Belfast Telegraph

Hold the front page: journalism can be for the public good

Hacking and the Leveson Inquiry have created an open season on the Press. But try imagining a world without newspapers, says Malachi O'Doherty

How could you love a journalist? They are the lowest of the low. That is the popular perception of them. They have been depicted in satire as snorting pigs and sniffling drunks.

They are muckrakers. They go through your bins and your laundry looking for clues to how you live your private life.

And they exaggerate. Oh, how they exaggerate and lie about us. Where would we be without the libel laws to protect us?

The figure of the journalist as a contemptible and sleazy dirt-monger has had a fresh outing since the shocking disclosures about 'phone-hacking and the ways in which newspapers inveigled themselves into politics and policing.

There was Gordon Brown, afraid to rebuff the paper that had exposed the details of his child's illness; David Cameron and Tony Blair dining with Rebekah Brooks like flunkies ingratiating themselves with a royal court.

Is there a species of vermin slushing through the body politic that is more corrosive and toxic? Well, apart, perhaps, from bankers?

We are going through a period of national breast-beating about what a sorry pass we have come to as a society and one of the targets of our moral panic is that homogeneous horror, 'The Media'. What is to be done about it?

Note how that simple plural verb is so often spoken of as if it describes a single, appalling reality. There is no single thing called 'The Media'; there are just many newspapers and magazines and broadcast outlets and blogs and thousands upon thousands of people working through them.

And there are the thousands more Press officers and communications directorates, which exist to serve the newspapers and broadcasters and magazines and blogs.

Yet, over and over again, it is spoken of as if it is a definable conspiracy of a morally dysfunctional few, who want nothing more than to get their hands into somebody's underwear drawer.

This is the image that sits in the front of the minds of the outraged.

Yes, there are appalling journalists, who will do vile things to get a story and sell it, as there are self-contented readers at Sunday breakfast, who pay for all this and feel in no way implicated in the intrusions into private lives.

And there is another media monster, too; not the ravenous beast that devours all our secrets and spews them before the smug public, but the professional generators of news - the Press officers, agents and publicity managers.

And who are they?

Well, they include cynical manipulators, who will try to lift the profile of an actress, often acting on her behalf, by getting photographers to catch her in her bikini on a beach.

But they also include the Press officers of our politicians, of the parties and the ministries, who seek to distract journalists from real news by waving morsels of nonsense in front of them.

Lance Price, a former Press officer for Blair's Downing Street, has described how his team, anticipating a scandal breaking, would feed hints to newspapers of a far bigger one in a different direction, to get them to dissipate their energies in a search for a chimera.

And we have them in Stormont - 161 of them - many of them former journalists themselves, some of them fine professionals doing what they must to keep the flow of information going, others imagining themselves to be remakes of Alastair Campbell, who can swagger among journalists and barter access to their main man.

And at the heart of this is the profession of journalism itself, with all its flaws and weaknesses, and without which none of this busy news management and publicity-seeking and celebrity-building and political machination would even start to function.

Journalism is a strange trade. When we start work on today's paper, we know one thing for sure; we must fill it. And if there are no murders or scandals or freak changes in the weather, if nothing awful happens to anyone anywhere, we must still fill it.

Our product is something called news and we judge the professional competence of each other by our grasp of what that might be.

But our job is to find things out and share them with the public, deliberate on change and present our analysis.

And we function on the understanding that you, the reader, want this and will pay for it.

We are one paper doing this every day, among hundreds of other papers, most of which we have nothing to do with, doing the same thing, among radio stations and television stations and the bloggers, all labouring in the same seething morass of happenings which is life. And every day we make some people happy and some unhappy.

But imagine if we were not here, doing the noble and principled stuff we are proud of, doing the fun stuff, too.

Could you imagine a world without us? Many have tried - the Stalins and Mugabes among them - and the sneering, superficial, self-important people who blame all the woes of society on 'The Media'.

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