Friday, April 17, 2009

The failure and complicity of the Fourth Estate

Should you read any commentary today then the piece in the Times by Guido on the Downing Street email scandal and the complicity of the Lobby in perpetuating this sort of thing is well worth a look. There will no doubt be some who think I'm linking to it because he's a mate, and yes, there is an element of that I guess, but it's the argument about the relationship the Lobby has with those it reports on that is key. The conclusion? The Lobby system of the Fourth Estate is rotten at the core.

That is of course a slightly generalised point, there are exceptions where some in political reporting, as even Guido points out, are not all that bad. Fraser Nelson, Peter Obourne, Martin Bright amongst them have taken a hit on their access in order to report the truth. Too many of the others though just seem to sit and lap up whatever they get told, and when this is pointed out to them, the reaction is a sneering attitude of "look at the silly bloggers in their bedroom, they just don't understand the important work we do".

This reality was proved to me only recently when I met a Whitehall editor of one of the nationals who I shall not name for fear of being sued due to possibly inaccurate recall. He told me that he was a fan and started to ask me what the next big scoop was and what I had. On reflection, I think he was probably probing to see if I knew about Paul's big email smear scoop, however, it was when I told him I knew bugger all that the conversation became interesting.

He asked me how I did it. H ow I managed to get original stories that his paper and other papers and broadcasters then picked up on ran with - a mainstream media hit as it were. When I told him that I read through the information published by Parliament daily each morning; scanned the departmental websites for freedom of information request responses; sent sporadic FoI's into departments asking questions that might elicit interesting answers and wrote my own little programmes that could pattern match other available information online, he was taken aback.

Here was I, some little nobody, actually doing some real work, in my own time for gratis. I was not having cosy little lunches with politicians, I was not connected into the political world with hundreds of sources here and there. I was just using my nose to smell out the shit, and then writing about it. He gave me his card, I threw it away when I left to catch my train.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying they're all bad. There are some that are. There are some that have been tipped off by me about a post which has then turned into something big and I've got bugger all credit for. There are others though, and they know who they are, who have not done that and have been happy to help me out when I've had something where the pieces fit but standing it up won't quite work, they are the good ones and as I say, they know who they are.

The point I guess I'm driving at it, is that Guido is right. The vast majority of political correspondents and reporters are failing us because they don't really report anymore, they just repeat. Whether its a smear here or there, or just a press release that has been taken at face value without a critical eye added. Deadlines, copy, and filling column inches take precedent over seeking out the truth. It's truly a shite state of affairs to be in.

42 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree.

BrianSJ said...

There is a parallel with good investment, from reading James Montier. For value investing, you do the numbers, look at the facts and make some value judgments. What really doesn't work is going and talking to the company.

Shaun Austin said...

Great write-up from yourself and Guido and certainly an eye-opener for the "ordinary voter" who have a natural inclination to trust that what is reported by journalists is the product of some journalistic process and not word-for-word presentation of "the line"

The big question now though, is can anything be done to change this? Will this smears episode be enough on its own to change things for the better?

Oldrightie said...

A very good piece, Dizzy. It must not be forgotten, however, that this culture of deceit and laziness has been nurtured and developed by Labour and it's Campbell, Mandy and McBride type cohorts. They have woven a spell to include freebies and an illusion of some cosy, beneficial, cheap booze and fun cadre.
If somebody rocked the boat, as Nick Robinson did when, of Blair, he cried "The Emperor has no clothes". A quiet backroom seduction took place, Toenails got a pedicure and doubled income to join that Capital City of The Fourth Estate, The BBC. So it goes on. None of them saw The Blogger begging on the street corner for a tit bit. Well, they see him now.

jorb said...

Take a look at the book "Flat Earth News" by Christopher Booker. It goes into this in some detail.

Meanwhile, keep up the good work. We need someone we can rely on.
Cheers

Humpty Dumpty said...

