When the press becomes the guilty party

In the case of 'The New York Times', unfortunately, its injuries are self inflicted
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The Independent Online

Two of the greatest newspapers in the world, Le Monde and The New York Times, have recently found themselves under sustained attack. That seems the wrong way round, does it not? Newspapers attack while the political, business and other establishments defend.

But in March two French writers published what has become a bestseller - The Hidden Face of Le Monde. It charged the paper with using its power to make or break political reputations according to a "hidden" agenda.

And last week the editor of The New York Times and his deputy resigned following revelations that one of its young reporters had persistently fabricated articles. The newspaper's enemies had a field day.

Very different situations, then, but I worry about both episodes because of the context in which the two newspapers work. The New York Times operates in a country in which the legislature is in thrall to big business and where Hollywood techniques are routinely used to sell politicians and their policies - President Bush, for instance, addressing the nation from an aircraft carrier. Newspapers like the Times provide an antidote.

In France the problem is similar - endemic political corruption. A trial just ending revealed that the large French oil group, Elf, maintained a political slush fund. One of the defendants asked the judge whether he should name names. He was not asked to do so. Le Monde does point the finger.

The charge against Le Monde, which will be the subject of a libel trial, is that three men - the present editor, his deputy and the chair of the supervisory board - gained control of the newspaper in 1994 and quickly set about putting the newspaper at the heart of a network of political interests, supporting this or that politician and discrediting others. The critics go on to say that Le Monde, using what they claim is its power of intimidation, has insidiously glided from its proper role as a counter-balance to becoming a major player in its own right. The authors' conclusion is that the paper is now more feared than respected.

What is odd about these charges is the notion that any daily newspaper can have a "hidden" face. Generally their biases are well known - as they are sure to be, seeing that they perform in public. In the case of The New York Times, unfortunately, its injuries are, in two respects, self-inflicted.

One of its young reporters was allowed to make mistake after mistake. His articles contained material "lifted" from other sources, with faked quotes and even datelines of places he had never visited. An investigation found fraud, plagiarism and inaccuracies in 36 of 73 articles he wrote between last October and April. He resigned on 1 May after the newspaper declared him guilty of having "committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud".

It is indeed extraordinary that a newspaper could harbour a serial fabricator. In newspapers you don't make mistakes without being found out. Somebody always complains. Your head of department learns about it; your colleagues are soon in the picture. And even if the editors are not inclined to fire the culprit, at the very least the guilty party finds that his or her career is going backwards.

In the case of The New York Times reporter, however, his career went forwards and he was even sent to cover the important story of the Washington sniper. There was bound to be a furore, when matters finally came to a head.

That was at the beginning of May. The executive editor, Howell Raines, addressed his staff and took the blame. The newspaper's owner said he wouldn't accept his resignation. Yet last Thursday evening, he was gone.

What happened in between the two dates was the second, self- inflicted wound. For it seems pretty clear that, in effect, Mr Raines' colleagues drove him out. He was a great editor. Under his leadership the newspaper won six Pulitzer prizes for its coverage of the 11 September attacks. He had relentless drive and determination. One of his battle cries was "flood the zone", which meant inundating big stories with waves of reporters. But he was also dictatorial and indifferent to bruised feelings, while creating what some of his female colleagues saw as a "boys' club". In short, the editorial team could not accommodate itself to the harsh character of a gifted leader; it longed for emollience.

In the UK we possess no newspaper with the status of either The New York Times or Le Monde. No title here enjoys anything like the leadership the two newspapers exercise in their own countries. The outstanding characteristic of Fleet Street (if the old collective noun may still be used) is its dog-eat-dog competitiveness. Yet British national newspapers as a group are extremely powerful, much more so than The New York Times or Le Monde on their own.

And Fleet Street is obnoxious in its own way. It twists facts to fit arguments and then accuses the Government of the same. It routinely invades people's privacy. Its reporters hunt in packs and behave like wolves. It relishes bringing famous people down. It cannot abide success. Yet Fleet Street cleans out the Augean stables so regularly and so reliably that British public life is remarkably uncorrupt.