The Media Column: 'Journalism has always been crowded with rogues and rascals'

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The Independent Online

The only qualities essential for real success in journalism, wrote that fine Sunday Times correspondent Nicholas Tomalin more than 30 years ago, are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. Had Tomalin not been killed in 1973 when in Israel covering the Yom Kippur War, he might be in trouble with some of his peers today. Rat-like cunning? Those criticising the press from within would doubtless consider such heresy deserving of incarceration in the Tower.

The trouble with the journalists joining ranks to call for some sort of supervision of the media is not just pomposity or condescension, but an ignorance or deliberate disregard of the past that enables them to treat journalistic misdemeanours and worse as a recent blight on the trade. The business has always been crowded with rogues, cheats and rascals. It has also fulfilled - still does - an indispensable role in ensuring that similar characters in public life are exposed for cheating, hoodwinking or lying to the public.

The call for a Royal Commission on the press from Sir Harry Evans (below) - a great journalist and neither pompous nor condescending - has been endorsed by others whom, I suspect, consider the behaviour of some newspapers to be so reprehensible that little short of a public beheading would curb their resentment.

As guest of honour at a recent Reform Club dinner in London, the newly knighted Evans spoke of how he believed the primacy of fact is no longer the gold standard for the British press. There is much that is good, but much that is bad and odious, he said - as undeniably true now as it has always been. Certainly it is time that the industry gave itself a good talking to, allowed the Press Complaints Commission more bite and set about reconstructing a public image which is as disreputable, and as old, as that of Burke and Hare.

But contrast Evans's remarks with some of those not only sharing his concern but appearing to quiver alarmingly when doing so. Martin Kettle, whose anti-press pieces for The Guardian are like dirges played on a one-string banjo, writes that until recently debates on political policy were conducted by politicians, while journalists "chipped in afterwards with a bit of commentary". What poppycock - newspapers have invariably been politically driven - Northcliffe and Beaverbrook's papers muscled in, rather than chipped, and when, almost 160 years ago, editor Charles Dickens declared his Daily News would pursue "the principles of progress and improvement, of education, civil and religious liberty and equal legislation", it was the political process he had in his sights.

John Lloyd, whose new book, What the Media Do to Our Politics, has prompted those who feel obliged to defend the old game to square up to its critics across acres of newsprint, is a long-time press Jeremiah. He advocates the correction of mistakes, in the apparent belief that only American papers, such as the New York Times, currently do so; the "development of courses and institutes, similar to those at Harvard and Columbia, that explicitly exist to raise journalistic standards", and the creation of groups similar to the Committee of Concerned Journalists, also American.

Those of the Lloyd school, who revere what are, with honourable exceptions, largely dull and subservient American newspapers, might be interested in Evans's view, expressed in that same Reform Club address, that in most areas the British press is "a million miles" ahead of that in the United States.

As estimable a team as the media detractors can field - Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, former chairman of the old Press Council, is also a fierce denigrator of self-regulation - the opposition that's suddenly emerged is every bit as eminent.

Peter Preston, Alan Rusbridger's predecessor at the helm of The Guardian, argues in The Observer that although the press "may be crude or cavalier or offensive," it is still a vital voice of freedom. The venerable Alan Watkins, writing in The Independent on Sunday, brings historical perspective to the debate by pointing out that, overall, Harold Wilson, after 10 years as Labour leader, and John Major, after only two as prime minister, received worse press treatment than does Tony Blair today. Andrew Neil, with whom I often disagree on matters journalistic, uses his London Evening Standard column to box the sensitive ears of Lloyd, who bemoans politicians' malevolence towards journalists: "I regard it as a badge of honour," writes Neil.

What everyone agrees is that this is no time for complacency. Ron Neil's largely practical proposals for editorial safeguards at the BBC should be noted by those who control our newspapers: an industry symposium to address problems peculiar to the press is long overdue. Meanwhile, a little less wringing of hands and a little more rat-like cunning wouldn't come amiss.