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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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