This piece first appeared in the autumn edition of Press Gazette – Journalism Quarterly. To become a subscriber, call 0845 0739 607. From £19.90 per year if subscribing by direct debit, please specify if you want your subscription to include the current edition.
A freelance friend told me recently about trying to sell a story to a national newspaper. “It was like talking to someone who’d been in a car accident,” he said.
- November 21, 2019
- November 29, 2018
- November 2, 2018
On the one hand, journos always complain newsdesks don’t treat their stories with the Watergate-shattering respect they deserve. And on the other, the phone-hacking and corruption scandals, a public inquiry and three police investigations are having a serious effect on even those of us who are not under suspicion, not yet anyway.
If you open a national newspaper today, you’ll have to look hard to find a story that hasn’t come from a press office, showbiz agent or an arranged buy-up.
Most people will see they’re as full of words and pictures as ever. Grab someone in the street and tell them journalism is under attack and the world is less free and they will laugh in your face. Or if it’s Brian Leveson, simply sigh.
But take a closer look and switch your brain on. Where are the stories from? How did they get there? What are they about?
On the day of writing, the main stories were the departure of Olympic athletes, the first court appearance of the man accused of murdering Tia Sharp, a study claiming chocolate can stave off dementia, a survey showing a rise in middle-class drinking, a court hearing a man killed six people after his wife had an affair, pictures of the Spice Girls with Liam Gallagher, and Boris doing the Mo-Bot.
All of them are diary stories, from press releases or Twitter. But it’s silly season during an Olympic backwash so maybe it’s a blip.
Let’s pick a random date at a newsy time of year – 5 March. The front pages were a buy-up with the mum of a lottery winner, a baby killed in an American tornado, a sex offender story based on a FOI request, the Russian election, the opinion of a Falklands veteran and some behind-the-scenes briefing on the budget.
Each of those stories was officially approved in some respect. And while that’s fine, the best and most important stories are the ones that are disapproved of by their subject. The kind the News of the World used to specialise in…
And since the scandal which led to that paper’s demise, there haven’t been any other scandals shoved into the public domain by journalists. The goings-on at Barclays were uncovered by American authorities, and the lack of G4S security guards were revealed by the government.
This is not the fault of the journalists – we’re making the best of the one corner of the playground we’re being kettled in. But there is, however you look at it, a story crunch in which the public flow of news is down to a pre-approved trickle.
This must be down to one of three things:
1. Every reporter on every newspaper got all their stories from hacking and corruption, and is now so terrified of being collared they’re keeping their noses clean.
2. Politicians have stopped lying. Doctors never make mistakes. Courts jail only the guilty. Celebrities are no longer interested in drugs or hookers. Humanity has been fixed.
3. Those stories are still happening, but we’re not being told about it.
The first is financially impossible, the second is risible. Which leaves us with the third option as the only answer.
So why aren’t we being told? The vast majority of tales come from somebody telling someone else something for free, as a bit of gossip, sometimes with and sometimes without realising that information would be passed on to a journalist.
I’ve known celebrities who tell their friends things on the clear understanding it will end up in print, and I’ve known stories which came about because someone sat and gossiped to their hairdresser.
Coppers generally tell you stuff for free, for exactly the same reasons that celebrities, politicians and showbiz PRs do – because it makes someone look good. Vanity works harder than money ever can.
People still want to look good – hence those briefings and ‘friends of Anthea say…’ stories. The real issue is that for the first time I can remember people are now scared to talk to a reporter.
A copper who thinks his superiors have screwed up is not going to have a quiet word in a journo’s ear.
A prison officer who knows a paedophile has child porn in his cell won’t tell a mate on the outside.
A soldier who had to buy his own kit isn’t going to ring a newspaper.
A teaching assistant, council clerk, librarian, dustman or anyone else employed on a public wage is terrified of losing their job if they flog a tip for £50 – and it’s tips which are often the first step to a really good scandal.
And if they’re scared, then so are we. Hacks worry every email could be handed over to police, that papers won’t protect the sources we work hard to reassure, that so much as buying a pint for a CPS lawyer after court will see everyone involved collared by a police force under pressure to compensate for previous mistakes.
We all have friends who’ve had a 6 o’clock knock on the basis of a phone call they answered, a dinner they claimed on expenses, who’ve had their laptop and gym kit seized for forensic examination (I know, a journo with a gym kit – suspicious, right?) or who, in a few cases, have been unable to work for more than a year despite not being charged.
Which is good news for people who do things they’d rather we didn’t know about.
It gives Michael Gove the kick he needs to appeal, almost unnoticed, the information commissioner’s instruction to open up his private email account to FOI requests because he’s been using it for work.
It encourages high-profile people to threaten unflattering stories out of the papers with 17 misinterpreted words from the Human Rights Act.
It allows a court to forget the public uproar over privacy injunctions and grant a politician’s love-child, whose mother had spoken about its parentage, the right not to be photographed.
It gives Sue Akers the brass neck she needs to dictate what is and is not in the public interest.
And the fact that somehow, against all the odds, we still produce newspapers that look like newspapers every day enables people in offices with nice carpets to decide that we can do it without investing in journalists.
It cannot be unrelated that in the past year the UK has dropped from 19th to 28th in the Press Freedom Index. Mali, which had a military coup in March, is freer than we are.
But then Mali doesn’t have the same kind of rotten eggs who dragged us all into this mire, nor a former PR man for a PM who thinks arresting journalists for having a pint with a copper will divert attention from a scandal he is at the centre of. It doesn’t just affect journalists – what we do, and cannot do, has consequences for everyone else.
The Reader we love, hate and rely on is less free too, only he doesn’t know it because we’re too scared to tell him.
Fleet Street at its best is packed with mischief-makers who enjoy being disapproved of by the powerful, and I want that spirit back.
Clear out the criminals, go back to sticking our noses where they’re not wanted, and find a way to make the internet pay our bar bills.
Scrutinise us by all means, but don’t kettle us.