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Yes, there is a Crisis in British Journalism and Journalists are in Denial

The editor-in-chief of Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford, insists all is well with British journalism. Here, Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, responds.

The editor-in-chief of Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford, insists all is well with British journalism. Here, Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, responds.

Read the original piece by Brian Cathcart here.

Read Dominic Ponsford’s response to Brian Cathcart here.

Read Brian Cathcart’s response to Dominic Ponsford below.

Dear Dominic,

First let me thank you, and Press Gazette, for engaging with this subject. You make light of the idea of omertà in British journalism, but look around you: where in the national news media have these issues been discussed? Your initiative is as rare as it is welcome.

You suggested that you had evidence I was guilty of “sensationalism, selective use of the facts and a tendency to run with unproven allegations”, but you haven’t produced any such evidence. Instead, your response helps prove my case that there is a crisis in British journalism and that most journalists are in denial about it.

Let me be clear about what the crisis is.

At the heart of the press industry, in its biggest and most powerful organisations, a culture reigns in which unaccountable editors and executives behave like tyrants, giving full rein to their cynicism and bigotry while ignoring ethical and legal boundaries. The result is grave damage to individuals, groups and to public debate generally, while the good name of journalism is dragged through the mud and its future prospects are damaged.

You lay stress on what you believe is good about British journalism, but this misses the point. I never claimed all British journalism was bad, or that most of it was bad. Some, as you say, is brilliant. The tragedy is that what is good is betrayed by what goes on at the heart of the industry, where the crisis lies.

Nor is it a defence to suggest, as you do, that journalism does more good than harm, because journalists never accept that standard in others. An example: the care home industry has always done far more good than harm, providing invaluable care for untold thousands of people. Yet, more than once in recent years, failures have come to light that were sufficiently grave to justify journalists writing of a crisis in care. Similarly with banks – even in 2008 the vast majority of bank employees were doing a good and honest job, but no one could deny that there was a crisis in banking. When you point out that most journalists do good work, therefore, you don’t begin to disprove the existence of a crisis.

I gave a list of recent and current events which I said demonstrated the existence of this crisis. Despite your best efforts, you have failed to make even one of them appear innocent or acceptable. You admit your own disquiet over the Ben Stokes and Gareth Thomas affairs – no humane, ethical editor would have allowed either to happen and no humane journalist would have played any part. It is not good enough to say that these are slip-ups or that the law is the remedy. They are repellent blots on the reputation of the whole press industry and people at the top bear responsibility.

Rod Liddle’s attack on Muslims can’t be dismissed as a one-off piece by a flaky individual because it isn’t. Liddle has more than one prominent platform in the industry and he has done this many times. Yet, his editor at the Spectator is content to publish his hate speech and pass it off as a joke. You say we have to accept this. Does the Spectator have no choice here? Why is it happy to publish and defend such views at a time when British Muslims are already suffering peak levels of hate crime? As for Liddle’s caution for assaulting his pregnant wife, when he chooses to mock a victim of domestic abuse, it is only right that his own record in that department is aired. The wonder, again, is that, knowing his record, his editor was sufficiently irresponsible to publish those comments. No one should be surprised that advertisers have been deserting the Spectator.

In the case of Nick Parker’s criminal conviction, your efforts to waft the problem away only make it look worse. The case was rather more serious than you suggest – indeed his newspaper, when sued, admitted serious wrongdoing and paid substantial damages. Even more tellingly, as Byline Times‘ court reporter James Doleman pointed out (and he covered the trial), Parker’s defence was that he was acting under direct orders from his management.

You admit the Telegraph’s repeated failure over Boris Johnson’s columns – a standards problem that obviously goes to the top of that newspaper – but excuse the press war on the Duchess of Sussex and the war on transgender people as “healthy debate”, while failing to acknowledge the persistent dishonesty and cruelty of what is happening.

You pass phone-hacking off as historic, even though serious allegations have recently been made in court that some people involved in it still hold senior positions in the industry. Nor, for that matter, are journalists usually so forgiving of ‘historic’ events in other walks of life – ask Ben Stokes.

As for Andrew Norfolk, The Times and its unethical anti-Muslim reporting, you are ready to let them off in the teeth of the evidence – on the grounds, apparently, that Norfolk’s past achievements entitle him to get a whole series of stories wrong now, with impunity, no matter how much harm they do.

Revealingly, you don’t address the failures of the regulator IPSO at all. Feeble and compliant in the face of big national newspapers, it imposes no fines, conducts no investigations and requires no front page corrections. Even you surely can’t believe that the industry is so squeaky clean it deserves this free pass? As for the appointment of a Conservative politician as IPSO chair, again, you don’t comment though it is obviously indefensible. But, IPSO is at the very heart of this crisis because it is a fig-leaf and a facilitator: editors know that they can get away with reckless and unethical conduct when IPSO is all they have to answer to. That’s how they designed it.

The crisis I described involves repeated failures at the top of British press journalism, failures for which this country and its citizens pay a high price. Moreover, they are exactly the kind of failures that, in 2011 to 2012, we were promised the industry would tackle and fix.

Why is this crisis not being addressed? I see two explanations.

The first is the power of those involved, who have been able to cover up each other’s misdeeds while bending politicians to their will to block legitimate scrutiny – for example, through Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry. The second is the state of denial among so many journalists who, like you, will not join the dots no matter how obvious the shape they make.


Brian Cathcart

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