A journalist of fifty years standing offers a personal and independent assessment of the often troubled relationship between public figures and the British news media. My aim is to try to monitor events and issues affecting the ethics of journalism and the latest developments in the rapidly-changing world of press, television, radio and the Internet. Expect too an insight into the black arts of media manipulation. So spin-doctors, Beware!
As the prosecution continues to present its evidence at the Old Bailey in the case alleging phone hacking and the bribing of public officials, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only is British justice on trial but also journalism itself.
Repeated references have been made to the payments which it is alleged were made to sources who supplied information to the Sun and the News of the World.
Paying cash to get facts to support a reporter’s story line is a practice which splits journalistic opinion.
Indeed there could hardly be a clearer dividing line: some reporters are prepared to pay for information and justify their conduct on the grounds that sometimes this may be the only way to stand up stories which are in the public interest.
But on the other hand there are those journalists who say they have never offered money to informants -- and never would – and who insist they would always try to rely on journalistic endeavour rather than cash or the cheque book.
Once the Queen had placed her seal of approval on the politically-approved version of the royal charter for press regulation there must have been a collective sigh of relief among the three party leaders.
Almost by a whisker they had ensured that radio and television reports of the opening of the prosecution’s case in the phone hacking trial would be balanced by the news that the politicians had delivered on their promise to respond to the Leveson Inquiry.
But the Privy Council’s rendezvous with Queen at Buckingham Palace was nothing more than an empty gesture dressed up in the guise of some pretty clumsy news management.
When it came to influencing the headlines – and that is what it was all about – the message from the leadership of the three main parties was pretty clear: “We’ve proved we can stand up to the press on behalf of the public. We’ve done our bit.”
Yet in reality the political leaders know they are simply treading water. The ball remains very firmly in the hands of newspaper and magazine proprietors who will carry on regardless in establishing their Leveson-style regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
While the Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre continues to lick his wounds after a mauling at the hands of what he derides as the “Twitter mob”, his headline writers have had no alternative but to accept the power of social media.
Britain’s national newspapers are finding that the tone and direction of their news content is being influenced increasingly by online insurgencies which instantly reveal a level of public reaction which cannot be ignored.
When defending the Mail’s now infamous headline, “The man who hated Britain” in the row over the attack on the politics of Ed Miliband’s father, Dacre raged against what he said was “the phoney world of Twitter.”
In his opinion the hysteria that had been generated against the Mail’s commentary showed how any newspaper which dared to “take on the left in the interests of its readers risks being howled down by the Twitter mob, which the BBC absurdly thinks represents the views of real Britain.”
But within days of the editor’s denunciation of the power and influence of the Twitterati the Daily Mail was trumpeting the “Twitter firestorm” which had subjected British Gas to “an hour of non-stop abuse” for having imposed a 9.3 per cent increase in gas and electricity prices.
Across the country local press reporters will have every reason to reflect on the long-term impact of Rupert Murdoch’s forty-year stewardship of some of Britain’s most popular daily and Sunday newspapers.
Whether for or against the introduction of a Leveson-style press regulator, journalists past and present will have a view as the evidence unfolds during the News of the World phone hacking trial at the Old Bailey which is due to start on Monday 28 October.
Murdoch’s lasting impact on British journalism is that he more than any other proprietor has been responsible for encouraging the monetisation of the most basic function of our trade – the gathering of news.
Reporters of my generation, who trained on local evening and weekly newspapers, were not accustomed to being asked: “How much?” “What’s it worth?” whenever they sought interviews or photographs.
Local journalists tell me such routines are a commonplace experience today. People involved in human interest stories realise their contributions might have a value even though their assistance in providing information to the local newspaper might be for the local good, perhaps preventing mishaps or misfortune for neighbours or other residents.
After a decade or more of cuts and job losses a growing digital audience is holding out the prospect that local newspapers might soon be reaching a tipping point when online income outweighs the loss of print advertising.
At the launch of a new book on the future of local journalism – What Do We Mean By Local? – there was one overriding verdict: delivering news first to an online audience is not a threat to local newspapers but the only realistic way to drive up revenues for what should become the local news franchises of the future.
Ashley Highfield, chief executive of the Johnston Press, which has just completed the re-launch of nearly 200 websites attached to over 200 daily and weekly local newspapers, gave an upbeat assessment to a Media Society audience (10.10.2013).
“The only question is: ‘When is the tipping point when digital revenue growth outweighs the lost income on print?’ Perhaps it will be 2016.
“In some sections of our business digital revenue now amounts to 15 to 20 per cent of total advertising income; that is up from 10 per cent the previous year and 5 per cent the year before that.
“When that share of revenue becomes 20 to 30 per cent in the next eighteen months or so – a 30 per cent increase year on year – then the rate of growth in digital business will outweigh the decline in print income.
“And at that point we will reach a tipping point when we can achieve a profit without taking out costs; at last it will mean the business can grow.”