The path to "ethical journalism" starts here

It should be a source of shame that big online publishers are as a matter of course not linking to s

It's no surprise that punters trust journalists even less than before after the phonehacking scandal. But it's not just tabloid hacks, whose reputation was as low as a snake's belly to begin with, but broadsheet writers too, according to research from Nottingham University.

I take all such surveys with a grain of salt, but let's suppose the numbers are entirely accurate: why might the profession as a whole be plummeting in our estimations? Is it solely because of the phonehacking, or other scandals such as the one that led to Johann Hari's public apology this week? And is there anything we as journalists can do to repair the damage?

As I wrote some time ago, those of us who see ourselves as of a similar political alignment to Hari can't let him off the hook because he's "one of us". But anything less than demanding that Hari be disembowelled live on Blue Peter leads to accusations that you're somehow "defending" his offences against ethical and professional behaviour.

So to remove all doubt: I think Hari's actions were wrong. I'd have sacked him. But I'm not a newspaper editor; I'm just another hack, a less successful one at that, so what do I know? I don't agree with the Independent's decision, but I can understand why they've done it: Hari is seen as an asset, an attractor of readers and advertising revenue alike; and everyone deserves a second chance. Will the readers forgive him? The Independent must be banking that they will.

What message does it send, some ask, to readers and journalists alike? That you can get away with crossing the line if you're a bien-pensant liberal goodie, but you can't if you're a lower-status News of the World baddie? No, it's not quite that. Let's not forget just how unpleasant what happened at the News of the World was. Just this week, the mother of a victim of the 7/7 terror atrocities launched a legal action against the News of the World's publisher after she was told her son's phone was targeted by the paper. Those allegations are so serious, the consequences so hurtful to families who have suffered so much.

That's why readers turned against Britain's most popular paper; that's why it couldn't carry on.

The sad truth is that sometimes journalists do make stuff up. They do it because they want to, because they're told to, and because they don't have to be told to -- they just know how they're expected to get stories. This isn't happening all the time, or most of the time. Most journalists, I would like to think, uphold the highest standards -- but we just don't know who is and who isn't.

We aren't trusted by the punters, and we either do something about it, or it's going to get worse.

How do we regain trust in the profession when it's at its lowest ebb? For some, the answer comes in training -- that's the remedy proposed for Hari's many professional and ethical issues, and that's the prevention that some commentators see as the way of stopping this kind of thing, and the more serious offences by the News of the World and others, from happening. I am not so sure that changes anything. And, much as I agree with the NUJ's code of ethics, I don't know if having all journalists subscribe to some kind of Hippocratic oath will solve the problem either.

Former tabloid reporter Rich Peppiatt writes at the BBC College of Journalism that simple measures such as accurately linking to sources and engaging with social media could go some way to restoring credibility. It should be a source of shame that big online publishers -- including one of the biggest, the Mail Online- - are as a matter of course not linking to sources.

Why shouldn't readers click a link and see where the information has come from, and ensure that it's been represented accurately? It just adds a grain more trust to the process of reading a story.

There's also the idea of transparency. A lot of stories come from press releases and agencies, and there's no shame in that. Why not tell readers that you've written a story on the back of a release, or re-nosed a bit of PA copy? It's not some big magic trick that we're spoiling for the punters by doing that; it's just treating them like intelligent consumers of information. They're not going to run home crying because they've seen Father Christmas's beard fall off. They'll be fine with it. They might even think better of us if we treat them like adults.

There's a long way to go if journalists are going to restore trust in this most benighted of professions. If it's going to happen, it has to come from the top, with clear guidelines, transparency, honesty and integrity at all levels.

But there's another aspect to this, too: punters may claim they don't trust tabloid journalists, and give more weight to broadsheet counterparts, but whose product ends up being bought by the most people? If we as consumers want to make a difference, it's by choosing to get our news from the most trustworthy source; otherwise we're just rewarding bad behaviour and encouraging more of it.

Will clearly signposted ethical journalism really sell better than the other kind? That remains to be seen.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.