So what is journalism? The two ends of the newspaper market can't agree

Amid the continuing fall-out from the British Press Awards, Peter Wilby asks if there is a place for methods employed by the red-tops ...
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The Independent Online

In principle, I applaud the decision by the editors of up-market papers to withdraw from the British Press Awards. But I also detect snobbery. The posh papers do not like being judged alongside the tabloids. They would prefer the press awards to be like the Booker Prize, where the palm goes to some impenetrably "difficult" novel and nobody would dream of honouring a mass-seller by, say, Georgette Heyer or Jeffrey Archer.

In principle, I applaud the decision by the editors of up-market papers to withdraw from the British Press Awards. But I also detect snobbery. The posh papers do not like being judged alongside the tabloids. They would prefer the press awards to be like the Booker Prize, where the palm goes to some impenetrably "difficult" novel and nobody would dream of honouring a mass-seller by, say, Georgette Heyer or Jeffrey Archer.

I have some sympathy. A long New Statesman report that revealed how the US sent suspected terrorists to be tortured in such countries as Egypt and Syria was recently shortlisted for an award alongside the celebrated Hutton report scoop by The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh. Our report emerged from an investigation that took months, Kavanagh's (nobody knows the details) from a well-placed source that handed him an advance copy. Ours revealed what might have remained hidden for years, Kavanagh's beat official publication by a few hours. Kavanagh won, and I don't begrudge him that or other honours. But was it really possible to compare the two stories?

Despite their convergence in recent years, tabloids and broadsheets (I use the latter, now partly inaccurate, term for convenience) still have very different agendas. On Maundy Thursday, The Sun devoted half its front page and a double page inside to Colleen McLoughlin. The big news was that McLoughlin was, er, on holiday.

Like most men, I know that McLoughlin is the fiancée of Wayne Rooney, the England football prodigy, and that she was of interest because Rooney had just been in a night-club punch-up. But many days, The Sun, Mirror or Star headlines the doings of some soap star or other TV celebrity of whom I have never heard. Indeed, quite frequently, when I read The Sun, I haven't a clue what it's on about.

On Thursday, we were not told where McLoughlin was holidaying, only that it was "a sunshine island". This leads me to suspect that either some deal had been struck (which McLoughlin's agent denies), or that The Sun is seeking one. If McLoughlin was not herself paid, she probably welcomed the publicity. After all, if she were not Rooney's girlfriend, she would be a non-entity - and, as we know, people will give anything to be famous.

The secret of most big tabloid stories is that they are not the result of genuine investigation, but of somebody getting a fat fee or wanting their 10 minutes of fame. Nearly all "kiss-and-tell" stories fall into this category: a woman has sex with a footballer or a pop star and decides to cash in, usually through an PR industry intermediary such as Max Clifford. Is this journalism as traditionally understood? Probably not. But I do not think most broadsheet journalism today is significantly different.

First, broadsheets are just as driven by the public relations industry as the tabloids. My friend and admirer, Dylan Jones, recently estimated that over half the content of GQ magazine, which he edits, is generated by PR. I would guess the proportion for the national press, broadsheet as well as tabloid, is higher: not just film, theatre, books and music PR but also the PR of pressure groups, unions, companies, government departments and political parties. News in the classic sense - of something that someone somewhere does not want known - is very rare indeed.

Second, the broadsheets are as obsessed with personalities as the tabloids: they are just different personalities, being more often politicians, international leaders or highbrow novelists, for example. You may object that these are more important people, of greater than ephemeral interest. So try this simple test. Can you remember why Stephen Byers resigned? And who won the Booker the year before last? No, nor can I.

By all means reform the British Press Awards andthe prizes so that like is compared with like. But let's not pretend that the broadsheet form of journalism is inherently superior.

Peter Wilby is the editor of the 'New Statesman' and a former editor of 'The Independent on Sunday'

...while Bill Hagerty finds nothing honourable in the broadsheets' readiness to adopt tabloid agendas

If the self-styled serious press spent half the time sniffing out sensational stories as it does whining about "the tabloids", the British Press Awards might not have the kind of form that one day could result in them being asked to assist the police with their inquiries. It doubtless wouldn't stop the abuse of oafs by other oafs, but at least the cries of "Not fair" and constant carping about the decisions of the judges would fade into the annual hubbub.

I am no fan of the structure of the awards and said so in the British Journalism Review. Nor did the BJR appreciate Geldof hijacking the presentation of our Hugh Cudlipp Award to set the vulgar tone of the evening. But Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers' claim of "a formal recognition in recent years that there is only a tabloid press in Britain because the judges seem to dance to their tune" is ludicrous.

Gowers and The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger say "there is no merit in handing out awards to papers which do not seek to publish truth-telling serious journalism". This is a direct attack on the red-top tabloids (the Mail group and the new kids on the tabloid block, The Times and The Independent, cling to "compact" as if scared of catching something nasty).

Yet it is the red tops, plus the Mail, that more often than not set the print journalism news agenda. Most weeks one can count the number of "serious" scoops broken by the "serious" papers on the fingers of one finger. Meanwhile, at the grubby end of Grub Street, the tabloids are raking muck and blowing whistles fit to bust.

Yes, often their stories are obtained by tip-off or in return for a substantial fee - methods deplored by those who appear to believe that a story ain't a story unless an "investigative" team has spent months on it. What nonsense. Tipsters do not arbitrarily pick the name of a reporter from a media guide - The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh, Reporter of the Year for his Hutton Report leak, has spent years cultivating contacts.

Objections to "chequebook journalism" are as spurious. Informants have been selling information - often to the police or the security services, but to journalists, too - as long as there has been information that somebody, somewhere, didn't want known.

True, sometimes the results suggest unnecessary extravagance. I sympathise with those who considered the story of David Beckham's extra-marital Spanish escapades unworthy of the Scoop of the Year gong it collected. Perhaps on this occasion the judges were blinded in the headlights of a paper that, although weighing several pounds less than its News International Sunday stablemate, is more of a must-read than even The Times.

Nevertheless, in the dumbed-down world of what once genuinely were "the qualities", where tabloid tittle-tattle is often recycled with a quasi-respectable sheen, Beckham's peccadillo and the Football Association sex scandal, another News of the World blockbuster, were seized upon with relish: as the NoW editor Andy Coulson pointed out in a letter to The Guardian on Friday, The Guardian's subsequent coverage of these stories ran to a combined 3,300 column centimetres.

Tabloid excesses, including what often seems a foolhardy determination to treat the Press Complaints Code as no more than an irritating hindrance, are unforgivable. But rat-like cunning, one of the qualities the late Nick Tomalin listed as essential for journalistic success: shouldn't belong exclusively to the red-tops. The great Tomalin, remember, worked for The Sunday Times.

Bill Hagerty is the editor of 'British Journalism Review'

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