Don’t tar us all with the same brush, please

I received a text from a friend the other day. I’ve saved it. It reads: “Who would be a journalist eh? I suggest you tell people you are a traffic warden! Ha ha”.
I suppose it could have been worse. He could have written ‘banker’. Or, heaven-forbid, ‘politician’.
For a week or more ‘journalist’ has been a dirty word courtesy of the blanket coverage of the phone-hacking scandal that ultimately engulfed a national institution.
It’s been pay-back time.
Every celebrity, high-profile public figure or MP who has ever been put under the microscope by the national press has relished this opportunity to give the News of the World (NotW) – and the press in general – a good kicking.
We haven’t been able to move for smug social commentators dropping pearls of wisdom amid the clamour for tighter controls on newspapers.
The press has been demonised to such an extent that television and radio presenters have been falling over themselves to be seen as a different species to those evil print journalists with whom they will be enjoying a pint next week.
Worse still, as they lap up the latest gossip about such-and-such sleeping with you-know who, people everywhere are appalled and outraged at the depths to which some hacks will sink for a story.
The hipocrisy is breath-taking.
Make no bones about it, what was painted as the mercy-killing of the biggest-selling newspaper in the English-speaking world was driven by purely financial considerations.
With a brand sullied and a share price endangered, ditching the NOTW was a not entirely unexpected attempt to kill the phone-hacking story by cutting off its head.
After 168 years and 8,674 issues, I would suggest the old girl – and its current staff who had nothing to do with the scandal – deserved a better end.
While it is true to say that no right-thinking person would approve of the kind of practices alleged in the latest phone-hacking revelations, the ensuing furore has, to my mind, been over-the-top.
To attempt, as some have done, to tar every print journalist with the same brush as the small NotW phone-hacking brigade is a bit like trying to implicate a cashier at your local bank in the global economic crisis.
I don’t doubt that in the coming weeks and months there will be more shocks and opprobrium as the police investigation and a public enquiry attempt to clean-up the sharper end of journalism in the UK.
I also wouldn’t dispute the need for some sort of review into the operating procedures of the media as a whole – as opposed to just newspapers.
However, I would suggest we are in danger here of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
I’m all for punishing wrong-doers and those who fall beneath the standards expected by decent people.
But I would say that a free press – one with the power to investigate, to challenge and to champion its readers – is the cornerstone of our democracy.
It is a vital element of the checks and balances to which key individuals and organisations should be subjected.
Yes, it might suit some public figures and institutions for the national press to be neutered but I, for one, would mourn the day that happened.
In my younger days I ran with ‘the pack’ for five years when working as a freelance agency reporter and I can honestly say I never broke the law.
Back then I relied very heavily on my own moral compass in order to decide what I felt comfortable doing and what I didn’t.
From experience, what I would say is that it is the nature of the beast that some journalists invariably sail close to the wind because they are dealing with sensitive information – often involving tip-offs and leaks.
Whether or not, ultimately, such information is in the public interest is a matter for debate but there is no doubt that newspaper journalists provide a crucial public service.
There is, of course, a world of difference between the national press and regional newspapers such as The Sentinel.
We don’t pay for stories, we don’t hack phones and we aren’t interested in the kind of tittle-tattle which sells red-top national papers.
By the same token, I would say that some of the best investigative journalism is done by regional newspapers who hold local councils, hospitals and the like to account and champion their readers day-in, day-out.
I am proud to work for one of them.

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Why, amid the furore, I’m still proud to be a journalist

The outrage from all quarters at the latest phone-hacking allegations levelled at the News of the World is as predictable as it is understandable.

People simply can’t fathom how anyone could stoop so low as to intrude into the privacy of families dealing with tragic loss.

Phone-hacking by journalists is indefensible and, if these allegations prove to be true – and I think they will – then I hope that those responsible are prosecuted.

This sort of thing has, however, been going on for years and so I’m a little surprised that anyone is surprised.

Do you remember the infamous Charles and Camilla tape scandal of 1992? Or the the “Squidgygate” tapes involving the late Princess Diana and James Gilbey?

The fact is that some red-top tabloids have, for decades, been involved in some pretty nefarious activities in order to get the big story – usually involving celebrities or ordinary members of the public thrust into the public eye by tragedy.

People who buy these newspapers are deluding themselves if they think otherwise.

Don’t be surprised if, over the coming weeks, more skeletons are revealed. Perhaps members of the royal family had their phones hacked, or more celebrities. Nothing would surprise me.

It is fair to say that, in recent years, the pressure on national newsrooms has ratched up – in part due to the celebrity-obsessed culture we live in and in part due to the challenges posed by 24-hour broadcast media.

However, while this watershed moment should certainly be used to clean up the practices of a small number of journalists, there is a danger here that we throw the baby out with the bath water.
Like it or not, the free British Press is feared – and for good reason.

