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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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.