Heroes can still make the news

Reports of the decline of the fourth estate are exaggerated, says Julia Hobsbawm. We should applaud its boldest and best
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The Independent Online

It has become popular to dance on the grave of journalism or, at least, to announce its terminal decline. I'll admit I'm tempted to join in, given the awful, patronising treatment meted out on the whole by journalism to people in public relations, of whom I am one.

Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that journalism's current, diminishing, reputation is neither wholly fair nor desirable. I'd even go so far as say that there is such a person as the journalist-as-hero, who is in danger of becoming forgotten.

But conditions are not exactly favourable. While opinion polls might show that the media is more trusted than politics, that isn't saying much. Trust is not in abundance when it comes to journalism, and much of the damage has been self-inflicted.

For years the "serious" (broadsheet/BBC) end of the trade has presumed a kind of moral superiority - it has argued that its primary function is to seek and expose the truth - and the tabloid end has stuck two fingers up to anything remotely resembling ethics. John Lloyd notes in his book What the Media are Doing to our Politics that "many journalists don't believe in the existence of truth - and certainly believe that, even if it does exist, it is unattainable by journalism".

Many in politics and public life feel that journalism is taking unelected power much too far. Humiliation and titillation have become frequent reporting techniques and, in the newsroom itself, the line between hard news and hard views has blurred. Consumers are now as wary of journalistic spin as they are the PR version. It was only a matter of time before the bubble of complacency in the media burst.

Over the last 18 months that has happened. There has been an accumulation of criticism about what Andrew Marr endearingly describes in his history of British journalism as "this strange apology for a proper job". Journalism is now largely preoccupied, post-Hutton, with self-awareness and navel-contemplation.

Perhaps the trigger for what the American journalist Malcolm Gladwell has termed a tipping point - the sudden moment of consensus - was when The New York Times, that bastion of "proper" journalism, suffered the humiliation of discovering that their star reporter Jayson Blair had sexed-up his stories to the degree that he had invented quotes and hadn't even bothered to visit the places from where he had supposedly filed copy .

In reality, neither deception nor inaccuracy is that unusual in journalism. The scale of contrition and remorse shown by The New York Times created something of a hollow laugh in a PR industry long used to the blurring of fact and fiction (a charge levelled with some justification, at least some of the time, at itself).

Meanwhile, in the UK ,we were diverted by our own debate about sexing up. The BBC emerged bloodied and bowed after the Gilligan story prompted not just resignations from the top but a renewed commitment, via the Neil report, to basic journalistic integrity. Although it recognised the "formidable professionalism that already underwrites the BBC's journalism every day" the Neil Report was still seen as a manoeuvre to offset damage caused by the BBC's own error.

But the BBC's deference has proved to be less necessary than some might have thought. This month the Government formally admitted that the evidence which formed the basis of its argument for advancing into war was even more wrong than the BBC's Gilligan ever was.

When Piers Morgan was sacked as the editor of the Daily Mirror for using mocked-up pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners of war, he was derided for making a fiction. Journalism was thought to have suffered another blow, and the Government was able briefly to relax. But only during the Mirror furore did the Government admit that it had known abuses were taking place. Moreover, would we ever have reached the truth about the lack of WMD without the spur of journalism, for all its flawed methods?

So journalism's central self-defence, that it does what it does in a mucky, imprecise way but with the best intentions, namely to uncover truth that those in power might prefer to have remain hidden, remains valid.

In war zones, journalists now find themselves literally in the firing line more than ever before. Iraq has shown that they are even at risk from coalition forces as much as from "terrorists". Being "embedded" is not necessarily the best way to get the unvarnished truth, but most news organisations now now prefer not to let their journalists roam unprotected.

But they still die in the search for the truth. If that isn't heroic, I don't know what is. More than 30 journalists have been killed already this year in combat zones, and that's not counting kidnappings. Daniel Pearl of The Washington Post became a grisly trophy-killing. The British journalist James Brandon nearly became another such victim this summer.Front-line journalism is clearly exhilarating, but is also worthwhile. Anya Schiffrin, the co-director of the media program at Columbia University's school of international and public affairs, has set up a website dedicated to helping journalists in emerging economies. She told me that "the media has a critical role to play in shaping the agenda for economic reform and development", and she's right.

But who are the domestic heroes in journalism? They are all around us, embedded in an imperfect system, hidden and unremarked upon. They are not just the dwindling but vital band of investigative reporters, such as John Ware of Panorama, David Leppard of The Sunday Times, and Tom Bower. Their views may be maddening, and they are never 100-per-`cent right, but to do without the principle and much of the practice of their kind of journalism should be unthinkable.

Journalistic heroes are not just some of the best polemicists - writers who bring to life issues by declaring their bias but nevertheless illuminate painful, real truths for us. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent, Simon Jenkins of The Times and the London Evening Standard, Mary Riddell of The Observer, and Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail are all people I read avidly and with absolute trust, regardless of whether I agree with them. They are vitally important to society. The broadcast inquisitors can be dogged and deft. The BBC boasts huge numbers of such people. Jeremy Paxman has been a hero since he famously humiliated Michael Howard. Some would say he showed contempt but, equally, he showed perseverance in countering evasiveness.

Then there are those in the backroom, the fact-checkers, enshrined in American journalism but also imposed on some of journalism here, who know that it is morally base to publish information which is misleading or plain false. The readers' editors and ombudsmen, which The Guardian led the charge on, are slowly but surely turning the tide towards a press which takes greater responsibility for its errors. Who knows, someone brave may even decide to follow Germany's lead and publish retractions of inaccurate stories with the same prominence that they had in the first place. That would be truly heroic.

Journalism's failings are out in the open at long last. They are being debated as never before - a thoroughly good thing. The journalistic glass may be half-empty, but, then again, it is also half-full.

Julia Hobsbawm is a PR consultant and professor of public relations at the University of the Arts in London. She is editing a book on truth and the media which will be published by Atlantic Books next year.

© Julia Hobsbawm