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.

Your friendly neighbourhood newspaper

When I was doing my GCSEs, I wanted to be a journalist. I told one of my teachers this: she shuddered as if I’d said I was planning a career in the brothel over the kebab shop, and then said, “You do know that journalists have to do some awful things.” I was 14, so I wasn’t quite savvy enough to explain that I was after a job writing well-informed topical essays rather than one where I had to doorstep the bereaved.

Anyway, the summer after that and before I started college, I did three stints of work experience at the other sort of journalism: three local papers took me on and assigned a patient hack to show me around their world. I interviewed a new lady priest. I scammed sandwiches and wrote the restaurant review. I turned police reports into crime stories (getting bollocked by the sub for my sloppy tabloidese) and magicked interminable NFU press releases into news-in-briefs. I went to the magistrates court, and I went to county council meetings, and found them both fascinatingly banal.

Some of the journalists who taught me were middle-aged and comfortably cynical; some of them were young and ambitiously cynical. But importantly, there was lots of cynicism and a fair amount of smoking at desks, which is what counts when your idea of glamour is mostly derived from Brighton Rock. Ian Jack wrote a good column this weekend about why the local paper matters. Ignore the junior Marxists in the comments: they’re only half right, and Jack’s half is more important.

Dear George

George Monbiot says that environmentalism needs to follow the evidence and separate itself from the spurious quackery of alternative medicine – which is the sort of talk that might actually convince me to up my involvement in green issues from current levels of lax vegetarianism and energy-saving bulbs. If it means the anti-vaccination crowd would definitely keep their germ-harbouring children away from protests, I might even bring my kids campaigning.

The Freedom Of The Mail

The threat to our press

“Independence of the judiciary the Daily Mail to pursue matters of public interest hapless sluts who elope with moderately recognisable figures from the world of sport is the vital check keeping this once-great nation from sliding into the morass of fascism. What kind of world will we live in when people are free to privately engage in any kind of unimaginably depraved consensual sex act they like? And how can the British press perform its proper role of scrutinising the nation’s life without the freedom to call anyone a Nazi at any time, without any evidence? Also, I hate the BBC.”