sleepy coastal villages of Cornwall, when the picture had actually been taken in Cape Town, and the sightings of Britain’s Jaws turned out to be less reliable than those of the Loch Ness Monster.

After 18 months with the media in the dock, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the reputation of journalism has suffered, however tenuous its link to some of the TV programmes under attack. At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves that the public has never had a homogeneous view of “journalism”, but differentiates clearly between the print variety and the broadcast variety. Many long-running surveys of public opinion therefore suffer from using the generic term “journalists” rather than distinguishing between the different organisations they represent. That distinction was incorporated into our own survey, which continues the series on trust and public opinion first established by YouGov in 2003. It means, crucially, that we can track how shifts in public opinion may be differentially applied to different kinds of journalism.

So what is the current state of public faith in British journalism? At the higher end of the trust scale, in response to the question: “How much do you trust the following to tell the truth?” slightly more than six in 10 said that they trusted BBC news journalists a great deal or a fair amount (Table 1, below). A little more than half gave the same response for Channel 4 and ITV journalists. At the other end of the scale came the print journalists, with fewer than one in six prepared to trust red-top journalists, and only slightly more for the mid-market titles. Journalists on local newspapers come closest to those on the broadsheets, although in both cases the numbers of people who don’t trust them exceed the numbers who do. Overall, the balance of opinion is still as it was five years ago – positive for broadcast news and negative for print.

Respondents were given examples of newspaper titles to ensure there was no ambiguity. The Times, Telegraph and Guardian were given as examples as up-market newspapers, the Mail and Express as examples of mid-market newspapers, and the Mirror and Sun as examples of red-tops

What ought to worry all journalists is the massive slide in trust, relative to other organisations or groups, since this question was first asked five years ago. The changes have been plotted for each year the question was asked and are given in Table 2 (below). The final column shows the net change in trust since 2003, and one particular finding stands out: of the 23 groups covered in the current survey, journalists have performed worse than every other one. That applies to each of the seven different kinds of journalists we identified except one – the red-top reporters, whose reputation was so low that it could hardly sink any further. Just about the only crumb of comfort to be derived from the figures is the fact that red-top journalists no longer prop up the table but have the dubious consolation of being overtaken (or undertaken) by estate agents.

For the rest of the journalism community, however, the story is profoundly depressing, particularly for the broadcasters. The worst performers are ITV and Channel 4 journalists, whose trust ratings have declined 31 per cent and 29 per cent respectively in the five-year period. The slide for ITV is not noticeably confined to the past 12 months, which suggests this is cumulative rather than a direct effect of the more recent premium-rate and fakery scandals. Channel 4’s figures are more difficult to gauge since it was not included in the intervening years. The BBC’s figures, down 20 per cent over five years, are not quite as dramatic but are still worrying for an organisation which places trust at the centre of its public obligations. As Mark Thompson said in January: “Until last year, Britain’s broadcasters might have been tempted to think that trust was somebody else’s problem... what a difference 12 months makes.”

Print journalism’s performance is not quite as bad as the commercial broadcasters’ but is on a par with the BBC. The trust figures for broadsheet journalists have declined 22 per cent over five years; those for local journalists are down 20 per cent and those for the mid-market titles down 18 per cent. This last group is the biggest loser in terms of the relative decline: while five years ago journalists on the mid-market titles were being ranked just below the middle of the table, their trust-rating now languishes just above their red-top colleagues. As the table shows, the decline in trust extends beyond journalism to virtually every group in the list, in particular public sector occupations such as police, teachers and NHS managers (which I discuss in more detail below). Journalism’s decline cannot, therefore, be seen in isolation from a more widespread phenomenon of declining faith. For an occupation that is supposed to deal in truth, however, and for which accuracy lies at the heart of the various codes of professional conduct, the scale and speed of the decline in trust is a serious issue.

Even readers of particular newspapers – who might be expected to have a more charitable view of their own newspaper compared with others – have almost as little faith as the public as a whole (Table 3, below). While 83 per cent of the population overall say they don’t trust red-top journalists, the equivalent figure for those who actually read the red-top newspapers is still a little more than two-thirds. Roughly the same figures apply to readers of the mid-market newspapers, down from three-quarters overall to two-thirds of those who read mid-market newspapers. To put it crudely, two-thirds of those who read red-top or mid-market newspapers are disinclined to trust the very papers they choose to read! The figures for broadsheet readers are not quite so discouraging, but even a third of these don’t trust the “upmarket” papers they read.

While journalists have never been regarded as paragons of virtue, the public view now is considerably more negative than it was five years ago. How do we explain this crumbling faith in British journalism? I believe there at least four factors:

The drip-drip effect. Undoubtedly, the string of fakery accusations have had an impact. This is more of an issue for the broadcasters than the press, and in most respects is grossly unfair to the journalism of ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC. Whatever the merits of Blue Peter, Saturday Night Takeaway and Deal Or No Deal, journalism they are not. The problem is that, for all the Ofcom fines, public recantations, and – in the BBC’s case – new training initiatives, the damage to public opinion has been done. In print journalism, it is also highly plausible that the antics uncovered by “Operation Motorman” have had an equally damaging effect. Perhaps popular opinion, having shrugged off some of the indiscretions and trickery required to produce real journalistic scoops in the public interest, has begun to run out of patience with the indiscriminate nature of these underhand tactics. In the vast majority of these cases, the motives have been profit, prurience and the extraction of celebrity trivia, rather than watchdog journalism in the best tradition of the fourth estate. Perhaps the public has begun to recognise this and is registering its distaste.

