I thought I’d riff a little on the question of whether this has been a good or bad week for journalism. The riff is inspired by a talk I had last night with an old mate and journalist. He is one of those who has never worked for PR, and who has climbed only so far up the slippery corporate ladder because he applied to his own organisation the same corrosive skills he brought to his reporting. In other words, he is a man of few, but firm, friends.
As a young man — and having been raised a Catholic might have helped — he heard the rhetoric of the profession. Words such as truth, public interest and accountability. And, being somewhat naive, he believed it. And tried to apply it.
He is older and wiser now and less naive, more able to balance and judge and push when things are soft and bide his time when they are hard. To choose his battles, and respect his own limitations and the limitations of his employers. Yet scratch him and you will find that he still has those inconvenient beliefs — the blessing and burden of vocation.
So, was it a good or bad week for journalism?
The ways in which it was bad are obvious. The doings of journalists on Fleet Street — not only those who were employed by the Murdoch organisation — bring us all into disrepute by association. If the rest of us don’t make it very clear that we part of the solution, then we will be seen, rightly, as part of the problem.
So it is that among conscientious journos and editors there is an increased interest — I hope not mere window dressing — on codes of ethics and internal media organisation codes of conduct. News Limited’s CEO John Hartigan has been in discussions with the chair of the Australian Press Council, a body that only recently the industry was cutting back on.
I suspect at least a few journos have been reading codes and thinking about ethics in the past week. And all of this can only be good. We have to make it last. Newsroom managements have to make it matter. We need training sessions, discussions, walking the walk and penalties for those (and there are many of them) who speak and behave and sneer as though codes of ethics are somehow counter to good, hard-hitting journalism.
But in another way, it has been an astonishingly good week for journalism. One of the best in recent memory. One of the best since Watergate.
What is now clear is that the News of the World scandal — or perhaps we should call it the Fleet Street scandal — is about more than just journalists. It is about wide corruption. It is about the way things are done. It is about understandings, nods and winks and willful blindnesses among media managements, police and politicians.
And how was it exposed? Who on earth would do such a thing? Who stands slightly outside, looking in? Who regards it as their job to investigate, take information and unauthorised disclosures form disgruntled ex-employees, victims and numerous sources with mixed motives, then distill this into revealing narrative?
Who would keep doing that hard and dirty work, mostly thankless, not just for days or weeks but for years? Who would tolerate angry attacks, threats of legal action and an air of embarrassment when they showed their face in public, or even among their colleagues?
Well, only a journalist such as The Guardian’s Nick Davies and his editor Alan Rusbridger.
Not all journalists. After all, every day we see talented journalists who are prepared to write for their editor, or their contacts, not their public.
Certainly, non-journalists might blow the whistle on corruption, but who would listen, when so many have vested interests in selective deafness? Only certain kinds of media organisations.
So it was a good week for journalism.
Yet also, in Australia, bad.
One of the likely outcomes of not only the events of this week but the age of Rupert Murdoch and the bigger trends in media is that News Corporation might break up, or be run by people who lack Murdoch’s attachment to news outlets. News Corporations best assets, from a business point of view, are to do with entertainment and movies. Only the will of the old man keeps these harnessed to journalism.
So if Rupert loses control of his empire — and I think this is only a question of when, not if — it is likely that the newspapers will be spun off, or at least that a firm accountant’s measure will be run over them.
That means, gentle reader, that we are likely to lose The Australian, which at best breaks even and probably not even that.
I, with many others, have and will continue to be extremely critical of some of that newspaper’s doings. I think it contains some of the best, and the worst, of Australian journalism. But losing it would be a very bad thing. It means Australia would not have a general interest national daily newspaper.
Fairfax Media is probably fatally weakened at present. It has been laying off journalists, and it is said that the main Fairfax mastheads are slipping into the red, and there are real questions about the sustainability of even a reduced operation.
And while the tabloids are stronger, they too are declining assets.
In other words, Australia is on the brink of losing a welter of journalistic capacity. This is a civic emergency.
I am ambivalent about the present calls for an inquiry into media. We already have the Convergence Review, and any new inquiry would have to define what it was going to do that is different.
I need to know what is being proposed before I can say whether I am for or against it. But I can see sense and a need for an inquiry into how we are to retain society’s journalistic capacity. An inquiry that makes that issue the subject of headlines and political concern and water cooler conversation.
I am an optimist by nature, and I also look with hope to the capacity of new content delivery systems, and new ways of society informing itself. I look at young people who hear and believe the rhetoric. Not all of them are journalists. They are discovering new and in some ways healthier ways of informing and being informed.
There is a great deal that journalists have done wrong. There is a great deal that carries the label of journalism but does not deserve to be so called. There is corruption and venality in the craft.
Yet it is also the case that when a large part of society goes badly wrong, when people are engaged in double think — knowing that something bad is going wrong, yet simultaneously able to tell themselves that they don’t know, or that it is not their job to intervene, or that it is not really bad enough to justify action — then the best chance of it being exposed is for a journalist, paid a decent though not excessive salary, backed by a brave editor and a management that understands.
A journalist with skill and experience in the difficult job of finding out things.
Yes, it is complicated and compromised. Yes, it is quaint and old fashioned and not at all up with the latest understandings about the contingency of truth or the problematised nature of cultural practice.
But we must not lose the possibility that journalism, at its best, represents.