Cleaning up our act

It is far from unusual for journalists and journalism to be given a public drubbing. Nor is it surprising for the press to respond with the ferocity of a swan protecting its cygnets when the great, the good and an on-the-ropes Government call its honesty and integrity into question.

No matter that sometimes the fourth estate’s honesty and integrity is of the brand that landed Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer in the jug. Newspapers are at their most dangerous when wounded.

When lodging complaints with the Press Complaints Commission on behalf of the Prime Minister after newspaper claims that Black Rod had been lobbied to expand Blair’s role at the Queen Mother’s lying in state, Alastair Campbell must have realised his nose would be bloodied if he didn’t succeed. He didn’t. It was. So was that of media commentator Roy Greenslade, who had vigorously defended the Government only to find himself the subject of Richard Littlejohn’s vitriol in The Sun when things went badly wrong.

While the papers were readying Campbell for a swift cremation, after which the ashes would be thrown into Blair’s face, and Littlejohn was readying his scattergun, Labour Party chairman Charles Clarke pitched into the press. Once more, the newspapers bared their razor-sharp teeth.  Yet another attack on news-paper journalists – or "dirty, lying hacks", as they were described by the writer – was totally ignored.

In the cover story of the increasingly eccentric New Statesman, journalist Anthony Browne urinated inside his own tent, alleging that despite journalists’ boasts of being the guardians of the public, they were dishonest scoundrels open to bribery and corruption.

Browne’s language was much harsher than that of Clarke when the party chairman responded to the Queen Mother’s funeral stories and denunciations of Labour’s "smear tactics" over the Paddington rail crash survivors.

True, Clarke charged the press with piousness and hypocrisy and of manufacturing criticism, which was enough to render sections of the press apoplectic. But in contrast, Browne’s assault was as fierce as Lewis’s on Tyson.

"The industry that demands the scalps of lying ministers lies to its own readers by making up stories and quotes," wrote Browne.

"Journalists are the nation’s anti-corruption squad, but there is no one to investigate our own corruption. All the public can rely upon is our integrity and sense of fair play. They are being let down."

The Government may have missed a trick in not seizing upon this self-flagellation and giving it a wider audience, even though Browne’s piece was largely hysterical repetition about a journalistic minority that’s economical with the truth and would sell its grandmothers into slavery for a free lunch at the Savoy. There are rotten apples in every orchard. But the public loathes the national press even more than it is irritated by Government spin and would doubtless have relished what appeared to be Browne’s damning verdict on the entire trade.

Do the root criticisms of Clarke and Browne have validity? I fear so, even though the failings of the modern newspaper journalists are pat-a-cake compared to the behaviour of those stamping their impression on the trade with the force of a knuckle-duster in times gone by.

For example, when Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page, the best newspaper play of all and currently enjoying a revival at the Chichester Festival Theatre, they had to tone down both the personalities and events they had encountered when working as newsmen in Chicago during the 1920s.

Walter Burns, the irascible editor who famously tries to prevent ace reporter Hildy Johnson leaving his paper by trying to have him arrested – "The son of a bitch stole my watch!" – was based on Walter Crawford Howey, a legend in Chicago journalism. Among his modi operandi was the obtaining of so much dirt on city, county and state politicians and officials, that he could blackmail them into signing undated letters of resignation. Howey kept these in his desk, to be used in such emergencies as one of the guilty men refusing to co-operate fully with the Herald and Examiner.

Previously, Howey had been City editor of the morning Chicago Tribune, where his earlier-in-the-day counterpart, day City editor Frank Carson, was infamous for his journalistic skullduggery. On   one occasion he organised a riot outside a police station so he could steal from the safe inside a diary being held as evidence in a murder inquiry. The diary was then serialised in the paper and by the time the case came to court half a million people had read practically every detail. Corrupt? At times they made Al Capone look legit.  None of this negates the unsavoury reputation of today’s newspapermen. Browne had a point, even if he could not properly articulate it, in that to be effective watchdogs on behalf of a public to which someone is always trying to pass a forged fiver, it must be seen to be whiter than white.

Attempts must be made to clean up the entire act and to convince the millions who love to hate us that we are the good guys. I know senior figures in the industry are thinking along these lines.

Hopefully, positive steps soon will be taken to dry-clean journalism’s image and standing in society.  

England’s World Cup fairytale – as I write they are limbering up to send Brazil samba-ing back to South America – has produced some fine writing and reporting, the journalism of euphoria that British hacks so rarely get to practice. The television coverage has been largely superb too, with John Motson, proving that he, too, like John Wayne did in the movies, gets better as he gets older.

A hat-trick of black marks, however, to CNN, possibly the most powerful TV channel in the world and one that has taken to football – soccer in American – like a duck to an oil slick.

The majority of Americans find the game so incomprehensible and dull that even the country’s quarter-final place probably attracted less publicity at home than the local softball results

Presumably it is this apathy that is responsible for CNN, despite being seen by millions around the world and enjoying a formidable reputation for its blanket coverage of such major world events as the Gulf War, paying scant attention to the competition.

Watching and listening in Italy, I heard CNN reporters, based in Atlanta and London, referring to goals as points, revealing a shameful lack of knowledge of the game.

The channel has no live coverage, relying on still photographs and such pathetic "colour" as, where the England matches were concerned, two or three stay-at-home fans chanting "’Ere we go" in some dismal London pub.

Bearing in mind the drama of the event, it’s an extraordinary journalistic own goal.       

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