Are journalism critics too often living in glass houses?

Journalists like nothing more than talking about journalism – hence why Mediaguardian is so popular and it can therefore justify seven stories on Adam Boulton’s blow out on Sky News. It knows its audience, even if it is often forgetful of the fact that a sizeable part of that audience also has an interest in the regional press.

Journalists are also prone, on occasion, to talking down stories of rivals – be that rivals in their newsroom, rivals of their newsroom and just journalists working in a totally unrelated sphere of journalism. With that in mind, two incidents have struck me over the last week which are worth mentioning here.

The first was on Question Time last week. The discussion got round to the Mail on Sunday’s ‘entrapment’ of Lord Treisman, the now ex-FA boss who made a lot of wild claims. Max Hastings, the thoroughly proper ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph, said many stings the tabloids did made him feel uncomfortable. Piers Morgan, ex-editor of the Daily Mirror, replied: “It doesn’t stop you writing about them though, does it?”

He is, of course right. On one hand many have condemned the Mail on Sunday for what it did, but in the process have repeated all the allegations and, indeed, search engine optimised the stories online to catch those people searching for those stories via Google etc. Broadsheets seem to suffer a crisis when it comes to such stings. Because of the potential impact on the England 2018 World Cup bid, it seems those who see themselves as journalism’s moral guardians weren’t keen, but they were much quieter when it came to Fergie’s ‘£500k for access to Prince Andrew story.’

What Morgan said appears to have been a long time in coming, and it does raise the question: When criticising certain forms of journalism, are many commentators just envious of not getting the same story?

This sort of discussion often helps fill the hours on the BBC News Channel on Sundays, and many of their TV newsreaders seem to enjoy pinching their noses about stories in the nationals – it doesn’t stop those stories dominating their news agendas though.

Which is why some of the perceived backlash to the Telegraph’s David Laws story this week seems a bit odd. I can’t see how he was different to any other MP in terms of breaking the rules – so surely should have been treated exactly the same. The random argument that because he could actually have claimed more, but didn’t, it’s all OK doesn’t stack up. If it was a criminal offence, would you find a lawyer arguing that someone charged with a crime hadn’t done anything wrong because he could have done something much worse?

This idea that because Laws was a nice chap all round, and because he could have earnt a lot of money elsewhere, he was therefore immune from investigation also seems a little shallow. The fact he revealed that he was gay in the process should detract from what he did wrong.

That hasn’t stopped many having a pop at the Telegraph for its story though – including elements of the BBC, which, truth be told, should be grateful such an evolving news story helped fill the weekend bulletins, bank holiday as it was.

The BBC College of Journalism’s Kevin Marsh had this to say about it in relation to the press coverage:

You don’t have to take sides or be soft on politicians to have been dismayed by the assertions of some in the press that, in spite of David Laws’ explanation of his actions in the light of the Telegraph’s disclosures, they knew what it was really all about. What was really going on in the former minister’s mind.

‘Sobvious innit. MP = greedy. Snouts, Trough, Boots. Fill. Nothing’s changed, they’re all as bad as each other. Bad as the last lot. Chuck ’em all out.

He cites one example in The Sun, where they seemed to have changed the phrase ‘paid £40,000 to his long-term lover’ to ‘channeled £40,000 to his long-term lover.’ That doesn’t prove that the press have been writing in a ‘they’re all at it’ style throughout – it’s just a stronger word. In fact, I’m not sure any of the print coverage has suggested they are all at it. Quite a few of them were, we’ve seen that over the last year, but the facts in the Laws case have to be taken on their own merits – and it was a good story.

Marsh added:

Don’t we – in the interests of both scrutiny and accuracy – have to begin with David Laws’ own explanation of why he did what he did? If we can disprove it through proper scrutiny … fine. But if we simply dismiss it – because we really know – we also have to explain why one of the cleverest and most economically astute men in the country, let alone Parliament, didn’t arrange his affairs to cash in to the max.

Again, Laws’s account has been published everywhere – but it doesn’t alter the fact that he appears to have done something wrong. Surely it is for the press to write, and the readers’ decide.

The analysis from Marsh doesn’t seem to reflect anything I’ve seen in the printed media. If readers make the assumption that all MPs have their snouts in the trough, then that is because the facts have led them there in this case.

But what binds Hastings’ comments about newspaper stings and Marsh’s comments is that they both appear to be throwing stones while either living in, or having lived in, glass houses.

The broadsheets which Hastings sought to defend over tabloids are more than happy to follow the lead set by said tabloids and their stings. Marshs’s BBC, meanwhile, could also be accused to a ‘nudge, nudge’ mentality in its reporting.

Take, for example, the raging row between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg which the BBC breathlessly reported the weekend after the election. Great story, only both parties said it wasn’t true. But nudge, nudge, you know, Brown’s got a temper so it must be true.

Much worse than that, and the main reason for this post, was the BBC’s late night coverage of the Cumbria shootings yesterday. In both the 10pm news on BBC 1 and on Newsnight, reporters repeatedly referred to the fact Cumbria Police was a small force, with one hack going so far as to point out that a merger between Lancashire and Cumbria was supposed to happen but never did.

What was the relevance of that if not to be a ‘nudge. nudge a bigger force would have done better than this’ – just hours after dozens of police officers risked their lives in pursuit of a man who was going around a county shooting people? There were no facts at all to justify such references. Maybe it was the BBC joining in the print blame game, but given the enormity of the story, wasn’t there enough material to go at without chucking in facts which could be seen as apportioning blame.

When it comes to journalism, we all have an opinion. But maybe, just maybe, we need to make sure our own backyards are clean before criticising an unsavoury element in a neighbour’s.

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