The Only Way is Ethics: It’s hard to imagine a world where good newspapers didn’t divide opinions

It means columnists are writing interesting and challenging articles

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It is inevitable that not all readers of a given newspaper will enjoy every element of its content. Some will have no time for the sports pages, others won’t give two hoots about anything but the cryptic crossword (and heaven forfend that the setter should ever be replaced).

Columnists can certainly divide opinion, none more so than Nigel Farage, whose signing by The Independent last year was greeted with respect and interest by some, and with dismay by others. But he is not the only writer who splits the readership. On the whole I think that can be regarded as a good thing because it suggests both that columnists are writing interesting and challenging articles and that The Independent’s audience remains as varied as ever.

Nonetheless, I was slightly disconcerted last week to receive a complaint about a particular journalist whose column was described by a disgruntled reader as “inane” and “vapid”. I was surprised in part because it happens to be a column I have always found rather enjoyable, which ought, of course, not to mean a great deal in light of my first sentence.

I was also a mite startled because the essence of the complaint was that the column was more suited to social media and, said the reader, had no place in a newspaper that aspired to a decent standard of journalism. That struck me as an odd distinction because, of course, newspapers play an increasingly integral role in social media – both in feeding its appetite for information and by reporting its spats and gossip. Britain remains oddly obsessed with the differences between media platforms but the distinctions are largely false or anachronistic. 

The reader was evidently not a fan of confessional journalism, which is fair enough (the trend for it can get a little tiresome). However, the appearance in a newspaper of a column which might equally be suited to an online blog is not evidence of old-style news values selling out. On the contrary, it demonstrates that the longstanding ability of newspapers to be all things to all people is alive and well.

Media stung by a failed sting

The “celebrity sting” took a knock last week when the trial of Tulisa Contostavlos – the drugs one, that is, not the assault one (do keep up) – was brought to an abrupt halt after the sole prosecution witness, Sun journalist Mazher Mahmood, was found by the judge to have given inconsistent evidence.

This latest scandal is clearly damaging to Mahmood, a former stalwart of the News of the World, and he may face legal action himself. Yet it may be detrimental too to legitimate investigative journalism, which relies on subterfuge as an important tool, albeit one that should be used sparingly. There are already checks and balances in place to ensure that when reporters from The Independent go undercover they do so for the right reasons and conduct their enquiries properly.

Yet the events of last week will give ammunition to those who would wish to portray any operation involving subterfuge as illegitimate entrapment.

Beyond that, the comments by the judge that “there are strong grounds for believing Mr Mahmood told me lies” further bolster the impression that journalists are arrogant so-and-sos who are prepared to tell fibs to a court, let alone anyone else. It is certainly not a fair reflection on the industry as a whole, but perception, of course, is nine-tenths of reality; and the last three years have hardly been short of negative headlines about British journalism.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore

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