Journalists do what they’re told – or face the consequences

Do we all stand up to managers when they make us do something we know is wrong, or do we keep our he

The resignation letter from the ex-Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiatt, complaining about an anti-Muslim agenda that many of us have suspected for some time, raises a few ethical questions. Would you fold your arms and tell your boss you refused to do a story that you found morally wrong, or which went contrary to the tenets of your profession? Or would you get on with it, knowing you were representing distortion as the truth?

Peppiatt's letter appears to confirm what a lot of us have suspected for some time: that the seedier end of tabloid reporting is a world not so much of grafting in the mud for jewels but plucking stories out of thin air (or, as Peppiatt memorably puts it when describing a celebrity revelation about Kelly Brook, "I simply plucked it out of my arse".) He says journalists concocted tales about Muslims, for example about Muslim-only taxpayer-funded public loos, knowing they were nothing of the sort.

I know a lot of people will wonder how Peppiatt could have stuck it out for so long, or why he decided to put his byline to some deeply unpleasant stories that he admits have fanned the flames of prejudice in the first place. He says: "I was too scared for my career, and my bank balance, to refuse." It's a refrain that many of us will find familiar.

Before anyone rushes to judge Peppiatt or suggest he should have got out earlier, we should reflect on our own experiences in a corporate environment – not necessarily journalism, but anywhere. Do we all boldly stand up to managers when they tell us to do something that we know is wrong and counterproductive? Or do we try to keep our heads down, not wanting to be seen as bolshie, hoping that our compliance might give us a reward somewhere further down the line?

We've got bills to pay; some of us have children to look after, too. It's not easy to say no to something when you know it'll mark you out as a troublemaker.

Ethical questions are another matter, of course. But journalists don't have any protection should they decide they'd rather not do a story they're told to cover by their managers. The NUJ has been seeking for some time to have a "conscience clause" for journalists who want to have the right to refuse an assignment they regard as being unethical and ensure their job stays safe at the same time. But I fear it won't ever happen.

Sadly,newspapers are the same as any other corporate environment: you do what you're told, or you face the consequences. You can take out a grievance – which will mark you down as someone never to be trusted ever again – or you can resign, and attempt the complex and stressful process of going to a tribunal. Either way, your career is over.

I suppose many of us would like to hope that, given the same set of circumstances, we would all bravely stand up to our bosses and defend our professional integrity; but then I think many of us would also secretly know that we would grit our teeth and do what we were told. We may call journalism a profession, or a craft, or a trade; but it's just a job, like any other – and jobs are pretty hard to come by right now. We should applaud anyone who's willing to make a stand.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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