From zeroes to heroes

The public's opinion of journalists isn't as bad as Spitting Image once had us believe
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The Independent Online

For my first witness, I'm going to call Barrie Hudson, probably much to his embarrassment. If you're not familiar with his name, that's because you don't live in Swindon, where Hudson works for the town's evening newspaper, the Evening Advertiser.

In October, Hudson picked up a phone ringing on the Advertiser newsdesk. The call was from a local man, speaking on his mobile phone from the top deck of a multi-storey car park. He was standing on the edge, he told Hudson. And he was going to jump. But before he did, he wanted his story to be told: of how he'd been wrongly convicted of a crime; of how he couldn't bear his young daughter to see him go to prison; of how he didn't want his girlfriend to have to live with the shame.

Hudson kept him talking and, an hour later, with the help of local police, he succeeded in persuading him to come down. Extraordinary as it may sound, it wasn't the first time Hudson had talked somebody out of suicide. Another "jumper" had called the Advertiser two years ago and Hudson had talked her down too.

The point of this is not to portray the local newspaper reporter as some kind of superhero; he only did - very well, as it turned out - what any solicitor, priest or doctor would have done in the same situation. The point is that the desperate local man, in his darkest, most needy moment, when all other avenues seemed to be closed off to him, didn't choose to call his solicitor, his priest or his doctor. He chose to call his newspaper because he thought he would be given a fair hearing. He believed that whoever picked up the phone could be trusted to tell the most important story of his life.

But how do we square this story with the image of the careless, sleazy, cynical hack that sticks so resolutely in the minds of the public; the one embodied in the Spitting Image press pack puppets whose faces were those of slobbering pigs? (For proof of this, type "journalists estate agents politicians" into a search engine - I guarantee that almost all the results will be reports of opinion polls showing those three to be the least-trusted professions.)

How do we square this with the following description of any newspaper's workings?: "Mistakes, downright lies, betrayals of confidences, padded expense accounts, free trips provided by public relations companies, character assassinations, editorial column vapidities, insults ... evasions, omissions, misspellings, misnamings, misattributions, indifferences, forgetfulnesses, prejudices, spites, flatteries."

The problem with this unflattering portrayal is that it comes not from some disaffected politician, but from an eminently respectable journalist. John Lloyd, the editor of the Financial Times Magazine, used the description in a Reuters Foundation lecture late last year in support of the thesis of his book, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, that journalists live in a "parallel universe" and fail entirely to accurately portray the world everybody else lives is in. He sparked a fierce debate about the state of journalism in the 21st century, and was supported by those who suggested that the public at large was utterly cheesed off with a media that was hopelessly out of touch and wantonly unconcerned with the truth.

At Press Gazette, the magazine for journalists that I edit, we were puzzled by this not least because of the number of obviously positive stories - like those of Hudson - that we report on every week. Was it really true, we wondered, that the good work done by journalists in regional and national newspapers, in magazines and in broadcast news, were completely escaping the attention of the public that consumed them in great numbers every single day? If they trusted us so little, how come they buy newspapers in greater numbers, pro rata, than almost any other country in the world?

So, to kick off a relaunch of the magazine (a plug that probably fuels another of the detractors' arguments that nothing that isn't self-serving gets published), we commissioned a YouGov survey of more than 2,000 representative people across the UK.

The first question we asked was simple: Do you agree or disagree with the statement, 'Journalism makes a positive contribution to British society'? If Lloyd and other vocal detractors, like Alastair Campbell, were right, then the answer would be overwhelmingly negative. Surprisingly, it wasn't. More than half (52 per cent) agreed and nearly 10 per cent of them agreed strongly with the statement. Fewer than a third disagreed (the rest either didn't answer or didn't know).

The second question related to the reporting of the tsunami disaster in Asia. How much, we asked, were you influenced in your donations by journalists' reports? This time, 47 per cent said they were influenced or strongly influenced by news reports they'd seen or heard on radio, television or in print. Given that almost £200m has been pledged by Britons to help with the recovery effort, that's tangible proof that journalism can have a direct and positive effect on the world it reflects. This is not to claim that a bunch of intrepid foreign-desk heroes single-handedly brought in millions of pounds; merely to point out that the brilliant reporting that characterised the coverage of the disaster did have impact.

There are echoes in that of Michael Buerk's report 20 years ago from Ethiopia, which brought shockingly home to the British public a famine that they wouldn't otherwise have lost sleep over. Prompted by his report, hundreds of millions of pounds were raised within weeks, even before Band Aid and Live Aid got going.

I do not want to give the impression that the profession is populated entirely with selfless do-gooders. It clearly (and healthily) isn't. But I do believe that the quality and professionalism of journalism, as a whole, in this country is probably as high as it has ever been. The British Press Awards entries that are stacked ceiling-high in our office right now are testament to that. The same will be true of our Regional Press Awards in the spring. I could tear any of them open at random and be certain of reading work that is, in all meanings of the word, sensational: whether that be a brilliant News of the World scoop or a hard-hitting Bristol Evening Post campaign. It certainly won't all be "positive" journalism - I'm no subscriber to the Martyn Lewis school of accentuating the good news. Much of it will be scandalous, caustic and undermining of the rich, the great and the not-so-good. Much of it will have caused public figures to spit, curse and even resign. But one thing's for sure: it will help to enrich or illuminate, in some way, an aspect of British life.

As part of Press Gazette's survey - the results of which are still being processed, and we'll be publishing later this week - we asked respondents to name any newspaper, magazine, broadcast news programme or website that they considered to be trustworthy. Without giving too much away, BBC journalists may well have reason to be cheerful. Twelve months ago, almost to the day, they were going through one of the most bruising periods in the corporation's history, as Lord Hutton delivered his report on the death of government scientist Dr David Kelly.

It was a damning verdict on the corporation's journalism standards and some believed a serious blow to its credibility. It was also suggested that the damage would have a ripple effect on the rest of the industry. Early indications from our survey suggest that if the public had lost faith in the corporation's trustworthiness, they've regained much of it now. Newspapers, including this one, won't be unhappy with the results either.

Of course, none of this means that there aren't serious flaws that need to be addressed. The debate must always rage and it's healthy that we should be constantly calling ourselves to account. But I would argue that there are far more serious threats to journalism than its own practitioners failing to take their responsibilities seriously enough: the concentration of media ownership eroding independent journalism; low-pay driving good reporters out of the business; the power of the courts to gag important stories.

The public, though, still has faith in us. It's not unanimous and it's not unshakeable. But it's there in greater reservoirs than many would have us believe. There is plenty more we, as a profession, can do to strengthen that faith. As long as we continue to answer the phone when they call us.

Ian Reeves is editor of Press Gazette