“Something bordering on journalistic fascism”

Martin Kettle provides a must-read piece on the media in the Guardian today in which he objects to Rod Liddle’s latest in the Spectator entitled ‘The Great Whitewash”.

Liddle is the man who hired Gilligan. He is also the man of whom a former colleague said (as told to Today’s historian): “Rob didn’t want conventional stories. He wanted sexy exclusives … I remember Rod once at a programme meeting saying ‘Andrew gets great stories and some of them are even true’ … He was bored by standard BBC reporting.”

Liddle’s article in the current Spectator exemplifies this approach, and incarnates a great deal of what is wrong with modern journalism. Liddle’s article is wrong on the facts (Lord Franks, chairman of the inquiry into the Falklands war, was not a judge, much less a law lord), sneering (Lord Hutton’s Ulster brogue is mocked, and he is described as anachronistic and hopelessly naive), and unapologetic (the best Liddle can manage is that Gilligan’s famous 6.07am report went “a shade too far”). Above all, Liddle’s piece is arrogant, embodied in his remarkable final sentence: “I think, as a country, we’ve had enough of law lords.”

Think about the implications of that. To Liddle’s fellow practitioners of punk journalism, it can be excused as sparky, or justified on the grounds that it is what a lot of other people are saying. To criticise it is to be condemned as boring or, like Hutton, hopelessly naive. To me, though, it smacks of something bordering on journalistic fascism, in which all elected politicians are contemptible, all judges are disreputable and only journalists are capable of telling the truth, even though what passes for truth is sometimes little more than prejudice unsupported by facts.

And he makes the following observation:

The threat to modern journalism is real, but it comes not just from without but also from within. It comes not just from the manipulations, favouritism and half-truths of the discredited, and partially abandoned, Labour spin culture, but also from the media’s disrespect for facts, the avoidable failure to be fair, the want of explanation and the persistent desire for melodrama that are spin’s flip side.

I think melodrama is exactly the right word for so much media reporting. It certainly seems apt as a description of, say, the Independent’s coverage of the Iraq war and the right’s approach to asylum stories.

The contradiction in this case is that Gilligan’s bombshell was initially reported in such a dozy, unsensational manner, with all those ‘erms’ and the infamous ‘probably’. If you are going to accuse the government of lying to parliament and the public, a little melodrama could perhaps be forgiven.

I would add another point – the media’s sense of its own power has gone out of control. The merest whiff of a ‘scandal’ and there is the collective search for a scalp. The issue of resignations of public figures (by no means limited to political life) has become not a matter of right or wrong, or of honour, but a demonstration of the raw power of the media.

How many people have had to stand down from their positions in politics, showbusiness or sport not because they truly felt they had made an error so large as to force them to leave their work but because the ‘pressure’ or the ‘negative publicity’ had made their position ‘untenable’.

Take an example from outside of politics, from the world of sport. Glen Hoddle was hounded out of his job as England manager ostensibly because of comments he made about reincarnation. His abilities as a football manager, officially at least, were not in dispute. Nor was his honesty. Nor was the offence he had caused to disabled people (to whom he had swiftly apologised) the real reason why Hoddle had to go.

Hoddle had to go simply because the media had decided they were going to force him out. He had snubbed the media too many times and he wasn’t playing the game. And remember how Tony Blair, to his shame, joined in that witchunt.

I didn’t rate Hoddle as a football manager. I found his mystical world view to be ridiculous. But there was something deeply disturbing about the way in which the press pack forced him out. They made his position ‘untenable’.

We have seen that episode replayed time and again with public figures from other walks of life. Of course there will always be journalistic revelations which result in the downfall of the famous or the important. But what happens now is that the papers go looking for the scalp – they start to become part of the story.

And it is not hard to start the resignation ball rolling. Even if you can’t find someone with a vested interest willing to call for a head on a plate, you can always speculate – “XYZ is likely to face calls for his resignation” – and the issues is on the agenda, the ratchet turned up a notch and the hunt underway.

The scalp hunting illustrates a broader problem. The media now enjoys being part of the story, making things happen rather than just reporting or commenting. No wonder that former politicians slip so easily into jobs in the media – it is a power base and it operates by similar rules to politics – contacts, favours and a version of the old school tie.

The media increasingly is the story and in a ‘profession’ dominated by people with over-inflated egos that will be a very hard trend to reverse.