Newspapers and television news programmes were too willing to accept the Government line over the foot and mouth crisis, broadcaster John Humphrys told guests at the David Watt Prize lunch.
Although there were acres of coverage, most of it was about the human drama and there was too little critical judgement, he said. "I have to say that I don’t think we covered ourselves in glory. We gave it loads of space. It led every news bulletin for God knows how long and consumed endless forests of newsprint. But did we really get on top of it? I’m not sure we did.
"First we were obsessed with the human drama. Journalism is about people and emotions. Of course it is. But too much feeling can get in the way of clear, critical thinking."
Pictures of a "muddy little baa lamb" or a calf that miraculously survived a cull were "useful symbols but they obscured critical judgement", he said in a speech about the need for serious journalism.
"And we were much too willing to accept Government propaganda about how it was all under control. It’s true that when it became clear that this was not the case, the press was on to it. But only, really, to pillory the hapless Nick Brown, to report that Tony Blair was ‘taking charge’ and so on.
"We were far too willing to buy the official scientific advice as though it were gospel. Yet we knew that advice was being given within constraints imposed by the policy being pursued, and a policy, it must be said, in the process of being discredited. We should have been much more challenging. And more quickly."
Independent foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who won this year’s David Watt Prize, told guests that winning awards for journalism was "a form of protection".
"It’s a kind of flak jacket, more powerful and more protective than the 12lbs of steel vest we wretched journalists have to walk around Bosnia in to protect us from the shells of Muslims, Serbs and Croats."
Beirut-based Fisk got the award for his outstanding contributions to the clarification of political issues and the promotion of their greater understanding.
He said: "In a world of political lobby groups, awards like the one I have been honoured with today are a form of protection, a means of showing and demonstrating that challenging received ideas and views and lobby groups can be an honourable task."
Accepting the prize, established in 1988 by Rio Tinto in memory of journalist David Watt, and presented by Humphrys, Fisk spoke about many dangerous situations his work had put him in. When he challenged President Mubarak’s 98.87 per cent election win, an Egyptian paper objected. "I was accused of being a black crow pecking at the corpse of Egypt," Fisk said at the lunch at Trinity House.
And when he investigated the work of a former British Special Branch officer who ran a torture centre in Bahrain, a local newspaper portrayed him in a cartoon as "a rabid dog worthy of extermination".
He was also denounced as a "Hitlerite anti-Semite" in 1996 after his reports of a massacre in South Lebanon were published.
By Philippa Kennedy