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Journalism and Democracy post Leveson

News is what someone somewhere wants suppressed

The rest is just advertising!

Lord Northcliffe

The above was one of the first things I was taught about when I started my BA (Hons) degree in Journalism and Digital Media, we were told never to forget it.

It is well known that journalism is absolutely vital to any democracy, a free press is a basic necessity and beyond important.

Another statement that is very important for the press to stick to is reporting ‘In the public interest’ not what is merely of interest to the public. The genuine public interest is the foundation of a democracy and needs to be understood by both politicians and press.

The problem in recent years, since the News of the World phone hacking scandal, which resulted ultimately in the Leveson inquiry and report, is that the so-called elite in Westminster have decided that they know what is in the public interest, better than the public themselves and, under the Cameron administration, decided they would take on the press and their perceived view of journalism.

Unfortunately, as a working journalist myself, I can categorically state that the News of the World and its replacement The Sun on Sunday and daily sister paper The Sun, along with a few others, did not and do not represent journalism in its purist form. Something else I was taught about on my honours degree was what we term as Churnalism, in other words churning out a story for the sake of filling column inches, to satisfy an editor and to hell with whether it is actually true, researched or genuinely ‘In the public interest’ or just about selling papers!

When Lord Justice Leveson held his inquiry, which frankly was nothing more than a public affairs trial, he got a lot of celebrities to effectively endorse what he was doing, which they had no genuine understanding of. Yes they understood about conglomerates like News International and Trinity Mirror etc, but I bet if you spoke to them of the likes of The Frontline Club, The Ferret, The Canary, Byline Times and The Good Law Project, they will probably look back at you with a very weird look, wondering if you were being genuine, because due to the nature of investigative journalism (which is the best version of fact based journalism) it is not very recognised, certainly you have to be very much in the know, as it were, to know the practitioners of such journalism.

Unfortunately, investigative journalism is a choice for news and media outlets, an investigation takes a long time and doesn’t sell many newspapers, because the audience of the news particularly like to know, who is screwing who, that shouldn’t be, how much a footballer is getting paid each week or something of that ilk (this is very important for you to remember while reading this).

The results of investigative journalism are far reaching and sometimes well known, let’s face it, two journalists called Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down US President Nixon with their Watergate investigation, it also took journalists to investigate such things as the MPs expenses scandal, Olympic Blood Doping, Catholic priests child molesting scandal and the US Government lies about the Vietnam War, among various others lesser known cases.

Unfortunately, certain outlets like those mentioned earlier, seem to have forgotten what journalism is meant to be about, going for more sensationalism to sell newspapers, occasionally with devious, underhanded methods that have absolutely no place in the industry.

However, there are decent, hardworking journalists out there who do genuinely care. In recent years we have seen scandals such as the Ryan Giggs and Imogen Thomas affair and other stories of that ilk, something which plainly is not news, men and women have affairs every day in every country in the world, but they’re not deemed newsworthy because it’s just an average man and woman off the street, not somebody famous like a politician, football player or a Holywood film star.

Mick Hume pointed out in his excellent book There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press, that most people appear to belong to the ‘I believe in a free press, BUT…’ club, which means no, they don’t believe in a free press.

Mr Hume also goes on to point out that, as journalists, we are absolutely harangued by all manor of different laws, like gagging orders etc, when essentially, we should not be subject to any more laws than anybody else. Newsmakers do watch their audience, they know what is in the public interest and yet we can’t always deliver it, because of the rules we are told we have to abide by, thanks to the Leveson report and, subsequently, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, aka the Snooper’s Charter, instituted in Theresa May’s government.

More recently, under the catastrophe to democracy that is Boris Johnson, a dictatorship has moved even more worryingly closer, with the desire to stop funding the BBC through the licence fee, selling Channel 4, changing the ministerial code and outlawing the right to protest, such as in Russia, North Korea and China.

Personally, during an investigation into how many people had to be rehomed due to domestic abuse in my local area of Kingston Upon Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire, during the various lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic, I made Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, from which I didn’t receive a single reply, other than to acknowledge receipt of the request.

The big clue is in the title, FREEDOM of INFORMATION. Freedom means just that, being able to find out valuable facts should not be ignored, when living in a free country, with a working democracy, you should be able to access any fact in the public interest, however, on this for whatever reason, I have received not one single figure. Yes I may still receive replies some time in the future, but considering the fact that these requests were made last year, I very much doubt it.

Add to that, the fact that the government will know that I made those requests, makes me a marked man in their eyes, just because I asked a question that they don’t want to answer. They will likely put it down to my desire to stir up trouble when, in reality I just want to do my job as a journalist and inform the public of something which is very much in the public interest, it’s supposed to be information that any of us can get hold of.

Mick Hume pointed out in his book, that just before its release, Lord Justice Leveson actually gagged government minister Michael Gove, after he pointed out the ‘Chilling’ effect it was having on the press, I will leave it to you to decide why he might have done that.

Before I look like I’m going on far too long, or like a very bitter journalist who is just trying to get people to stop bashing the press because I happen to work in it, I will draw this excerpt to a conclusion now, although I reserve the right to make myself known to you again, to point out just how important genuine journalism is to a democracy and how close Boris Johnson came to becoming a dictator during his time in office.