I guess that the MSM have turned, for the most part, into reporters (reporting what's said) rather than investigators (checking the veracity of what's said). The days of the MSM political lobby actively looking for a story, beyond the information that they're force-fed, seem to have gone.

H said...

Its the opposite of the newspapers in the old Westerns.
You know the ones - they report the truth about the local baddie, and then his henchmen come in and wreck the presses and beat up the editor, but they still run the story.
I used to believe newspapers but now I read blogs!

RobW said...

Excellent post and insight.

Gareth said...

It's like a Western: A stranger rides into town, unsullied by the baggage each resident has that makes them defer to the town bullies. Then the stranger kicks arse enough to get the townsfolk to stand up for themselves.

Is it a mix of craven groupthink due to wanting access and the belief that the likes of McBride can break a journalist's career?

Henry Crun said...

In all of the time that McBride has been Brown's fixer the only thing that surprises me is that no-one ever had the balls to go and put one on the little shit.

Lord Allesley said...

Last year,Lord Allesley, having been to what was supposed to be a meeting of business representatives with Brown was outraged by the fiasco that involved the PM spouting rubbish at a small invited audience and taking a very few placed questions. All those "non placed" in the audience were equally outraged.
On the way out LA spoke to Nick Robinson and explained this and pointed out it was not a meeting to get our views.That had not been allowed, it was a total PR stunt. LA told Robinson that if he reported it as a meeting or consultation with business that would be untrue. Obviously by the time LA got home and popped the BBC on, there was Nick reporting on the PM consulting with business.

LA has no reason to believe the Easter Smear gate scandal will change anything.
LA

trevorsden said...

Doubly sad when you consider that all the BBC have succeeded in doing is getting a perfectly respectable nurse sacked in their attempts to expose the NHS.

Your point about the inadequacy gullibility and mendacity of the MSM is reinforced when you consider it was the interweb who exposed ABCs attempts to smear George Bush during his re-election campaign.

Pogo said...

Political journalists are neither worse nor better than most of their "scientific" or "environmental" colleagues, who also seem happy uncritically to regurgitate press releases and carefully-spun reports.

jailhouselawyer said...

I didn't agree with Paul Staines/Guido Fawkes claiming that he is not a racist and that he is not responsible for all the comments on his blog.

But, it is no secret that some journalists and editors are lazy and just wait for media handouts as though that is the only news available.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

This has been a long time coming. If you recall back in 1997 the practice of doble and triple counting of figures and announcing and reannouncing projects was never subject to any hard analysis. And post-Hutton the BBC (never in the forefront of investigative journalism) was scared witless and retreated into its "Pravda" mode.
Will it change? Can it change? I don't know. Journalists are just as lazy as the rest of us and if a pleasant lunch yields good copy then why make life difficult for yourself!
Journalists will only re-learn their trade skills if the business becomes competitive again; however, with the decline of newspaper sales and a virtual monopoly of television and radio news in the hands of the BBC, I can't be optimistic.
The blogosphere by contrast is brilliant. It is freewheeling, entertaining, sometimes informative, sometimes idiotic, sometimes thought provoking and sometimes scurrilous. But the main ting is that it engages. We humble members of the public, no more than a speck on the landscape, can chip in at any time. Various blogs have become like good pubs.
I can remember when Private Eye first came out and at the time it was considered outrageous and hugely entertaining - not the mildly funny and inoffensive publication it is today. Many of the criticisms now directed towards Guido and yourself could be carbon copies of those complaints from the 60s.
So congratulations to you and your fellow bloggers. Keep it up for as long as you can. The salutary lesson is that clunking fists can't control information disseminated through the internet.
I wonder if the devotees of the clunking fist approach will learn this.

Sam Duncan said...

To be honest, I'd never really thought about how you do what you do, but what strikes me about your description is that the MSM's characterization of bloggers is not just wrong, but the opposite of the truth.

You're doing real journalism - "I read through the information published by Parliament daily each morning; scanned the departmental websites for freedom of information request responses; sent sporadic FoI's into departments asking questions that might illicit interesting answers and wrote my own little programmes that could pattern match other available information online" - and they aren't.

A Lobby Hack writes said...

Panning for gold is backbreaking work requiring long hours of painstaking sifting in the hope of discovering the odd nugget.

Why do this when the fool's gold of the lobby is availble free and on demand?

Good analysis. Shame on us.

talwin said...

Dizzy, you say you were 'doing some real work' but I wonder if what you and the likes of Guido) are doing is more a bit of investigative journalism, an apparently alien concept to a good number of hacks who are nowadays just happy to be spoon-fed 'stories'.

For some of you higher-profile guys the term blogger is almost redundant: the blog is merely the vehicle.

Nigel said...

>>Press complicity<<

Isn't it time that journalists got together and simply refused to report this sort of comment without attribution ?

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6108896.ece

'...Whitehall sources unleashed an extraordinary salvo at Christopher Galley, the civil servant who leaked to Mr Green but was also freed from the threat of criminal prosecution. One labelled him a “complete loser”. Claiming that he had used a term from Star Trek as a computer log-in, an insider said: “That says it all, doesn’t it. The guy was a laughing stock.”...'

Guy H said...

It ain't just the lobby. Departmental specialists are similarly compromised because they rely on official machines to feed them with great masses of pre-digested stories. For example, a certain crime and security editor, with a number of alarmist books to his name, is the preferred channel for any old bollocks the Met wants printed on the terrorist threat.

In fact a very high proportion of all serious news is now whatever "the government has announced" today. It is not fawning and anodyne like the press in dictatotships, but its getting on for as dominated by official content.

Demetrius said...

It is more than just the lobby. I have been running a complaint with the BBC the nub of which is that the editorial side simply did not bother to do routine checking or asking questions. I was given some egregious garbage about how much time it would take and how complex it all was, and so very difficult to ask questions. My point is that if an non-techie OAP with a cheap computer can find out either what is needed or where to find it in five minutes, then what are all those geezers doing at the BBC? The answer is just using the press releases and the marketing brochures.

Chalcedon said...

Are you suggesting (shock, horror) that research coupled with analysis plus a little more research from different sources enables you to put a story together? It came as a surprise to a newspaper editor? LOL. What does he think the CIA, NSA, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ do all day?

Many of these papers repeat and regurgitate. not many inves=tigate. Very few analyse.

neil craig said...

On radio Scotland today, discussing Guido's opinions of the lobby a woman defended them on the grounds that if it wasn't for the lobby the media wouldn't have any stories. I sent in this email which was read out. Despite an embarrassed giggle nobody felt able to dispute it.

"The line that if it wasn't for lobby stories planted by politicians the BBC News would have nothing to say is clearly wrong. There are many important stories that don't get covered .. If the media weren't being spoonfed by politicians, quangos & fakecharities they would just have to work for a living."

Dan said...

This is exactly why i read you and Guido et all. You are not the MSM - without wanting to sound too trite you are the real voice of the people because you are a real person. Keep it up mate!

roman said...

You are absolutely right - it is very easy to get sucked into the 'inner circle', a kind of "I know things you don't, yah boo sucks', which I suspect has happened to many MSM reporters. Then they get afraid that if they do reveal uncomfortable or repellent truths, they will be cold-shouldered or exiled from the club.

Look at how quiet they all kept about Charles Kennedy's drink problem, because he was popular with the public and wasn't an evil, nasty Tory.

Finally, isn't it easier to sit back and pontificate (think Toynbee and White and M Riddell and Robinson), than do the kind of digging that you and Guido do, and which is, after all, only doing for the Right what Michael Crick does for the Left?

Scary Biscuits said...

I'm waiting for somebody to go to prison for this. Bribing journalists with stories (even busy ones) is a criminal offence under the prevention of corruption acts 1889-1916. Why is nobody naming names? The real culprit here is the government and the £1 billion "PR" budget that creates these pre-packaged stories.

Anonymous said...

"might illicit interesting answers"

elicit, surely.

Yes, i have got a copy of "Eats, Shoots & Leaves"

alan p said...

Similar comment from one of the bloggers covering G20 - journos came in, took what they were fed, wrote it up and filed.

No interest in investigating, probing, analysing or even discussing the stuff.

Also noted that the photographers all knew exactly where to be when RBS windows were broken

Thatsnews said...

I used to freelance as a stringer for a fairly high circulation evening newspaper.

The chief reporter said: "I can't understand it. You have so many interesting stories about the council. Our reporters attend those same meetings, yet you get loads more stories than they get. How do you do it?"

My reply was: "I do something the reporters don't bother to do. I read the minutes of the committees and see what they debated at their meetings."

Plato said...

Great post Mr Dizzy.

The berk who posted the hatchet job on Guido has spent more time researching that story than anything else they have written in the last year.

robert craigie said...

This actually rings true about business journalism as well. A few years ago I ran an IT related website and was amazed to realise how often mainstream newspapers effectively re-published company press releases.
I don't think there is any political significance in all of this from a left/right or government/opposition perspective. Better journalism is what is required rather than simply having Labour mad dogs replaced by Conservative mad dogs.

Anonymous said...

Dizzy - you are absolutely spot on. I despair of journalists today andc how they never ask the difficult questions or work to uncover the whole story. I pointed out that Kenneth Clarke told Andrew Marr that he was quite sure that two thirds of MPs were doing absolutely nothing wrong (with reghard to their expenses). It was an open goal "so Ken 33% are doing something wrong - what and what would you do about it?" did he ask it did he heck. I've written and asked him (Clarke - he is my MP) letter not even acknowledged so wein a published letter, asked him through the local paper - no response as far as I am aware.

idontbeleiveit said...

How long will newspapers last once the public realises they are the pet poodles of polticians?
The public will turn to bloggers to get some idea of what is happening a why. If a Blogger is bought out by politicians it will be apparent by his comments and the public will visit other sites instead.

Kevin Boatang said...

I wrote about the state of the media a while back http://www.boatangdemetriou.com/2009/03/21st-century-media-and-slippery-slope.htmlIt is a disgrace in this country, and around the world, that so many are so complicit through their own ignorance.

Gareth said...

Demetrius,

The BBC have one of the biggest news gathering operations in the world. They gather it from Damian McBride, they gather it from Alistair Campbell...

Kevin Boatang said...

thanks for blocking my comment. cheers

Minekiller said...

Dizzy,

can you brief me as to the procedure for submitting an FOI request. I want to do some closer investigations into the depredations to the armed forces under ZanuLabour - and also the state of the new carrier and submarine programmes.

snafu said...

"Is it a mix of craven groupthink due to wanting access and the belief that the likes of McBride can break a journalist's career?"

How about because the journalists are far too close to the politicians and they move in the same social circles - we have a corrupt and self-serving managerialist elite.

Pedant said...

Re. jorb's post above Flat Earth News was written by Nick Davies not Christopher Booker... It is an excellent book btw

Dick Puddlecote said...

I read your article two days ago, then lo and behold, found an example tonight regarding one of my pet hates.

Do they merely teach copy & paste at the NCTJ these days?

William said...

"And now, over to our home affairs repeater."

Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?

Lexander said...

Lobby Hack is right in a way BUT the problem in my day (and I have repeated this many times) is that Editors have Owners and mere lobby hacks will not get everything they want printed! Full stop. I got out in the end and never looked back. Best days were news freelancing - getting the stories that lazy sods missed. But, of course, there were more outlets to sell the stories to. Can anybody guess where our honest news will come from in, say, 2084?