Image: Zarko Drincic @ Flickr
Guido Fawkes, a very popular political blogger, in the last fortnight has highlighted the most critical problem facing the media industry – the lack of importance given to proof, evidence and ethics.
Guido has been blogging about the News of the World phone hacking story. This is the jist of his argument (all quotes are from his blog): The BBC – spurred on by the “Labour spin machine” – is continuing to run this story, even though “there is nothing new to the the reheated and rehashed allegations in the New York Times“, because of their left-wing agenda.
These are all arguments that can be made and I’m not concerned here with whether I agree with them. The problem isn’t necessarily with what Guido says, it is how he says it and why this is an example of poor journalistic skills – be it print, online, professional or citizen journalism.
At this point Guido has already argued in a previous post – based on “proof” and “evidence” – that the BBC has a left-wing bias. He says:
“When the BBC spends 86% of its recruitment advertising budget in the Guardian, we’re entitled to question the objectivity of the BBC’s editorial culture.”
What Guido fails to recognise is that this is opinion and comment, not proof. You can equally argue that the BBC advertises jobs in the Guardian because it’s media pages are widely read by journalists and they actively promote their jobs pages. If they therefore get more response from advertising in the Guardian then the BBC could be seen to be practising greater cost efficiency. Also, where’s the comparison to other broadcasters – is this unique to the BBC? Having said this you could argue that the BBC, as it’s funded by public money, shouldn’t be advertising anywhere other than their own media outlets as doing so presents commercial competition.
The point is that without examining all sides of the debate, the argument becomes a knee-jerk reaction, an example of poor journalism that cannot be described as based on evidence or proof.
This clarification between evidence based writing and opinion is extremely important, although increasingly within the media industry the line between them is being blurred.
Guido, Hague & who cares?
This can be seen in Guido’s argument for breaking the story of William Hague’s alleged relationship with Christopher Myers; Guido claims that Myers is too inexperienced and unqualified, therefore his appointment as Hague’s adviser was due to their apparent relationship. But where’s the evidence? Was Myers incompetent at his job? Without any proof the story became: “Is Hague gay?” The resounding response should have been: who cares.
In defence of the criticism he received for breaking this story Guido, referring to a Sunday Times poll, states:
“For those lining up to say this is a non-story, perhaps they should take on board that well over half of voters now have serious doubts about the man representing them on the global stage.“
Well that’s not entirely true – the statistics he failed to include in his blog are:
“The balance of opinion comes down strongly on Hague’s side on whether he is telling the truth or not (46% think he is, 12% think he isn’t)”
Instead Guido chose to focus on the stats that would support his argument, which were: “On the question of whether the initial decision to share a room with his advisor was an error of judgement, the public are more evenly divided – 43% think it was an error, 42% think it was not.”
Assuming the Sunday Times’ stats are drawn from an adequate sample size that is representative of the population, then they clearly show that less than half the public thought Hague should have booked into two rooms instead of one, and not that “well over half of voters now have serious doubts about the man representing them on the global stage.”
Yet as we’ll see with Guido’s response to the phone hacking story, he isn’t interested in these details and facts that are the backbone of ethical journalism because, as he states, “everyone knows journalists break the law to get stories.”
In short, Guido’s arguing that ethics in journalism don’t matter, consequently proof and evidence don’t matter, because journalists are above the law. Is this really what we should accept from the media industry?
As Simon Goldie says on his blog:
“Guido’s view is that there are no new allegations here, that Coulson [the former editor of the News of the World when the phone hacking aparently took place] resigned so that makes it fine for the Prime Minister to employ him and that the Observer was at it too so why complain? I can’t remember the Observer being exposed but presumably they were if he says so. But surely they too should be under scrutiny, instead of both papers and the people involved being let off?”
Guido’s counter-argument on his blog is: “If newspaper investigations kept to the letter of the law more scandal would go uncovered.” The kind of ground-breaking scandal that Prince William pulled a tendon in his knee – one of many banal stories that the NOTW “unearthed” by hacking the royals’ phones – or yet again adding further rumours over Hague’s sexuality.
Scandal for scandal’s sake
If journalists focus solely on unearthing scandal for scandal’s sake, through any means possible, then all they achieve is to breed public distrust.
Public trust in journalism is already depressingly low: 10% of people trust tabloid journalists to tell the truth, 36% trust broadsheet journalists, and 46% trust TV news journalists. While politicians don’t fare much better, with 26% of the public trusting MPs generally to tell the truth and 46% trust their local MPs. (Committee on Standards in Public Life, survey 2008, sample of 968)
In a lecture at the end of last year by Charles Reiss, former political editor of the Evening Standard, he presented an interesting idea on the analysis of these statistics. He suggested that one possible reason why people are more likely to trust their local politicians is because the reality they experience through knowing their local MPs is different to the reality presented by journalists; through consistently presenting politicians as innately dishonest, journalists are creating a distorted picture that results in voter apathy.
He went on to say – very eloquently – that of course “we [journalists] need to hold the bastards [politicians] to account”, but if journalists don’t practice investigative journalism with proof, evidence and ethics at the forefront then they simply breed public contempt for both politicians and themselves – successfully undermining the entire media industry.