Today
Tue 25 January 2022

We don’t know yet whether journalists were among last year’s revellers at Number 10, but if they were — they betrayed the public they are supposed to serve, says Brian Cathcart

No one has yet confirmed that journalists were present at the parties in Downing Street during lockdown a year ago, though recent history suggests it is possible.

I hope it’s not true, because no one calling themselves a journalist should have participated in those gatherings, and that is not just because they may have broken lockdown rules (though that’s obviously important).

The question of how close journalists should get to the people they write about is as old as journalism itself, and it is an especially vital one when we talk about politics. But while there may be debate about where the line should be drawn, one thing is certain: private parties inside 10 Downing Street are on the wrong side of that line – by miles.

The journalist’s true boss is the readers or viewers. That means you do nothing that is not ultimately for their benefit or that you would be embarrassed to tell them

Why? Let’s look at first principles. The primary responsibility of journalists is to serve their readers or viewers and to provide them with information that is as accurate a reflection of the truth and the real world as they can manage. That is an unwritten contract.

To do this well in the political world, to gain the best picture of what is happening, they need to win the confidence of politicians, at least to a degree. So it’s reasonable that they should sometimes go beyond businesslike questioning and try to get to know politicians in more informal ways.

But how far can this go? I once knew a political journalist who thought nothing of accepting an invitation to spend a weekend, with his wife, with a senior government minister and her family in her constituency home. And by contrast I knew of another who had a firm rule that, while he would have lunch with a politician, he would never agree to have dinner with one, on the basis (I assume) that dinners had a tendency to become too cosy and unpredictable for his taste.

Who is right? Go back to that first principle: the journalist’s true boss is the readers or viewers. That means you do nothing that is not ultimately for their benefit or that you would be embarrassed to tell them.

Could you seriously argue that spending a whole weekend with a minister in her home would result in a flow of information that would be to the advantage of your readers? You might try, but you would also have to convince the readers that it wasn’t the minister who was really gaining the advantage, by placing you under an obligation and (politicians are professional manipulators) by getting inside your head.

If you discovered something to the disadvantage of that minister, would you be more likely to hesitate before you disclosed it? Might you, thinking of how kind she was to your partner and how sweet her children were, be just a little inclined to soften the blow? And even if you swore to yourself that it made no difference to what you did, would your readers believe you? Why should they?


Private Parties and the Public Good

Journalists should never be in this position. They might persuade themselves that they know best and that they aren’t corrupted by close contact, but (a) they can’t be the best judges of that and (b) the perception is as damaging as the fact.

I’m on the side of the journalist who lunched with politicians but did not take the risk of spending long evenings with them, not least because on such evenings it won’t just be the politicians who risk dropping their guard and forgetting their responsibilities.

It’s not easy, for sure. We are, most of us, gregarious animals and we like to make friends. Journalists and politicians are thrown together in all sorts of circumstances, including in the Houses of Parliament as it does its sometimes tedious late-night business. You share a joke, you buy each other a glass of wine, you’re not saints…

What the guiding principles might be for the politicians is not my department, but journalists, while being friendly if they choose, always need to be wary. Politicians have their own, distinct motivations and objectives, and the public knows it.

I accept that the rules may be different for journalistic commentators than for news reporters, but only in the sense that the line may be in a slightly different place, not that there is no line at all. Any political columnist who makes any claim to independence needs to keep a distance and be seen to do so.  

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It is obvious from this that for journalists to join a private party with any group of politicians – that is to say, a party that is not acknowledged to the readers or viewers – is ethically very difficult to justify.

For journalists to attend a private party at 10 Downing Street is surely unacceptable; no one could pretend they retained their objectivity after doing so, or claim they were capable of holding the government to account without fear or favour. Indeed, to attend such a party would bring the entire trade of political journalism into disrepute and should probably be a sacking offence.

Of course, there is a context to this, which is that objectivity and independence in political journalism do not appear to be valued in much of our national news media today, and that ethical lines are crossed so frequently we are becoming accustomed to a kind of ethical void.

Appalling and depressing as this might be, however, it makes no difference to what the public is entitled to expect from the journalists who claim to serve it. Those journalists should have clear lines they are prepared to discuss and defend publicly, and they should not cross them. 

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