It is also true that some national newspapers do quality investigative journalism – such as the Daily Telegraph’s expose of the MPs’ expenses scandal.

Indeed, it is little wonder that so many MPs are falling over themselves to abuse the national press and calling for it to be reformed, given that a great body of them were embarrassed as a result of a cracking, relentless campaign to highlight their greed.

Journalists sometimes have to step outside their comfort zone to get a story – that is the nature of the beast.

Sometimes they deal with tip-offs and leaked information and our country is all the better for it.

God forbid we ever see the day when every newspaper is full of press releases and propaganda.

If you want some reassurance then look no further than the regional press.

There is a very clear distinction between the way in which some of the more sensationalist national newspapers operate and the activities of the regional press.

Despite years of cutbacks, the challenges posed by the digital age and very little in the way of forward-planning by industry chiefs, regional newspapers continue to provide an invaluable public service.

We don’t pay for stories, we don’t hack people’s phones and, crucially, we care about our ‘patch’.

Campaigning, challenging local organisations, championing its readers and highlighting great human interest stories is the bread and butter of a good regional newspaper and I’m proud to work for one of the best.

We shouldn’t let a few rotten apples spoil the barrel because the vast majority of trained journalists do a decent job because they see it as a true vocation.

Common sense is the best vaccine for latest flu scare

Oh how the media loves a good outbreak of illness. Apocalyptic predictions abound and you can’t turn on the TV or radio or pick up a newspaper without being bombarded with a case study of some bloke who has whatever illness it is or advice from an expert in something-or-other.

In 2007 it was bird flu. Do you remember all of those awful images of scientists in China wearing biohazard suits sticking needles into various birds?

Now it’s swine flu. Only this time we face a global pandemic and everyone’s running scared.

Hand-cleaning gel dispensers – the likes of which most of us only normally clap eyes on in hospitals – have appeared in workplaces and public buildings.

Their effectiveness is, of course, tempered by the fact that very few people actually use them.

A quick peek on the internet and you’ll find headlines ranging from “Global swine flu deaths top 1,000” and “Swine flu victims could get 14 days off without sick note” to “Pregnant women are at greater risk from swine flu” and the bizarre “Teddy bear picnics banned as swine-flu rules hit nurseries”.

Finally, after we’ve been swamped with information about the virus (much of it contradictory) for months by the national media, health chiefs in the Potteries are preparing a mass immunisation programme.

The entire population of Stoke-on-Trent – some 240,000 people – is to be offered swine flu jabs as local healthcare workers prepare for a surge of cases in October and November.

In many ways, it’s a blessed relief to hear that the city’s Primary Care Trust is gearing up for a blanket vaccination programme.

It’s decisive and there’s no ambiguity – everyone will be offered the jab.

Ageing local hacks like myself know that when someone of the standing of public health director Dr Giri Rajaratnam advocates an immunisation scheme that is “bigger and quicker than anything we’ve had before” it’s time to take heed.

There will still be the inevitable debate about the safety of the vaccine itself – with parents like myself wondering about the effects of the cocktail of drugs potentially being administered to our offspring.

But it will be a brave mum or dad who says no to a free jab which could, potentially, save the life of their child.

The trick is to be well-informed – to be able to separate the facts from the scaremongering.

It might also help to act quickly if and when you, or someone you know, exhibits the telltale symptoms.

Unfortunately, many of the symptoms are common to ordinary flu and various other bugs and ailments which afflict us all – such as the sudden onset of fever, a cough or shortness of breath, a headache, sore throat, tiredness, aching muscles, chills, sneezing, runny nose or loss of appetite. Government advice has barely changed in recent months.

Crucially, we must keep a sense of perspective or we risk talking ourselves into a panic.

To date, in England, 27 people have died. Each one is a tragedy but most had some form of underlying health problem which contributed to their death.

Some doom-mongers on The Sentinel’s letters pages would have us all quarantined until 2010 and see Christmas cancelled.

However, no-one from Whitehall has yet told us to cease going about our daily lives and, in the end, it boils down to common sense.

We all fervently hope that the bleak estimates of the number of cases the UK may be facing this winter are over-exaggerated and that the death toll can be kept to a minimum.

And we can all play our part by taking sensible precautions, maintaining our basic levels of hygiene and keeping an eye on the more vulnerable members of our society such as children, pregnant women and those with underlying health problems – such as asthma.

Despite the fact that it will inevitably create a malingerers’ paradise, we should also follow Dr Rajaratnam’s advice to stay off work for seven days if we exhibit swine flu symptoms.

Yes, even if it means those who will do anything for a duvet day again dumping their colleagues in the mire at the first sign of a sniffle. You know who you are.