Wednesday, July 13, 2011

News of the World - a quiet antipodean bleat

For any career journalist, this crisis in the Murdoch empire is nothing less than heartbreaking. It is not what we are about. Should not be. It hurts us all. Our union has a strong code of ethics and we, as a collective, hold this close to our hearts and work practices. 

We are tarred by association - especially those of us who work on tabloids. "Tabloid" does not just mean gossip rag. So many people do not realise that it also means size and shape. Where once I worked on a traditional broadsheet paper, I now work for the same paper which converted to a small-format, that which is known as "tabloid". This has no reference to content which remains mainstream and informative rather than salacious. 

The News of the World was technically a broadsheet newspaper -  but it featured "tabloid" content which always tawdry and spoke to the lower common denominator of readership. There are a lot of them out there. Throughout history, people have just loved a bit of scandal.  Show me a parish pump and I'll show you a gossipy, bitching session.
NOTW had a massive readership, albeit not massive profits, a phenomenon we may perhaps attribute to the money we now hear that it was spending on seeking information.

The US has a tabloid which is different yet again. Its Weekly World News is very small format, sold at supermarket checkouts and is wonderful. Its content takes scandal to new heights and lows. It is right out there.  I long have had fantasies of working for the paper, making up fanciful tales of half-crocodile/half-boy swamp creatures, of intergalactic aliens running your local coffee shop, women giving birth to litters of goats, Elvis being found living in a trailer park, dogs who secretly write crime fiction...
These stories all based on information from "science sources" and "informants". No one expects them to be true. They are a genre of their own.

Britain's News of the World is believed to be true. Indeed, it sought to and succeeded in breaking stories.  It was the newspaper of the human underbelly - the worst of the worst. Infidelity, squalid morals, cheats, crooks, vanity, weakness...scandal. It fed the great  beast called schadenfreude - the human pleasure of the failings of others. 

What changed and pushed it to unethical extremes in finding scandal? Phone hacking and bribery?
My theory is that it found itself competing with a ubiquity of scandal and gossip.  An epidemic. All the newspapers have been adding gossip and celebrity pap to their content in an effort to get a cut of the lucrative lowbrow market.  Many papers are dumbing down. There is so much vapid celebrity trivia and scandal out there and a big machine pushing it into the media.  Heaven forbid, there are whole TV channels devoted to nothing else. "Tabloid" TV? 
Really, it is just content for fairly immature and ignorant people with a stunted world view. However, if their interest are shallow, they also are rapacious . They have generated a big dollar market which, in turn, has spawned a plethora of journalists paid to pursue the minutiae of celebrity gossip. This in the everyday papers. Papers like mine. Straight, conservative, mainstream newspapers.  I was gossip writer for eight years. It was wonderful glittering fun and a lot of champagne was involved. But gossip predominantly was locally-oriented in my era. It was a different animal.

Now there is an international celebrity industry as well as local interest to be covered. These days we have two journalists on the gossip round - and the rest of us pitch in when we get the chance. We have two pages of mostly light and amusing goss a day. 

But as the gossip industry expands,  those reporting for specialist publications such as NOTW clearly have felt that they have had to go further and further afield to keep the paper outstanding in the sensationalist market. It's a business. A market. A job. A career.

There are journalists who actually thrive on reporting that form of information and former NOTW features editor Paul McMullan has bravely spoken out on their behalf - and the lengths to which they went.

Then there is the rest of us - jobbing journalists who believe our role is one of keeping the record.  And keeping the record straight. 

We are confronted with a lot of obfuscation and secrecy from governments and corporations and we try to find the truth. There are constant power games played with us and there is an ever-growing world of publicists, marketers, PR people and spin doctors trying to manipulate information. In itself, this is a massive industry. Its operators are more highly paid than most journalists. 

The same people who are harassing us for publicity often also are  lying to us and putting barriers in our way if the stories are not in their favour. And we have to tiptoe through very strict laws of defamation as well as our own code of ethical information-gathering. 
There is such a thing is "the public interest". There are such a things as truth and accuracy. 
Most of us are committed to that pursuit. 
There are wonderful, talented young journalists coming up through the ranks and I am pretty sure that they see this imbroglio as a precedent never to be followed.
I put my faith in them.

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