Guardian debate: How to restore trust in the press

Guardian debate: Hacking and the future of the press. Photo: Tash Clark

“Once we lose reporters, we’re all fucked.” – Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, September 29th 2011.

Everyone must be sick of hearing about, talking about and reading about hacking and the News of The World scandal by now, surely? Wrong.

Almost all seats were filled at the Royal Institution of Great Britain a few weeks ago for the Guardian debate: ‘After hacking: How can the press restore trust?’

The fantastically acclaimed and highly renowned panel included Krishnan Guru-Murthy as chair, presenter for Channel 4 News, Sylvie Kauffmann, Editor of Le Monde, George Eustice, former Press Secretary to David Cameron, Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, and to top it all off, Carl Bernstein himself; one half of the famous journalistic duo who uncovered the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. An event not to be missed for aspiring journalists such as us at The Boar, and clearly a number of the general public too.

The evening began with a short video covering the current situation. Murdoch, Milly Dowler, News of the World. The scandal that changed politics, changed perceptions, and changed the media forever.

Alan Rusbridger introduced the debate with a short introduction of the mass impact the scandal has had, the influence of Murdoch on the media itself and the political system. He commended the “outstanding journalism” of Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who uncovered the “bleak story of journalism at its worst.” Trust, he notes, is key.

The chair began by asking the question we all want to know, from the man all of us would love to speak to. Carl Bernstein: what are, if any, the parallels between the hacking scandal and Watergate? Considerable “remarkable” parallels, he insists immediately. Referring to the criminality of both scandals, he is quick to criticise, yet insists, like many media analysts have done, that the consumers have the responsibility to control the content of the papers.

He attacks the consumer culture that has developed in the tabloid newspaper, of the fine line between reporting in the public interest, and for the interest of the public. Who are we to judge those who hacked others’ phones, when it is the paper’s readers who demand such detail about the private lives of all we see around us? Of course, it is still the consensus, around the room and beyond, that journalists at NOTW had gone too far.

Bernstein, who well and truly dominated the debate, continued to defend the rights of the freedom of the press, however, to uncover the truth, and to hold those in power to true account. Despite a quirk from a member of the audience asking if the delving into private documents and other potentially immoral activities carried out by himself and Woodward in the 1970s were justified, he swept up this criticism flawlessly and instantly continued his argument advocating more total and free press powers.

George Eustice, on the other hand, seemed fairly content with the system of self regulation currently in place in the UK. He argued that the rules of the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) and other such regulators should be more strictly enforced, with sanctions for those who do not abide. Throughout the debate, he repeatedly mentioned ‘the code’, arguing that journalists “shouldn’t fear regulation”, seeming completely oblivious to the fact that ‘the code’ clearly hasn’t worked. At all.

A fresher perspective was brought to the evening by Sylvie Kauffmann, who uttered that the prospect of phone hacking would be “unthinkable” in France, as if somehow it was morally acceptable in England. In her opinion, the French culture is very different, and there is just not the same appetite for gossip-related news, yet she does note that their “credibility is not very good either”. Dominique Strauss-Kahn might beg to differ. Instead, she continued, people value their privacy. Another quirk was made by what appeared to be a French audience member who chirped in a comment about newspapers in France hiring private investigators, to which she responded “not in the printed press.” Perhaps French newspapers aren’t as squeaky clean as Sylvie makes them out to be…

Back to the question in hand, the debate turned to how best to restore the lost trust in the press. The two factions that emerged were increased (Eustice) and decreased (Bernstein) regulation, and when thrown to the audience, they voted (by a small majority) for less regulation. Bernstein called for more freedom, a “tool of shame” while Eustice pressed for more strictly enforced rules. Kauffman says that she’s unsure it’s the right thing to do and Rusbridger remains somewhere in the middle on the topic, yet insists that it’s not going to go away.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous blog, Bernstein reiterated my point that there can never be non-biased “accurate” reporting, and there are no such thing are true facts. “The idea that truth is reducible to that part is opinion and that part is scientific fact is getting us into a dangerous area of pseudo-science.” It is a result of the writer, the influences of him/her and the ways in which they choose to pursue the story, which generates the angle of the story and its final outcome.

This is an important aspect to remember when discussing the differences between middle-class definitions of tabloids (reported to be unreliable, full of gossip and biased) in comparison with broadsheets (squeaky-clean, and non-biased), which are commonly thought to be of completely different newspaper leagues, each abiding by their own standards.

Bernstein consented to the idea of a change in our culture to repair the damage done, and as reluctant as he was to a lack of press freedom, he agreed that there should be more transparency within newspapers themselves, instead of simply asking other institutions to be. Coincidentally, Nick Davies’ book ‘Flat Earth News’, which I am currently reading, also advocates this need for newspapers to open up, and to abide by the moral codes which they so fiercely uphold.

This, I believe, is the key to restoring press trust. By making sure that the press offer some attempts of transparency and regulation as every other business, banks and branch of government do, we can begin to start to build up public trust again. Without this, the press subject themselves to a high level of criticism as they place themselves on a pedestal, indicating their moral superiority to the rest of the world.

Some might argue that journalists must maintain a higher standard of secrecy and protect their methods in order to carry out a high quality of journalism. In no respect do I advocate compromising those methods used in order to expose the truth and hold those in power to account for their actions. I simply insist that some compromise needs to be made to show the general public that the press is not something to be fear. Bernstein noted that the press “routinely abuses [its] freedom by violating people’s privacy and defaming”, and we must do something to stop this, to put trust back in the press.

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