Today
Mon 1 March 2021

The scrutiny applied to the work of a New York Times journalist by others in the profession is not to be found in Britain’s warped press culture, says Brian Cathcart

A remarkable controversy has erupted in the United States around the conduct and output of an award-winning reporter – and it has compelling lessons for British journalism. 

After a lengthy internal investigation, the New York Times (NYT) has issued a series of corrections and apologies relating to work by one of its star reporters, terrorism specialist Rukmini Callimachi, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy. Callimachi, who has admitted only limited errors, has been moved to other duties. 

The affair has been widely reported by the NYT’s rivals and discussed by journalists and others on social media, with many accusing the newspaper of responding weakly and some calling for the reporter to be sacked.

The Washington Post published a detailed account of internal events at the NYT, alleging that staff there had been raising concerns about Callimachi’s standards for years, only to be ignored by the paper’s management. 

It’s not pretty, but this is how it should be.

Journalists get things wrong, sometimes for understandable reasons and sometimes because they are reckless or unscrupulous. When this happens – as it did in the past at the NYT with the Jayson Blair affair and at the Washington Post with Janet Cooke – it is right and necessary that journalists should report, investigate and comment publicly. 

Managements may not enjoy the experience but this kind of peer scrutiny is part of the business of protecting the integrity of the profession. It would also be hypocritical for institutions that call others to account not themselves to be accountable in a similar way. 

The culture of British journalism – at least in the corporate national press – is totally different. And it is not just that managements reject accountability – the journalists themselves feel that way, or so it appears. 

Take the case of Andrew Norfolk of The Times. His ‘Christian Child Forced Into Muslim Foster Care’ story, which prompted national outrage and ran in the newspaper over a week and more, has since been totally discredited. Other reports involving Muslims have been publicly called into question. Twice in a year, his newspaper paid damages to Muslims for reports carrying his byline. And now a Home Office report has cast doubt on the notion with which he is most closely identified: that Muslims of Pakistani heritage are disproportionately prone to ‘grooming gang’ crime. 

Has a single journalist at any national newspaper (or broadcaster) drawn attention to this? No. Last year, when Paddy French and I published Unmasked, our very detailed exposé of Norfolk’s methods, we sent copies to hundreds of leading journalists at dozens of publications and broadcast stations. None of them published a word about it.

Norfolk’s journalism is truly rotten. He does things no conscientious reporter would ever do. And the result, frequently, is harm to innocent people, usually Muslims. But there is no sign, no whisper, that any of his colleagues at The Times are concerned about this – let alone that any of them, even the highly-paid columnists, have raised it with the management in the way that staff at the New York Times complained about Callimachi.

It is the Mafia code of omertà, as described more than a decade ago by Nick Davies, now sadly retired. As if to prove his point, when Davies exposed the scale of phone-hacking and its cover-up, the corporate national press did everything in its power to silence him and discredit his work.

This is shaming for an industry that claims the right to hold others to account for ethical failures and moral lapses. It is all the more shaming because the same industry has rejected meaningful independent regulation, meaning that not only does it refuse to be policed by independent scrutineers but it also refuses to police itself. 

In America, freedom of the press means the freedom to do the job responsibly: the response of journalists to the Callimachi affair leaves no doubt about that. In the UK, by contrast, freedom of the press means the freedom of journalists to do whatever they like to whoever they like, without consequences.  

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London


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