Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Media
7 March 2011

Journalists do what they’re told – or face the consequences

Do we all stand up to managers when they make us do something we know is wrong, or do we keep our he

By Steven Baxter

The resignation letter from the ex-Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiatt, complaining about an anti-Muslim agenda that many of us have suspected for some time, raises a few ethical questions. Would you fold your arms and tell your boss you refused to do a story that you found morally wrong, or which went contrary to the tenets of your profession? Or would you get on with it, knowing you were representing distortion as the truth?

Peppiatt’s letter appears to confirm what a lot of us have suspected for some time: that the seedier end of tabloid reporting is a world not so much of grafting in the mud for jewels but plucking stories out of thin air (or, as Peppiatt memorably puts it when describing a celebrity revelation about Kelly Brook, “I simply plucked it out of my arse”.) He says journalists concocted tales about Muslims, for example about Muslim-only taxpayer-funded public loos, knowing they were nothing of the sort.

I know a lot of people will wonder how Peppiatt could have stuck it out for so long, or why he decided to put his byline to some deeply unpleasant stories that he admits have fanned the flames of prejudice in the first place. He says: “I was too scared for my career, and my bank balance, to refuse.” It’s a refrain that many of us will find familiar.

Before anyone rushes to judge Peppiatt or suggest he should have got out earlier, we should reflect on our own experiences in a corporate environment – not necessarily journalism, but anywhere. Do we all boldly stand up to managers when they tell us to do something that we know is wrong and counterproductive? Or do we try to keep our heads down, not wanting to be seen as bolshie, hoping that our compliance might give us a reward somewhere further down the line?

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

We’ve got bills to pay; some of us have children to look after, too. It’s not easy to say no to something when you know it’ll mark you out as a troublemaker.

Ethical questions are another matter, of course. But journalists don’t have any protection should they decide they’d rather not do a story they’re told to cover by their managers. The NUJ has been seeking for some time to have a “conscience clause” for journalists who want to have the right to refuse an assignment they regard as being unethical and ensure their job stays safe at the same time. But I fear it won’t ever happen.

Sadly,newspapers are the same as any other corporate environment: you do what you’re told, or you face the consequences. You can take out a grievance – which will mark you down as someone never to be trusted ever again – or you can resign, and attempt the complex and stressful process of going to a tribunal. Either way, your career is over.

I suppose many of us would like to hope that, given the same set of circumstances, we would all bravely stand up to our bosses and defend our professional integrity; but then I think many of us would also secretly know that we would grit our teeth and do what we were told. We may call journalism a profession, or a craft, or a trade; but it’s just a job, like any other – and jobs are pretty hard to come by right now. We should applaud anyone who’s willing to make a stand.