News of the World and the Ethics of Journalism

The demise of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, though sensational, is of little significance either economically or journalistically. Now and again a journalist is found to be in breach of her profession’s code of ethics, or in more scandalous instances of common decency, and the requisite heads come off. The ordinary business of journalism — which ought itself to be the scandal, but isn’t — goes unremarked.

I won’t bother myself here to take a scientific approach of the matter, an approach which it happens is unnecessary. I know from personal experience of journalists how journalism works. It begins with an education that eschews books and ideas and history and dialectics and all but the most superficial encounters with the mechanics of prose. From here it proceeds hastily to “assignments.” Soon enough, one is writing copy on subjects which only some hours ago were wholly unfamiliar. The newspaper article is a continuation of the undergraduate essay, composed in the same manner, under the same constraints of time, and with hardly more resources. This applies whether one is a principled and ambitious journalist or (as is more common) a somewhat lazy and pedestrian one.

Consider the shabby output of Murdoch’s empire. Fox News will doubtless be his chief legacy, and what an affront to journalism of any standard it is. But even the respectable papers are mostly bad, a point which becomes painfully evident on those occasions when reporters write about things with which one is quite familiar. Again, this is often so even with principled and intelligent journalists. The badness is built-in, impossible entirely to avoid. News is a product, the journalism bit mass-produced under abysmal factory conditions so that there is something to put between the chief substance, the advertisements. If shouting matches draw the eyeballs to the ads, as they indeed do, then there is no point to discussion and debate. That, in a few words, explains Fox News. But it explains every other market niche also, from the badly written tabloids to the slightly-less-bad writing one encounters in the Globe and Mail.

There is nothing new about the badness of journalism. If one, for instance, adverts to tabloids and their base preoccupation with the sensational “scoop,” Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel of the same title has already been there and done that. A generation before, G.K. Chesterton could recall of his journalist colleagues “all the truth they talk in hell,/And all the lies they write.” The theme was ancient even then, Fleet Street having been for generations a trade metonym. (Waugh’s novel conceived a fictional Fleet Street office modelled upon the The Daily Telegraph, whose former office today houses Goldman Sachs: the rot thereby lives on.)  What is new today is the general absence within the profession of people who are even potentially capable of writing against a higher standard, the trade having been fully standardized and institutionalized.

Perhaps the best illustration of what I have in mind is both the work and views of Christie Blatchford. She has been employed at the Toronto Sun, the Globe and Mail, and in recent days the National Post. Concerning the first, her writing, it is at best ordinary and passable. It meets the prevailing  journalistic standard, which I gather is at the level of a typical grade eight student. Her sentences receive the treatment of a paragraph, each one individually set as if there were no awareness of the architecture of an argument. (Because all newspaper articles are written this way, one may infer the influence of an editor.) Bits and bites of prose, haphazardly strung together. Among her writing one will discern many clichés, contradictions, and half-digested claims. Here I underscore the point that this is representative of journalism today. Her view, perhaps less representative, appears to be that journalism is a matter of credentials and codes of conduct, and authority. The prerequisites of respectable journalism, in other words, are editors and ethical codes and diplomas and mastheads. Without these, one is a mere blogger, or worse.

It may be that an editor and an employer and a code of conduct together stiffen one’s resolve to put forth his best. But as the entire profession sinks, in both a technical and economic manner, this becomes more and more implausible. For years the hacking of phones was simply a way to please one’s boss, and you shouldn’t be under any illusion that News of the World was alone in this practice. The industry more than tolerated it until someone (guess who) no longer went along: the advertisers. Why don’t the self-regarding people like Christie Blatchford ever talk about them? Could it be for the most probable and well-known reason? Journalists are people who write filler on the back of advertisements. As long as the advertisers are happy, so are the editors, and the owners, and the investors — and of course the ethics committees.

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