Who pays the piper?

23 February 2015Columnist Peter Oborne did us all a favour with his much publicised resignation from The Daily Telegraph over its supine approach to the HSBC bank scandals. His explanation drew attention to the increasingly problematic link between advertisers and news content. It was not the first time the supposedly impenetrable line has been crossed, and will not be the last. Journalists around the world can testify to that.

In the UK it offended sensibilities since, deep down, we do want to trust the press even if the behaviour of some sections has sorely tried our tolerance in recent years. Of course the concept of press freedom acknowledges the right of all publications to be partisan, preferably not because a political party is pulling their strings.

The Telegraph certainly wore its heart on its sleeve with an editorial in staunch defence of its position:

’We have covered this matter as we do all others, according to our editorial judgment and informed by our values. Foremost among those values is a belief in free enterprise and free markets.

‘We are proud to be the champion of British business and enterprise. In an age of cheap populism and corrosive cynicism about wealth-creating businesses, we have defended British industries including the financial services industry that accounts for almost a tenth of the UK economy, sustains two million jobs and provides around one in every eight pounds the Exchequer raises in tax.’

Challenging the integrity of the BBC, the Guardian and the Times, the Telegraph leader ended: ‘We are proud to do that which our critics cannot or will not do: to combine journalistic excellence with commercial success.’

And therein lies the rub. It is increasingly difficult to sustain quality journalism in newspapers with the flight of advertisers and readers to the internet. Inevitably there is a temptation to pander to the demands of the paymasters – whether through ‘advertorial supplements’ or the carefully constructed campaigns favoured by online news publishers to direct readers towards goods and services. Social media has already become a means by which advertisers can target individuals simply based on their online reading habits. This may help bloggers ‘monetise’ their opinions – a theme at this year’s bloggers conference in Bristol – but what does it do for genuinely independent journalism?

Commercial media is big business run first and foremost in the interests of the proprietors and shareholders even if journalists still believe that they are responsible primarily to their consciences, their sources and their audiences – as a 2013 pan-European MediaAct survey of journalistic revealed.

According to Press Gazette, HSBC has already voted with it feet over Guardian coverage of its tax avoidance schemes, quoting a spokesperson for the paper: “During the course of editorial discussions between Guardian journalists and HSBC’s lawyers, HSBC decided to put its commercial relationship with the Guardian on pause – a decision which, to the best of our knowledge, still stands.”

So what ‘business model’ would best conform to the MediaWise mantra: ‘Press freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public’?

Greater transparency in the existing media would be a great starting point. Why shouldn’t publishing companies reveal their other business interests and those of corporate shareholders? Then at least we could form a judgement about what might be influencing their news agendas – and why the fortunes and failure of some companies do not feature in their columns. A public statement on their editorial policies, and the house rules under which their journalists operate would also help to dispel any misunderstandings. Indications that money has changed hands for information should be standard, and journalists should be prepared to declare personal interests where they might be considered to influence their opinions. They should also have a conscience clause written into their contracts of employment, to give them protection from victimisation.

Formalising the partition between the journalism and the business end of publishing, following the model adopted by the Guardian, would be an even clearer evidence of a compact of trust between publishers and the public, which we have been advocating for more than two decades.

But there are other routes too. The resurgence of ‘alternative media’ facilitated by the internet, and evidenced by initiatives like the Real Media gathering in Manchester (28 February 2015) offer hope for journalism too. Many of those engaged in developing new media outlets are journalists discarded in the culls which have afflicted newsrooms up and down the country over the last decade.

Accountability and transparency should be the bywords of independent journalism. It is vital that those who purport to produce it should declare their affiliations, ethical stances, and funders, if only to distinguish them from the weirder so-called news sites that waylay the unwary and poison intelligent debate.

Meanwhile the development of ‘slow journalism’ and the creation of Trusts to underwrite serious investigative journalism offer a hope that the obsession with ‘breaking news’ might give way to more considered approach to context and consequences.

Mike Jempson
Director, The MediaWise Trust

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