Professor John Horgan / Article reproduced from From The Sunday Times, February 15, 2009
As Press Ombudsman, I am struck by the frequency with which people contact my office asking me to hurl a thunderbolt at some journalist or other. It’s not only that they feel they have been wronged in some way, but also because they have a real fear that if they engage personally with a journalist or a newspaper they will inevitably come off second best in a struggle between unequals.
No journalist worth his or her salt should expect to be universally loved, but is it a good thing that journalists evoke such fear? Where is the dividing line between honest indignation and arrogant prescription? Does journalism sometimes take on, chameleon-like, some of the attributes of those in public life whom it attacks for being out of touch, for dodging uncomfortable issues, and for refusing to take responsibility when things go wrong?
Other people knock on my door not because they are afraid to deal with journalists but because their reasonable attempts to do so have been met with a deafening silence. My own dealings with newspapers and journalists are generally businesslike and efficient: is there some reason why a small number of them cannot deal with the public — their ultimate paymasters — in the same way?
I know journalism is a high-pressure business, and dealing with the public is time-consuming and often unrewarding. But there are times when a little more humility and efficiency would go a long way towards restoring public confidence in print media that are under threat. In an ideal world, my office would be a last resort rather than the first port of call.
Independent regulation is good and useful in itself, whether in journalism or in banking. But if one profession after another turns into a cat-and-mouse game between the regulators and the regulated, we are on the way to fulfilling George Bernard Shaw’s sharp-tongued observation that all professions are conspiracies against the laity. Journalism should set its face against such an outcome and should continue to hold the feet to the fire of any other profession which looks like it is heading in that direction.
There is a continual risk, especially in straitened times, that the pressures of time and money will convert journalists into drones, residual processors of facts and opinions that have been generated elsewhere and which they will not have the time to evaluate or sift properly.
The web is a huge research tool and should not be underestimated. But journalists need to remember that their fingers on the keyboard are not the only tools of their trade. So are their eyes, ears and legs. They need to turn the damn computer off, get out and explore the world on the other side of the screen. It always repays a visit.
In journalism, crime always pays, but not always in the right currency. Newspapers would be a lot less interesting if there were no news of crime, and indeed crime reporting is often in the public interest, as well as being something that the public is interested in.
We employ Police to catch criminals and judges to sentence them. If journalists don’t think these institutions are doing their job properly, criticism is in order: that is what a free press is for. But there are a couple of reasons why journalism should stop short of operating on the basis that it could do a better job of either.
Justice should be the currency of the courts and the Police. Synthetic anger, trials by media and invitations to moral panic are no substitute. Worse, they run the risk of deadening the sensibilities of readers so that, when the wolf is really at the door, they will be unable to distinguish the hype from the reality.
If we are encouraged to believe that criminals are beyond redemption and have no human rights, what is the point of a probation service? Is inflicting collateral damage on the innocent families of those who have broken the law worth thinking about, or is it simply a question of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? Is vengeance preferable to justice?
If we persist in maintaining that although every saint has a past, no sinner has a future, do we not run the risk of coarsening public debate? And perhaps wearying readers, listeners and viewers with a diet of fake outrage that begins by boosting circulation and ends by turning people off?
Very little of this comes under the media’s new code of practice. But all of it invites reflection by journalists on what they are doing, and why.
This is an edited version of a recent address given by Professor John Horgan, the Press Ombudsman, at the University of Limeric