We, along with many others, have observed the troubles affecting the Murdoch media empire with a great deal of interest. News of the resignations, arrests, public enquiries and the closure of the largest Sunday paper in the UK have monopolised all forms of media there for a week, to the exclusion of other events such as the growing fiscal (and political) impasse in Washington and the threat of another massive famine in Africa. We have watched and wondered what our father, David, would have made of this. We cannot presume to speak for him. However, as some of the abuses have come to light, Dad’s vision of what a newspaper should aspire to be, has made more and more sense to us and we think it bears repeating.
A newspaper holds at its core a delicate tension between the newsroom and the business. This reflects the duality of the news itself: it is both an editorial product and a commodity.
The business side of a newspaper seeks to attract advertisers and readers to pay the bills and to maximise profit. The newsroom operates rather differently.
It should not be governed by market forces and should not be beholden to either advertisers or readers. It should show neither fear nor favour and should craft news items according to an entirely different dynamic, the unspoken, unarticulated but absolutely inviolate contract between the newspaper and its readers.
The dynamics that govern a newsroom and those that govern a business are, essentially, incompatible. The recognition of this and the way the tension is negotiated, day by day, story by story, is the measure of the quality of the newspaper. As soon as market forces invade a newsroom, in whatever guise, the quality of the product is compromised. There are many ways in which market forces can creep in. An editor may seek to avoid antagonising a major advertiser and chose not to run a piece that discredits the advertiser. A columnist may think twice about criticising the habits or opinions of a large swathe of the paper’s readership. Much further along this continuum, a journalist may pay for information or worse, pay someone to secure information on behalf of the newspaper.
Our father believed that journalists should be measured not just by their skill as wordsmiths but by their ability to hunt down a story, to cultivate contacts and to follow, doggedly, obscure leads and threads. Some of these skills mimic those of a private investigator but there is one essential difference. No journalist worth his salt, no newsroom that prides itself on its integrity, pays for information. As soon as a newsroom starts to pay for information, it commodifies the news in a way that is unacceptable in the newsroom. Chequebook journalism is both immoral and lazy.
It attempts to short-circuit the tedium of proper journalism, the endless routine of fact-checking that underpins a story. News stories often emerge over a period of days in a slow dribble of information. Stories often have to be told partially or withheld from publication until they can be verified. Some of the best scoops never see the light of day because they simply cannot be verified. This is the reality of quality journalism. Small wonder then, that when the pressure is on, these principles can slip, slide or disappear altogether.
News production is both a commercial operation and a creative process. It is neither wholly one nor the other. But the newsroom should never subscribe to or become beholden to market imperatives. Where this occurs, these imperatives distort the values and dynamic of the newsroom and the result is the multiple acts of folly being unearthed in recent weeks in the Murdoch stable of newspapers in the UK. News production is also an inherently unstable process. A newspaper is only as good as its previous edition. Every newspaper makes mistakes, errors of judgement, bad calls. This goes with the territory. The transgressions by Murdoch’s bestselling tabloid, the News of the World, were extreme. They were the product of a newsroom where profit motives, the compulsion to titillate readers, to hold them in thrall to the next scoop, overran all others. There are probably other transgressions, committed elsewhere and by others, which may or may not come to light.
The more cynical media observers would add one more point. Where the consumer is placed on a pedestal, and public appetite (a very different beast from public interest), is allowed to dictate the process of gathering and producing news, we end up with a questionable product.
The News of the World, in James Murdoch’s words, “driven by the daily demand and choices of millions of people” was, for the most part, a disgrace to serious journalism. It was, not by coincidence, also the largest selling Sunday paper in the UK. Consumer demand cannot always be allowed to determine the product. Market forces cannot prevail in a newsroom.
Isabelle de Caires
Brendan de Caires