If only the public didn’t pull a face when you ask them about the bad behaviour of reporters. If only printed newspapers weren’t in decline – and there weren’t those awful internet sites robbing our stories. If only social media didn’t exist. If only we could predict what the publishing world will look like in the future.
There’s a lot of ‘if only’ merchants knocking around in the gleaming towers that have re-housed Fleet Street in Canary Wharf and London Bridge.
But I’ve always thought that’s the strange thing about newspapers – their resistance to move with the world they report on. Do journalists need to worry about any of these things?
In my time working for the new press regulator Impress, I’ve realised it doesn’t necessarily matter what form news takes. What matters is making sure the news industry is as great as it can be.
Making sure there is a simple and effective system of checks and balances to enable journalists to do their jobs. At Impress, we have asked lots of different people to contribute to our Code of Standards. You name them, readers, members of the public, investigative journalists, victims of press abuse, the Samaritans, lawyers, businesses, academics, lobby groups. We asked then what they think is important.
The common thread, they told us, is that a news industry should protect the people who work for it and the people it speaks to. No matter what size and shape the publication takes.
All need an impartial service, offering guidelines and advice, like the one proposed by Lord Leveson in his report on phone hacking.
Of course, a Leveson-compliant press regulator was never going to be welcomed with open arms. “The independent spirit of our papers will be eroded. Our free press will be killed off.”Or roughly translated: “We don’t like outsiders telling us what to do”.
This is partly because newspaper culture is built on nostalgia. Not only their content, but also in the way the industry talks about itself and regulates itself – by a regulatory body that is paid for by the papers (and we all know how that works.)
It is a vice to shackle journalists to the nostalgia of elderly men. If you take journalists out of the old-school newsrooms, they are adaptable and independent. In other words, if you strip away the cultural practices of yesteryear, you get a much more positive picture.
Independent regulation is there for that reason. It’s meant for the journalist’s protection and to build trust. It’s meant to empower them to do their jobs, to lay the ground for great, exclusive investigations enabling reporters to do their best and know they are safe.
Safe from bullying, autocratic bosses and free from the acute stress that is the lifeblood of a tabloid newsroom. Content that they are acting within ethical limits while serving the common good.
And it’s meant to make sure the buck doesn’t stop with troops on the front-line – like it did with phone hacking, when the higher-ups got away largely scott-free by blagging their way out it as usual – and throwing the foot-soldiers to the lions. Lions led by donkeys.
Earlier this year, the National Union of Journalists endorsed Impress as, “the best opportunity we have for independent press regulation”.
Over the past six months or so, I’ve had time to think about this more, as part of the Impress Code Committee, the sub-group responsible for formulating our regulations. Painstakingly writing a code of practice that is working tool for journalists and a set of rules to protect the public.
I speak with the benefit of hindsight – I left newspapers to have kids and bring them up. I’m a school governor now. During my time away from newspapers, I’ve worked on the board of a community arts’ organisation. I’ve met good people acting ethically and still getting results. People doing a great job because of good regulation, not despite it.
In schools, I’ve seen how regulation done well can benefit learning and protect children from harm. I’ve also seen how a culture of mutual respect and encouragement brings out the best out in people. Why not for the media, too? Couldn’t our great papers be even better like this?
While headteachers may not have tasted the war-fighting cauldron that is a newsroom, I’ve seen how they deal with tough issues all day long. For example, complicated child protection cases, victims of Female Genital Mutilation in the classroom and parent-polarising academisation. They deal with the real-life stories that newspapers write about, solving them with compassion and fairness.
But, most importantly, with impartial regulations that guide their decision-making. Not a rulebook they wrote themselves. They are meticulous, not resentful or swashbuckling.
With experience, I can see it’s obvious that journalists have had a rough deal. If you look at the post-Leveson newspaper industry, you will see that it’s reporters who have paid the price not the fat cats bedded down in deep-carpet land. It’s easier that way.
Journalists have been sold the timeworn story about newspaper culture as much as anyone else. And for good reason. The archaic newsroom culture exists to keep journalists on their toes. How so? By encouraging a way of life where you live or die on the merit of your last story.
‘You’re only as good as your last story,’ was the mantra. In the case of the News of the World, your past performance was a luxury. In Wapping, you were only as good as your next story. No wonder it collapsed.
A hierarchical structure in which only the meanest or the slimiest flourish. It was no coincidence that for months after I started on my first tabloid, I never had a desk or anywhere to put my stuff.
The message was clear – if you don’t perform, you won’t be around long enough to clear your desk, so what do you need one for? Where training was something you never talked about for fear you might be found out for not having had any. Where bullying bosses made sure reporters put themselves at risk by encouraging a culture of fear. Without that terror there wouldn’t have been phone hacking.
The romantic fiction of Fleet Street is a crowd pleaser. Many of the ink-soaked reminiscences are just that. Reflections on the golden age of hard copy, hard drinkers, hard faced women, and supposedly hard men. The colourful characters who inhabited the newsrooms are part-and-parcel of the storytelling culture. But times have changed.
I have always loved news. I love newspapers too, but would happily ditch many of the cultural practices they entail. As far as the freedom of individual journalists to investigate goes, the practices hold them back. Looking around at the news landscape, it’s never been more buoyant or a better time to be a journalist.
A chance to have a voice. Access to information. Brilliant communication systems. The new landscape of newsgathering is multi-tiered and multi-platformed and a new regulation system is part of that. That’s how Leveson-style press regulation can be better for journalists. No need for hysteria.
If a publication is regulated by Impress, that gives access to support. A whistleblowing hotline for journalists to report things they feel uneasy about, for example. A chance to discuss concerns before ending up in a much worse situation, like tasking an inquiry agent to hack a dead person’s phone.
The irrational reactions of the Old Boys’ network is more to do with fear of change than of independent regulation itself.
But without a new form of regulation, the angry, injured beast that is the newspaper industry will be left in the past along with its memories.
Emma Jones has worked for the Sun, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Mirror, and is the former editor of Smash Hits magazine. She is currently a board director at Impress and part of the Impress Code Committee, the sub-group responsible for formulating the press regulator’s guidelines.
This post originally appeared in the Press Gazette and is reproduced with permission and thanks.