The dog-eat-dog effect. One of the features of a viciously competitive media is the gleeful pleasure derived by some journalists or editors at the downfalls of others. Dog does not so much eat dog as devour it and then scavenge for more. This feeding frenzy is particularly aimed at the broadcasters whose reputation is, perhaps, jealously regarded in some parts of Fleet Street, and is exacerbated by the involvement of celebrity figures. A whiff of scandal around a programme involving Simon Cowell, Ant and Dec or Richard and Judy will be far more alluring to news editors than, say, a banking scam involving a middle-ranking bank official. For the BBC, the problem is magnified still further. Not only must Auntie’s reputation for integrity be purer than Caesar’s wife, there are a number of publications which will – either for purely commercial or for ideological reasons – lose no opportunity to give the lady a good kicking. A wonderful example was the manufactured flap over creative director Alan Yentob and his “noddies” (an editing tool where footage of the interviewer nodding earnestly is cut into an interview in order to break it up). He was accused of inserting noddy-shots of himself into the BBC1 programme that he presents, while not actually being present for the interviews. Howls of outrage were followed swiftly by calls for resignation, and the “scandal” abated only when it turned out that the fake insertions had never happened.

The bandwagon effect. Just as one man-biting-dog story provokes a flurry of canine-biting tales, so exposés of “failing” journalism have become fashionable. As Channel 4’s Kevin Mitchell wrote in the last edition of the BJRabout his Dispatches programme, Undercover Mosque: “TV fakery was a big issue and newspapers were on full alert for stories of alleged malpractice.” So when the West Midlands police referred his programme to Ofcom on the grounds that its editing had misrepresented moderate people as extremists, the rest of the media jumped on the fakery bandwagon. So, it turned out, had the West Midlands Police. Though the programme was unequivocally vindicated by Ofcom, its verdict received barely an acknowledgement in the news headlines that had earlier trumpeted the police referral. We can hardly blame the public for a growing sense of disillusionment when the facts presented are so blatantly one-sided.

The universal scepticism effect. Falling esteem is clearly a problem not only for journalism. As Table 2 shows, doctors, schoolteachers, headteachers, police officers – especially senior police officers – have all lost some public confidence, albeit not quite on the same scale. Some optimists applaud this as a positive sign that the age of deference is now truly behind us, and that a more questioning attitude to authority is a welcome sign of an engaged democracy. There is, however, a world of difference between unquestioning acceptance of figures in authority and a healthy respect for their professional work. A nation of sceptics can easily become a nation of cynics, trashing or ignoring the efforts of those who are trying to teach our children, prevent violent crime, run the country, or tell us what is going on in the world. To compound the problem, there is also an uncomfortable sense that the media themselves might be fomenting widespread scepticism by seeking out and then exaggerating – or even inventing – the most trivial examples of misconduct.

Sapping the country’s self-belief

Tony Blair’s much-derided “feral beasts” speech last June contained one important warning: “...this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair. The damage saps the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions.” In other words, trust may be falling across the board but journalists themselves are contributing to that failure of public confidence. The phrase “shooting oneself in the foot” springs to mind.

Does any of this actually matter? So what, if the public simply doesn’t believe its journalists any more? One argument holds that trust in the media is overrated, that the more the public distrusts what it watches or reads, the healthier it will be. This is a sort of poor-man’s media literacy course: don’t worry about encouraging people to understand editorial processes or read between lines – just encourage them to throw all the babies out with the bathwater. And even better if it really is the media that are feeding disillusionment: the more we distrust them, the less disillusioned we’ll be.

This is not a recipe for a healthy society or a well-informed democracy. Apart from the impact on circulations and ratings – not of itself a problem unless you’re a media shareholder – it leaves us devoid of any meaningful source of information about the issues and problems which the country faces. How do we make decisions about climate change or the scale of terrorist threats? How can we react intelligently to policy initiatives around transport, taxation, crime, health or education unless we’re getting reliable information and analysis about what’s being proposed? And that’s just the domestic perspective. How will we know what’s really going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur or Washington, all places where events and diplomacy can have a direct impact on British citizens? We could of course take a view that our own backyard is all that matters. We could follow Richard Littlejohn’s comment in The Sun a few years ago, when genocide was gripping Rwanda: “Does anyone really give a monkey’s about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them.” We could pretend the rest of the world just doesn’t exist.

But that is a miserable view of the kind of society we are and a miserable ambition for the kind of journalism we want. There are still many bright, dynamic and able aspiring reporters coming into journalism departments, and it would be a pretty bizarre message to tell them that their chosen occupation is now too degraded to be worth their effort. I am not yet ready to tell my students to pack it in for a job that earns more respect – such as an estate agent. Good journalism makes a difference to the kind of society we live in, and to distrust it is eventually to destroy it. That’s why trust matters, and that’s why we should all be worried by the findings of this survey.

* Fieldwork for the BJR survey was undertaken by YouGov plc and conducted online between March 27-28 , 2008. Total sample size was 1,328 adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).