Thursday, May 01, 2008

A question of trust (part one)

I was on the middle bench of the Sunday Mirror the day they bought up the boyfriend of Julie Ward, the year old safari girl killed in an African game reserve. It was to be the splash, the headline was already written and my job was to shoehorn it on to the page.

I gave it to one of my top subs, a woman in her early thirties, and set to work on the subdeck and then an extraordinary thing happened. She sent it back. Resolutely refused to have any input whatsoever.

Why? Did she know the girl? Was this too close to home in some other way? No, the reason, she insisted: “It was utter bollocks.”

Surely there was nothing dodgy about intimate, unsubstantiated, descriptions of passion in the Kenyan moonlight and the appalling headline; Safari girl Julie's last sex-crazed night.

Don’t answer that. Years later it joined a few dozen anecdotes on a list I trot out from time to time when debating ethics with students.

This week Prof Adrian Monck, whose charges at City University I occasionally speak to, gave me a few more with his book Can You trust the media?

He cites many examples of trust erosion from the shark photographs Kevin Keeble didn’t take in Cornwall to the bogus drug addict story that landed Janet Cooke a Pulitzer prize.

This isn’t supposed to be a book review but I will get to the point and highly recommend it as a pretty decent work on the state of journalism as he puts succinctly on paper what we all know but rarely publicly admit: our main priority is to gain as much of the public's time as we can, rather than inform. And their trust is eroded in the process.

He refers to it here and there as a crisis but explores it rather coolly and with little sense of panic. There's some good analysis too, especially for the sociologically-minded; not all of Fleet Street swallowed the dodgy dossier story, bad news did more to boost morale than good news in the WW2, for example. And he puts a realistic perspective on the so-called power of the citizen journalist.

But he sees light at the end of the tunnel and offers a few solutions, which - suppose, is what you'd expect from an educator.

Personally, I welcome any work that intelligently questions what we do and how we do it. Ever since Lies Damned Lies I've been comfortable with being uncomfortable, if that makes sense.

Monck’s book is not quite the gloom and doom of Nick Davies's Flat Earth News and his publishers are quick to point this out. But I don't see it as a head-to-head. Their debates launch from different premises. Where Davis exposes, Monck examines and discusses.

I'm drawn to these works, having seen at first hand many excesses over the years. None of them made me want to quit, join the PCC or leave my drink on the bar in the last chance saloon.

And I've bookmarked a few passages for use in a lecture theatre somewhere near you, sometime soon. I share his passion in nurturing the talent of the future, but it’s always good to let them know what they're coming into.

More on this later . . .

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