Not that I would tar all journos with the same brush. Many I knew were very good at their job and often did a public service, but all had their moments when neutrality and accuracy went out of the window.
The problem is that journalism is a profession and any reporter with ambition is looking for their byline under banner headlines of uncovered scandals and their editors encourage this because headlines sell newspapers. And because of this and the hours they put into ‘research’, they are reluctant to let a story go even if it’s nonsense.
An appropriate example for this time of year was a call I took from the Manchester Evening News on a Monday morning from a reporter who said that they were about to run a story saying that a flu epidemic would hit the city by the end of the week.
Now it was winter and a few people were off sick with the flu, but the prevalence was pretty normal, in fact, it was lower than you might expect, so I was a bit perplexed at where this information had come from.
The reporter assured me her information was reliable, but she was reluctant to reveal her sources. When I pushed her, it turned out that the impeccable source was the website of a pharmaceutical company that makes over-the-counter cough and cold remedies.
To be fair to the company, they didn’t actually say that there was a flu epidemic in the offing, just that there was an epidemic of flu-like illness ranging from a case of the sniffles to a full-blown cold.
I explained to a journo what the definition of an epidemic was at the time – affecting one in six people – and asked her to look round her office to see if anyone was missing from their desk. There wasn’t, but even the evidence of her own eyes wasn’t enough to put her off the story and it ran on the front page the next day.
This was hardly in the same league as some of the shenanigans that some of the media has got up to that led to the Leveson Inquiry, but it still did damage in its own way as a scare story and no doubt gave lots of people an excuse to take time off work. And in their heart of hearts, they knew it was inaccurate.
I could have complained to the PCC, but there didn’t seem much point in spoiling what was usually a good relationship. Besides, her editor sat on the PCC board.
The question now is whether the media needs statutory regulation as recommended by Leveson. My inner autocrat tends to agree, but I also worry about what happens when governments start to control the free press.
Sadly, journalistic standards aren’t what they once were, particularly on local papers. The pay is terrible so you mostly get kids straight from college who think they’re the next Woodward or Bernstein when they’re covering the local council meeting or church bazaar.
So I thought some nostalgia was in order, of a time when newspapers were taken seriously. Below is the theme from the marvellous What the Papers Say programme that ran on tv from 1956 to 2008 and can now be found on radio. It comes from Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances.