Has the phone hacking trial created a new form of journalism?

The idea that the democratisation of news means we are all journalists now is, sadly, a fantasy.

The dead tree press is dead, all hail the new journalism.

The publishers’ grasp is loosened now that a legion of bloggers and tweeters can break news and break the monopolies over it.

Up to a point.

Looking at the reporting of the phone hacking trial you would be forgiven for thinking that old models of reporting the news had been swept aside by something altogether more immediate and democratic.

Although previous trials have been liveblogged and tweeted, this one seems to have attracted a degree more coverage in that way from the media, perhaps because the media, or a part of it, is in the dock.

The break with traditional reporting was completed this week by the presence of Peter Jukes, an independent journalist and author of Fall of the House of Murdoch, who along with other reporters, livetweeted the first week of the trial.

What was different about Jukes was that as a result  of the response to his reporting, he was able to crowdsource sufficient funds to allow him to carry on until Christmas.

Hail the new journalism then, cut free of proprietors; funded by individuals and communicating with its audience via Twitter, blogs and independent web publications.

New journalism though? Not really.

In fact, if you look back at the roots of Fleet Street, it is resolutely the sort of journalism that gave rise to our newspaper industry. Finance, distribution and mode of consumption might differ, but fundamentally it is the same.

And this trial illustrates that perfectly.

 Fleet Street is where it is, not because of the whim of a newspaper proprietor – the Courant was the first to set up there – but because of geography. Positioned between Westminster and the City and on the doorstep of the courts it was perfectly placed to report politics, commerce and crime to its waiting readers.

The first court reporters were trainee lawyers, supplementing their income hawking tales from trials to a public as eager for scandal then as they are today.

The papers fed their readers the stories they wanted to read and so was born an appetite for news, even among illiterate working classes who would have the papers read to them. Papers were partisan then, as they are now, chasing a partisan readership, or creating it, depending whether you believe papers form opinion or reflect it.

So today the ‘new’ journalism does exactly the same as its print forebears.

At its heart journalism is a very simple thing, finding good stories and telling them well. The means of delivery may have changed from timber-based to silicon, but the essence of what those tweeting the phonehacking trial is no different to what those law students were doing around Fleet Street all those years ago. So I am  not so sure this is really the 'new' journalism.

Much is made of the way in which online publication creates a dialogue, and journalism academics will talk about the end of top-down provision of news. But does this dialogue really change the nature of what we do? The comments below online publication and their immediacy may make readers feel empowered, part of the process rather than an observer, but is it really anything more than a souped-up letters page?

In the past the relationship between publisher and consumer was far closer as the bills and papers were hawked around Fleet Street. That link was lost as circulations grew and printing became more industrialised. What tweeters and bloggers are doing is reconnecting with their audience and establishing the sort of immediate relationship that was there when newspapers were born.

The idea that the democratisation of news means we are all journalists now is, sadly, a fantasy.

Good luck to any blogger who wandered into the Old Bailey last week thinking they would file a few juicy pars to their blog on the travails of those in the dock.

Writing about that, and keeping the right side of the law while doing it, and producing something actually worth reading from hours of proceedings requires a special set of skills. Skills that anyone can acquire, but not everyone has.

Those who win an audience are still those bloggers, tweeters and writers who can find a good story and tell it well.

Protestors gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice to demonstrate against Rupert Murdoch's News International. Are all of these people potential news-breakers? Image: Getty
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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain