Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A bad week for journalism

First, Reuters terminates its relationship with Adnan Hajj, a Beirut-based freelance photographer discovered to have doctored images taken during the Israel/Hizbollah conflict. Then the News of the World looses a libel case brought by the leader of the Scottish Socialist party, Tommy Sheridan, having accused him of cheating on his wife and visiting swingers’ clubs. Then, yesterday, the same newspaper’s Royal Correspondent, Clive Goodman, is arrested on suspicion of intercepting royal phone calls.

During his libel hearing, Tommy Sheridan lambasted the News of the World as “pedlars of falsehood, promoters of untruth, concerned only with sales, circulation and profit, not people’s lives and truth.” In the light of this week’s events, you could be forgiven for thinking him completely right.

Personally, I think the first part of his statement is a pervasive myth that needs to be buried. Yes, journalists regularly get it wrong, but this has more – usually - to do with tight deadlines, their own lack of knowledge and having to take what their contributors tell them on trust without checking the facts, than any outright attempt to ignore them for the sake of a good but fabricated story.

Mr Sheridan is right about newspapers’ concern with sales, circulation and profit though. It is no exaggeration to say they are at war over the issue and this leads to some very murky behaviour.

Year on year, paid-for newspaper circulation is falling while freely available new media in the form of Internet TV and radio, interactive websites, podcasting and blogging is rising sharply. Newspapers are caught in a cleft stick: they must keep up with new technological developments, so they develop excellent websites. What else can they put online but their news content? It’s catch 22; why buy a newspaper when you can read the bits you want online, for free, and without getting newsprint on your fingers?

Having shot themselves in the foot, to get their circulation up again and maintain advertising revenue, the papers’ need for dramatic headlines becomes increasingly voracious. Competition to get the latest celebrity ‘scandal’ first or to get the most sensational picture becomes intense and the likelihood of making mistakes rises accordingly. Either that or ridiculous, unethical and possibly illegal risks, such as the one allegedly taken by the NOW’s Royal Correspondent, suddenly seem worth taking. After all, jobs are on the line if reporters don’t dish the dirt.

Correspondingly, readers’ respect for the papers falls, along with circulation, until the next salacious headline is impossible to resist in the newsagents and the vicious circle kicks in all over again.

I believe firmly that a journalist has a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards. This isn’t just a whim on my part; this is the first clause in the National Union of Journalist’s Code of Conduct and it is there for good reason.

Looking at Adnan Hajj’s photoshopped pictures, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, the two didn’t look so different, did they? But it is important, as Reuters, with a reputation as a leading news agency to maintain, knows all too well.

Sadly, not all organisations are as reputable or take such as strong stand as Reuters has done. I recall a couple of years’ back watching a local TV news report of a demonstration held that day. The presenter spoke of that day’s demonstration over footage not of that day’s demonstration but footage of a demonstration organised by the same pressure group the year before, implying that the pictures were only a few hours, rather than a year old.

The picture editor concerned clearly thought this did not matter. And why should it? Isn’t a demo a demo and as long as the point of the demo is reported and the pictures match the pressure group what does it matter if they are old?

It matters a great deal. That footage represented both a fundamental untruth and the thin end of a very disagreeable wedge.

I will never forget the chilling horror of CNN showing old footage of Palestinians rejoicing after the 9/11 attack and suggesting the pictures had in fact been shot after the twin towers collapsed. Did this not matter? I suspect more of us would be willing to condemn this incident as an utterly despicable act of media manipulation, but both incidents came from the same corrupt stable of ideas.

I would defend to the death the principle of press freedom but journalists should remember this freedom comes with a huge responsibility; to ensure the information they disseminate is fair, accurate and free from the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact. Some licence may be allowed and be forgiveable or even occasionally desirable with features reporting, but not when it comes to hard news.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A missed PR opportunity!

In Norfolk to support Canon Christopher Davies, the outgoing Rector of Wimbledon who was taking up a new post in the Diocese, I popped into Norwich for a quick tour of the Cathedral. No sooner had I parked the car than two exceptionally good looking, well-dressed and well-groomed young men loomed towards me, bearing banana-split smiles. At first thought were going to ask me the way to the cathedral but their first words: “how are you today?” put me straight. It was clear I was going to have to make a quick getaway, having satisfied my professional curiosity as to whether they were Moonies or Mormons.

“I’m Tom, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints…”

Mormons then; not that I said so. They hate the phrase and I am far too polite to use it. Also out of politeness, I accepted an offer of ‘some literature’ in place of an attempted conversion.

‘Literature’ turned out to be a ridiculous misnomer. What I was actually given was one of the worst pieces of religious marketing I have ever encountered; a frighteningly old-fashioned tract with a cover featuring a strawberry-blonde haired, soft-focus Christ cradling a lamb, against a backdrop of what looked like the Tora Bora mountains and titled ‘The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’ (I’d love to show a picture but that would be breach of copyright so you’ll just have to use your imagination).

The inside was worse still. Drawings and photographs of impossibly beautiful, outrageously wholesome people you would be terrified to approach unless they told you had a hair out of place, accompanied rambling script printed in an ancient font that could have come out of the Ark, or at least been run off the printing press when the church was originally founded in the 1820s.

Why they think it would encourage any interest among anyone actually living in the 21st century is beyond me. This kind of tat is destined to attract only nostalgic over nineties or misogynist bores who want to return to the ‘good old days’ when men wouldn’t dream of wearing anything but ‘suits or nice pants’ and women and girls only ‘dresses and skirts’ (and I quote the tract here). Of course, they would be disappointed when they realised the church actually abandoned polygamy over 100 years ago.

Only later did I realise I should have bombarded them back, forcing my business card on them on the grounds that their organisation was clearly in dire need of a life-changing conversion to 21st century marketing and PR techniques. A re-design and a re-write of this travesty of a tract was the least that should be done as a matter of urgency, ahead of a complete re-brand and re-launch of the entire organisation.

Then again, other may be thrilled to hear the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hands out singularly unattractive tracts and is failing to take steps to update its image. Mark Twain once described The Book of Mormon as ‘literary chloroform’ and it seems nothing has changed since. I’ll be putting the tract to good use when I next suffer a sleepless night...