The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, December 15, 2003

The case for British journalism: defending the indefensible, surely?

A discussion over at Matthew Yglesias on the relative journalistic merits of US and UK newspapers is nothing but challenging: given what this blog stands for, a root and branch defence is clearly impossible (whatever the patriotic imperative!).

The main complaint, as I understand it, is that the UK press is much laxer in quality control, taking chances, seldom letting the facts get in the way of a good (ie circulation-boosting) story. And, after the event, having a less effective (or no real) system for rooting out and correcting bad journalism.

Now, I reckon it would be possible to challenge the truth of those assertions, up to a point: the advantage in corroborative value of a piece stuffed with anonymous sources (which is the US choice, I think) over no sources at all must be fairly slight; and the mechanisms of public accountability - the ombudsman, for instance - may not be in such wide use as might be thought: according to Jay Rosen, 97% of US newspapers do not have an ombudsman!

But there are a whole lot of messy jury questions there, and I'm happy to stipulate to a clear advantage in accuracy on the side of the US press.

What then? A whole continent full of folks who trust their city rag (in most cities, a monopoly) to give them the facts straight from the shoulder!

It's a moral hazard of epic proportions, that these good people (or most of them) are prepared to take what the hacks say on trust: the negation of good citizenship, un-American, even.

Except, I don't think it is un-American [1]: I'm not sure about the heyday of the competition between Hearst and Pulitzer - were their papers treated in the same way as the UK tabloids are today? - but, since the doctrine of objective journalism took hold, the belief that there is such a think as news (separable from comment and opinion - and from analysis too, in its purest form) existing independently of the organisation that publishes it, seems generally to have held sway.

Of course, in the real world, we know that any text is bound to have its biases; the selection of which stories to run, and the relative importance of each in the paper, is one bull elephant in the room with any bunch of readers supposing themselves to be consuming objective news.

The concept of objective journalism infantilises its readers, allows them to slough off the responsibility of exercising their own judgement, which tends to wither as an limb unexercised is wont to do.

Better by far the clowns of Fleet Street [3] - a name that shame has never been connected with (in their dreams...) - whose credibility comes ready-discounted.

[Except - I read with horror - the great British public seem to give the quality press more or less a free ride, according to the Guardian (August 3): a poll (phone poll, I think) apparently showed that, while journos from tabloid papers [3] rated the trust of 14%, the broadsheets' [4] hacks come out at 65%! Broadcast hacks scored around a truly ga-ga 80%.

I'd like to think that getting inside these numbers would show that these general free passes did not apply to particular stories, which were examined with the scepticism due to them [5]. Perhaps the effect of the Hutton Inquiry report (with the BBC particularly likely to come in for a pasting) may be to aid the British public towards a properly doubting attitude to what they read.

I fear gullibility in the Mother Country may be as serious a matter as in her erstwhile colonies...]

  1. My (albeit slight) understanding is that the drafters of the Bill of Rights intended, with the First Amendment, only to bar prior restraint. The current broad scope of the Amendment as it affects freedom of speech and the press is a 20th century invention.

  2. The press has all moved away from Fleet Street; the memory - and the useful shorthand description - lingers on, though.

  3. Or the red tops - from the colour of boxes on the masthead.

  4. Size is fetishised - call it the media vice anglais - such that rags in tabloid format are assumed to be Sun wannabees. The Times and Independent are experimented with tab format. The incredibly worthy El Pais, La Repubblica and Le Monde have been tabs for ages. Different rules.

  5. There is an often-observed phenomenon whereby UK polls show that respondents complain bitterly about the National Health Service in general, but say that they are very satisfied with the care they themselves have received. Perhaps this works in reverse with UK news...

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