Belfast Telegraph

Why this bonfire of the journalists is bad for society

The hysteria over phone hacking is creating a distorted image of how the media does its job, says Mike Gilson

When I was a cub reporter we had a hard-bitten news editor, a Scottish woman all teetering beehive and cigarette holder, who would screw your hopeless copy up in a ball and throw it with unerring accuracy at your head.

A string of expletives would follow in its wake and as the missile bounced off your bonce you would wearily begin threading another piece of copy paper through the wrought iron Imperial typewriter to begin again.

She would also insist on something that would provoke cries of horror in the fevered, politically correct times in which we journalists now live. On a daily basis, she would dispatch the prettiest of our girl hacks to the police station to chat to the duty sergeant about what had been happening in our town over the last 24 hours. She came back with a string of great local crime stories which were actually much more to do with her excellent line of questioning than her 80s-style swinging blonde locks. Every Christmas the same reporter would take bottles of whisky and wine up to the station to thank the police for their help.

Lunches were occasionally bought and from time to time, rounds of golf and slap up meals with the editor were enjoyed by top rozzers.

Ah such innocent times. You see today I'm not sure that that same reporter wouldn't have had her front door wrenched off its hinges in a dawn raid by the fraud squad and be forced to spend a night in the cells. Undercover surveillance teams from the Met might have been secretly filming the editor slicing his ball into the bunker much to the delight of his chief superintendent playing partner.

You see the melodramatic arrests of reporters from the Sun by a team of detectives this week has plunged us into a new low of lunacy. A team of 169 officers - yes, you read right, 169 - are involved in investigating phone hacking and payments by journalists.

Those reporters have not been charged but they cannot currently work. The suspicion is that some of them became too close to officers at the Met, paying out wads of cash for information. Paying officers is against the law you see so you can understand why 10 burly coppers had to be dispatched to arrest the Sun's hacks can't you?

But hang on a minute. What are we really talking about here? In a world of heinous murders, rampant knife crimes and wholesale tax avoidance by the rich and privileged have we really got our policing priorities right?

Cast your mind back to our young reporter in the 80s. What did that lovely smile and the odd bottle of Scotch actually get her.

Why a whole host of important local information about what the local vagabonds were up to in our town.

Locals expected to be told that the neighbour's shed had been burgled, that there was a fight outside Hollywood's nite spot on Saturday night or that a rapist had jumped bail the day before. And they got it in glorious detail in our newspaper. Open any local paper today and you will not see a line of any of this.

You see contrary to what you might have read and seen, the real story of today is that information is actually shutting down.

It is controlled in a way now that would have had my old news editor reaching for another lunchtime whisky.

Far from journalists and detectives having too cosy a relationship (no one has yet explained why this is wrong by the way) the truth is in the vast majority of cases there is none at all. This is a bad thing.

For the police, a half-witted theory has developed in recent decades that to allow people to know what crimes are happening in their neighbourhood is to encourage the "fear of crime". I know, I know but what can you do.

Add on top an explosion of press officers to control the message and you actually have a situation that is unhealthy for local democracy. In the circumstances, it's a wonder that there's actually been so little expense cash being handed over by newspapers who still have that sort of thing, so hard to come by are the scraps of information on which a journalist must feed.

And when you really think about it, a newspaper is bound by a huge number of laws. Whatever the information gathered, it will have to have had to justify a rigorous public interest defence before being published. In America the first test, even among the country's rulers, is why shouldn't information be published? In the UK it is why should it? There is a big difference.

At the Leveson Inquiry a distorted picture is being painted of a nation crawling with rapacious hacks who will stop at nothing for a scoop.

The truth is that journalism, for a variety of reasons, is in crisis. At the time when there needs to be a public debate about what kind of open society we want and how, in the age of a free-flowing torrent of unreliable digital information, journalism should contribute, we are getting Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan instead.

Two weeks ago it was revealed that there are 161 press officers at Stormont. Yes 161. That is possibly more spin doctors than there are reporters in the province. I don't blame press officers. Their job is to control and sanitise information on behalf of their masters. But you do the math and ask if the balance is now not unhealthily tilted.

All I ask is that we introduce some sanity into the debate about journalism. If the public does not want to fund professional fact gatherers who fearlessly challenge authority then I believe we have a problem in the future. It's not that we are that important, certainly not as doctors and dare I say it police officers, but I'm also not sure we deserve 10 fraud squad officers bashing down our doors at 5am in the morning.

I suspect my old news editor, now in that nicotine-filled newsroom in the sky, would not have gone quietly to the station. A row of screwed up balls of copy paper would have been prepared in her defence.


From Belfast Telegraph