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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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