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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I could have sworn that the Lincoln City striker was my dustman...

Watching a game on tenterhooks to see if the manager picks his nose.

Too busy thinking about other things, so didn’t at first realise that I was witnessing possibly the greatest event in the history of civilisation. Or since 1863, when the FA was formed.

I had tuned in to watch Burnley v Lincoln City for the pleasure of seeing if the former’s manager, Sean Dyche, is ever going to pick his nose in public. His hand goes up to his nose every 30 seconds, gives it a rub, then when he’s about to start poking around inside, he thinks better of it, only to start again a minute later. He clearly can’t help it – it’s a nervous tic, which all managers have, though some hide it better.

Then I started studying the Lincoln team, none of whose phizogs, mannerisms or walks I know. By this stage in the season, I am pretty familiar with every regular Premier player, having grown accustomed to his face, his smile, his ups and downs. When it’s a Cup match with a team from a lower division, in this case a non-League team, the players are strangers. I would not recognise any of them in my porridge.

Then I saw someone I swore was our dustman, large and beefy, with Bobby Charlton hair. I thought he must have wandered on to the pitch from the burger bar – but, no, he was a Lincoln forward, the 16-stone Matt Rhead. Even on the couch, cradling my Beaujolais, I could hear Burnley fans shouting, “You fat bastard.”

Lincoln’s captain was called Waterfall, another player I hadn’t come across before, one of those footballers who spend their whole life in the lower divisions, becoming local legends, if they last long enough, but completely unrecognised elsewhere.

I googled his first name, and oh, my God, it’s only Luke. Luke Waterfall, how romantic is that? Straight out of Mills & Boon. Did he assume that name when he went into show business, Lincoln City Division?

I started thinking of all the fab new names in football, a source of endless reverie when the game is dull. I’m allowed to do this when watching on my own. When watching with my son or anyone else, I impose house rules, which state that all conversation must be linked directly to what is happening on the screen.

Jesus at Man City, what a gift from, er, God for the headline writers. He arrived in January for £27m, a bargain already, especially if he continues to work miracles, har, har. It says “Jesus” on the back of his shirt. His first name is Gabriel, after the archangel, presumably. The sub-editors will have fun with him for years – “Jesus saves”, “Jesus wept”.

I remember waiting in the 1970s when the Scottish player Gerry Queen joined Crystal Palace. I knew that events would turn him into a headline. Then he got a red card: “Queen sent off at Palace”.

The all-time classic football headline was used in February 2000, when Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat Celtic 3-1. The result, one of the biggest upsets in Scottish football, led to the Sun headline

Super Caley go ballistic

Celtic are atrocious

In a lifetime of subbing, you don’t get many occasions when all the planets align so exactly.

The new names that I’ve been enjoying this season include Dunk at Brighton. Haven’t noticed him walking into a headline yet, and I can’t imagine what it will be – something to do with “Dunking donuts”, or “Dunk and disorderly”?

I’ve always liked Robert Snodgrass, now at West Ham. His name sounds so Dickensian. And Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk – wow, my Hollywood hero. Harry Winks at Spurs: what a shame he wasn’t given shirt number 40. When Jeffrey Schlupp appeared in the Leicester line-up last season, I couldn’t wait to decide if his name would fit a verb, a noun, a term of abuse, or a form of semi-sleeping, such as the way I schlupped on the sofa watching Burnley v Lincoln.

Then, blow me, I was wakened violently from my reveries. Just before the end, Lincoln scored – making them the first non-League team to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals in 103 years. And I was watching, sort of . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit