These are tough times for journalists, on both sides of the Atlantic, and could get tougher still.
I can’t speak for scribblers outside the Anglophone world, but inside it they are now daily accused of pandering to the liberal metropolitan elite – or whatever chimerical authority it is to which they are supposedly in thrall – and of stooping so low as to make up stories to sell newspapers or to attract advertisers, or even just for the heck of it.
‘Fake news’ is a phrase that has now entered the conversational lexicon.
American reporters, as of yesterday, will have to live with an overtly hostile administration, headed by a president who feels that he has long been and continues to be the victim of dirty tricks spun by an alliance of bitter opponents and their pet gophers in the media. British reporters face a different problem: a new regulatory threat called Impress, a putative supervisory body largely championed, and in part funded, by celebrities who feel that they have been wronged by intrusive press hacking into their private lives.
I have heard it said of late, by otherwise rational and informed people, that journalists deserve whatever foul muck is being thrown their way, because they have been hurling it in the other direction for far too long. “They’re just muckrakers,” I was told the other day by someone oblivious to the fact that to a journalist the term muckraker is a compliment. “My dear fellow,” I replied with as ‘elite’ an expression as I could muster, “reporters resort to scrabbling around in the metaphorical gutter, because that is where the real stories are to be found, and those stories usually involve the very people who revile the so-called ‘gutter press’.”
There is nothing new in all this. Or in the mutual dislike between government and press, a rift as old as journalism itself; the second oldest profession.
What is new is that governments, and other agencies of authority, are preparing to wage all-out war to the death with the media.
They are ready to do so because now, more than ever, they are vulnerable to revelations culled from Internet leaks, hacks, electronic eavesdropping and the like. Much of this material may be spurious, but not all of it will be. Sorting out which is which will keep editorial departments working even later hours than they now do.
One can argue the ethics of the BuzzFeed site running in its entirety the ‘dossier’ purporting to contain material that compromised the gentleman who now resides in the White House. I am not altogether convinced that BuzzFeed acted either irresponsibly or mischievously, while conceding that the matter is at least arguable. The dossier in question had been circulating in Washington for several days, was common currency on the gossip circuit, and was known to have been delivered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to President Obama and the President–elect, probably among others. That made its existence news. But how could its existence be news without some reference to the contents? No, the material had not been authenticated, but BuzzFeed took pains to point that out. Much of this kind of material will always defy authentication. And what nowadays defines authentic? Gone are the days when dossiers comprised pieces of paper with incriminating signatures on them.
BuzzFeed’s motives and ethics may be questioned – the site, it should be noted, has been generally favourable to the new regime – and understandably, some would say commendably, other news organisations declined to run the stuff, even knowing that a growing number of politicians were openly discussing the subject matter in Beltway restaurants and bars.
What is an editor to do under such circumstances? Most decided to err on the ethical side of a very fine line; very commendable indeed, especially as their newsrooms resounded with the sound of gnashing teeth.
The Internet and the growth of social media are going to throw up many more such documents, or ‘documents’ and many more such dilemmas. The material will come from sources both reliable and questionable, so editors will have to exercise a fine judgement in deciding what action to take, if any. But that is what editors are paid to do, even though they will find themselves competing with free-wheeling media outlets that consider pausing to consider fine judgements to be passé rather than de rigueur.
In an electronic age in which virtually every human being on earth has access to everything transmitted on-line in the name of news, there is no easy answer to the question of what material is ‘genuine’ and what ‘fake’.
The emphatic answer is not to trash the mainstream media out of existence. An industry in straitened financial conditions is perfectly capable of doing that all by itself, mind you, but let us not speed it on its way.
We will, all of us in a democratic society, be damaged beyond repair for not having a free, largely unregulated press, even at the cost of the occasional kerfuffle over ‘fake’ news.
We don’t have to trust the media; nor should we.
But do we trust the Establishment more? Should we? I think not. As an old scribe, let me sign off with this thought: more rascals came out of Westminster last year than Fleet Street could conjure up in a generation.