Dog sniffs dog, gently

Dog doesn’t eat dog. That’s always been the rule in Fleet Street. We dig into the world of politics and finance and sport and policing and entertainment. We dig wherever we like – but not in our own back garden.

Flat Earth News, p. 1

Which might be one explanation for the strange mismatch in the Guardian media section’s reaction to the BBC’s treatment of Chris Moyles after an Ofcom judgement against the DJ (“How long can the BBC continue to stand by its man?”, says John Plunkett), and its reporting of the Express‘s barelyadequate sorry as a “strongly-worded apology”.

The apology was self-congratulatory and short-sighted. It dealt exclusively with the offence caused to the subjects of the shabby reporting and readers of the paper: there was no acknowledgement of systemic failings in editorial policy, never mind a promise to do better next time, and no one on the Express‘s staff has taken responsibility for this and stepped down. But the tone of the Guardian report is that the Express apology has fixed everything – and as far as it goes with the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission, it probably has.

That’s because the PCC (whose board is dominated by newspaper men) maintains a preposterously narrow remit. They look at the extent to which a newspaper’s reporting is untrue, unfair or improperly obtained only within the complained-about article – and the risible sanctions the PCC will impose are no deterrent for newspapers with a systemic culture of abusing the truth. Publishing a correction or a retraction is enough to have a complaint classified as resolved. If all you have to do to get out of trouble is to say sorry in a very small voice, where’s the incentive to be good in the first place?

And because the PCC will only investigate complaints from the direct subjects of reports, they’re able to discount most of the reports they receive: only the two complaints from people mentioned in the Dunblane article really count for the PCC’s purposes, even though 10,000 people have signed the petition to say they are disgusted by it.

The press is every bit as responsible to its audience as the broadcast media, so why shouldn’t the PCC follow Ofcom and accept complaints from any party who feels offended by a piece? You don’t have to be Will Young – you don’t even have to like Will Young – to think that the joke lyrics broadcast by Moyles were inane and unpleasant. And you don’t have to have been nearly murdered in a Scottish schoolroom to think it’s inappropriate for a newspaper to run a story like the Express‘s Dunblane one.

But while the press won’t regulate itself or answer to its public, at least the readers and the bloggers have taken an interest and acted as a self-organised, informal watchdog. And it’s beginning to be recognised that the papers can’t get away with this sort of thing forever: an active community of critical readers online means that malpractice can be spotted, recorded, and made available to anyone who searches for it. Like Anton Vowl, I think that the traditional outlets of print and broadcast journalism are irreplaceable. Reporting, properly done, is one of the checks and balances that makes a democracy work. I want a strong press and an honest press, and if the PCC can’t make that hapen, bloggers are the best hope we have of getting newspapers to fix themselves up.

3 thoughts on “Dog sniffs dog, gently

  1. First time poster, long time fan.

    Great post, but I have a slight issue with this though…

    “Won’t regulate itself or answer to its public”

    I see what you mean in relation to Express/Dunblane, but that line sounds a lot like the same charges that are levied at stuff like Chris Morris. Agree the regulators are fail, but working out who gets to decide what’s okay and what’s not is quite the shit sandwich to chomp on.

  2. I think that’s why I’d like the PCC to engage with issues of journalistic process rather than just getting the papers to retract or apologise when they do stuff wrong. You can (probably) build rules around around public interest and intrusion of privacy without creating any legislation on issues of taste. But there’s probably a lot more to say about making that distinction…

  3. Totally… but I think you’re a little idealistic expecting the press to be responsible to its audience. I mean, I agree they *should* be, but I don’t think it’s going to happen within the current structures.

    The only sense in which the press has to “answer to” the public is to keep hold of them. Expecting some kind of integrity is like expecting McDonalds (or Subway or whoever) to provide healthy nutritious meals just because people worry about health and nutrition. They’ll *appear* to as far as they need to, but that’s it. I think that, without fundamentally changing the structure of the press (e.g. to disallow corporate ownership with profit as the primary motive) all we tend to get by “holding the press to account” is the media equivalent of McDonald’s “healthy” salads… unhealthy, addictive, lowest common denominator shit (with a thin veneer of whatever it is we aspire to).

    Of course, despite the systemic problems, “the press” is a bunch of real people so things can improve locally, and individuals can make a difference. Ultimately though, we’re talking about corporations. The individuals at the top are compelled by law (as well as the “professionalism” that got them there) to ignore these sort of concerns wherever they conflict with the fiduciary duty to maximise the return on company shares. If they don’t, they’ll be replaced by someone who will.

    I once read a pithy phrase along the lines of “the press are in the business of selling audiences to advertisers, not content to audiences”. That statement’s becoming more true by the day. God help us once all media is 100% funded by advertising.

    On an unrelated note, I really wish I’d thought of your “they’d never have the wherewithal to raze their own cities” comment :)

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