In the wake of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s treatment by large sections of the tabloid press, Brian Cathcart argues that too many decent reporters have been turning a blind eye for too long and that it is time for change

What can be done about the UK press? With the Harry and Meghan affair, we have been experiencing a moment when the corporate newspapers have obviously screwed-up and public outrage is spilling over. But is this just a five-day wonder?

There have been crises and change promised before – but it didn’t happen. In fact, in some respects, the big corporate papers today are worse than ever: more powerful, more corrupt, more thuggish, and dishonest. So is there any way in which the events of March 2021 can have a lasting impact?

There are signs – small ones – that it might. 

We can see tensions and debate inside the Society of Editors, an organisation in which – until now – unquestioning support for the journalistic status quo was not so much the norm as the iron rule.

Another sign is the letter signed by more than 160 journalists of colour denouncing the knee-jerk ‘we’re not bigots’ response of the Society to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s complaints of press racism. 

These are cracks in the edifice, with a small number of journalists and editors who are directly implicated in the issue raising their hands and saying ‘not in my name’. But it could be a beginning. If anything is to change, much more is needed and it needs to come from journalists themselves.

No one else will help. The Government will not save us from the mafia-like corporations that control our national press because ministers are close allies of those corporations. 

The consumers can’t force change. Yes, people are turning their backs on the print products, but it is a lot to ask people not to click on the highly-tailored clickbait that provides revenue for much of the press. (Stop Funding Hate does brilliant work with advertisers, but it is not enough.) 

The law is of little use. Only the rich can afford to sue and, as we have seen in the past few weeks, the Mail is now content not only to act unlawfully but also to ignore an adverse court ruling.

As for regulation, the Independent Press Standards Organisation is pitiful: no fines, no investigations, no front-page corrections (at least not in powerful newspapers), and only one finding of discrimination in nearly seven years of its existence.

So, make no mistake: if British journalism is to be redeemed, that will have to be done by British journalists – and it will take a lot more of them than we have seen raise their voices in the past few days. 

Tackling the Reasons to Stay Quiet

Why should journalists act? Because they are all being dragged down.

The reign of unaccountability so carefully engineered by the Mail and Murdoch newspapers favours the shoddy, the unethical, the arrogant, the glib, and the irresponsible.

Trust has collapsed and hostility towards journalists grows. At public events now, they often feel the need to operate covertly. And the mere idea of honest journalism is guaranteed to raise a laugh. 

For years, the industry’s response to this crisis of trust has been denial and cover-up: don’t publish the figures or talk about them and, if anyone else tries it, you shout them down for dissing the trade. That has not made the problem go away. 

No, it is time for journalists with standards to stand up and say what their standards are and what they will not tolerate. And there are three practical issues that should concern everyone: race, misogyny and dishonesty.

Are you prepared to challenge racism in the trade and not leave it to ethnic minority journalists to fight that fight? Then put up your hand. Make your name known. Say so. 

Are you concerned about the treatment dished out to women such as Meghan Markle, Caroline Flack, Danielle Hindley, Jade Goody and Corinne Fowler? Do you want to see real change in the industry so that standards of common humanity prevail? Then say so. 

Would you like to see higher standards of accuracy, more fact-checking and more conscientious sourcing in our daily journalism? Say so. 

There is a lot wrong. It is happening, at least in part, because too many decent journalists have been turning a blind eye or have pretended it is not their business. It is time to change. 

We are often told that it is impossible to protest because of bullying workplace cultures, the need to pay the mortgage, because it harms your career. Let’s tackle that. 

It is simply not the case that most working journalists operate in newsrooms in which an open commitment to oppose racism, misogyny and dishonesty would expose them to hostility. At the Mail, the Sun, The Times and the Telegraph no doubt, but in magazines? Broadcasting? Specialist publishers? Regionals and locals? Indies? 

The great majority of journalists, I am often reminded, are honest and fair and want to do their jobs to high standards. The great majority also work in environments where speaking up for standards will not harm their careers or their bank balances. Let them do so. 

If they do, they would at least expose the amorality of the minority – what Nick Davies calls “the thugs with press cards”. That would make an important difference, helping the public distinguish the honest hacks from the thugs. It might also bring pressure on the Society of Editors, and comparable bodies, to act in the interests of journalism rather than of newspaper proprietors.  

There is a well-known principle in economics, Gresham’s Law, which holds that ‘bad money drives out good’. At the moment in the UK, the same principle seems to apply in journalism. It is surely time to put the process in reverse – and for good journalism to drive out the bad. 

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)


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