At the risk of contrivance, I want to try and link four recent events:
· A fascinating debate we had here at the RSA last week about social pessimism (the tendency of the public to be pessimistic about society despite objective improvements in their circumstances and optimism about their own prospects).
· Paul Dacre’s attack last night on Justice Eady and his spirited defence of the right of the press to expose venality and hypocrisy in high places.
· An apology to Shaun Woodward in the Sunday Times.
· A poll published this morning by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, showing that only 22% of those surveyed (down from 27% in 2006) think ministers tell the truth.
In essence, my argument is that the press can’t have it both ways. If newspapers want, as Paul Dacre demands, the right to expose those in power, they have got to accept the responsibilities that come with that right. The problem is not so much the attacks journalists make on politicians and other people whom they deem a fair target, it is the lack of balance and the failure of accountability when the papers get things wrong.
So, in the social sphere, it may be that the newspapers are telling the truth when they give lots of publicity to violent crime – but this is completely out of proportion to the coverage they give to, for example, the evidence that crime levels are falling overall. If things are going well, there is simply no story. So, a visitor from Mars reading any of our newspapers would find it impossible to believe that satisfaction levels with the NHS are currently higher than they have ever been or that school standards are at an all time high. The media are therefore implicated in the phenomenon of social pessimism, something which individual journalists will admit, but corporate media moguls deny.
At a personal level, if you get attacked by the press, you can hope to weather the storm, but never expect to get a proper right of reply. Take the example of the Sunday Times and its full page splash on the minister, Shaun Woodward, eight days ago. The paper alleged that, despite the economic downturn, he had celebrated his 50th birthday in the most luxurious, over the top, decadent style imaginable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true! As the Sunday Times revealed yesterday in its apology, just about everything in the piece was incorrect – the venue for the party, the number of guests, whether they all ended up in a nightclub; even the photograph was from the archives. It is clear from the apology that the journalist made no attempt to check his sources or their veracity. But whilst the grossly misleading story filled a whole page of the newspaper, the apology was one paragraph tucked away on an inside page. Unquestionably, tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, will have read the story, but may not have spotted the apology.
No-one reasonable wants to punish for the sake of it, but one assumes that the journalist who wrote the story is continuing happily in post. If a politician were found guilty of such public dishonesty, it would be a resigning matter. This is the context in which the survey showing declining trust in ministers has taken place.
Whatever the merits of Paul Dacre’s defence of a free press, the case would surely be strengthened if the media were willing themselves to be self-critical, responsible and accountable, rather than seeming to demand those virtues of everyone but themselves.