Journalism: truth or dare? by Ian Hargreaves

'You cannot hope to bribe or twist ...
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The Independent Culture

Even an old hack, who first wrote for a daily newspaper 40 years ago, can find fresh insights in this book. However, it wasn't written for people like me. With his upfront honesty, Ian Hargreaves tells us that the idea was his publisher's. Oxford could see, I imagine, that a thorough analysis by the professor of journalism at Cardiff University, former director of news and current affairs at the BBC and my successor as editor of The Independent, would be a godsend to the swarms of media students trying to make sense of it all.

As a primer, the book exemplifies the very virtues Hargreaves tries to teach. It is even-handed, balancing the claims of a movement of "concerned journalists", which believes that standards have suffered a calamitous decline, against the arguments in favour of the so-called tabloidisation of journalism or "New News". New indeed to me, this school holds that there is a more unruly type of journalism, which elevates experience over knowledge, emotion over reason and popular opinion over expert advice. It is compounded of such familiar staples as Hollywood films, TV movies, pop music and pop art, celebrity magazines, cable and home video.

Nor does Hargreaves make rash judgements. He holds, correctly, that it is difficult to generalise about the relationship between journalistic excellence and ownership. The good can flourish in almost any setting. Equally, all forms of media ownership can lead to behaviour which is self-serving or even corrupt.

I am surprised that Hargreaves is as critical as he is about the probity of the average journalist. He asks whether journalists take ethics seriously and replies that there are many reasons to think they do not. He quotes a textbook for journalists as admitting that lecturing some practitioners about ethics is as pointless as advocating celibacy to sailors in port after six months at sea. Or as Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of The Sun, is supposed to have said: "Ethics is a place to the east of London where the men wear white socks." Moreover, in a poll of British journalists only 30 per cent agreed that they are obliged to be accurate and objective.

Can this last observation really be so? For a journalist not to care about accuracy is as contrary to nature as a musician who sees no advantage in being in tune. My experience is that if you make a mistake you are always found out, whether in print or on radio or TV. Somebody, somewhere will make it their business to correct you. Worse, in financial journalism you run the risk of being sued.

But when media students ask the author how to steer a straight course through the chicaneries which will confront them, he answers by beseeching them not to let go of the sense of right or wrong society has already taught them. New entrants have "a moral compass learnt outside journalism". This approach reveals a deeply pessimistic view. Hargreaves is saying that journalism suffers from institutional rot, a state in which wrongdoing is so widespread that few involved recognise it.

After this, it is refreshing to find an upbeat analysis of the potential for online journalism. This new frontier offers the chance to combine still pictures, film footage, sound and text in a way which could be far beyond what television can achieve. The question is whether the lone "writer", to use the old print description, can use these elements creatively in a new form. Already there is the web-logging movement, or "blogging". Anybody can self-publish by means of a personal website. Some have attracted large followings by the internet equivalent of word of mouth.

Andrew Sullivan, a British journalist with a distinguished career in the US, has said that blogging is "the first journalistic model that harnesses rather than merely exploits the true democratic nature of the web". It is a merit of this book that Hargreaves reaches out to this exhilarating front line.

Andreas Whittam Smith was the founding editor of 'The Independent'