The days are numbered for ‘gatekeeper’ journalism

Journalism is the rightful guardian of disclosure of news and information, and what should be disclosed and what shouldn’t, and has a duty and a right to maintain that position.

That’s my interpretation of a very interesting discussion point in John Humphreys’ opening address at the Communication Directors Forum conference on Wednesday evening. The conference is taking place on the P&O Oriana cruise liner from 8-11 June.

Humphreys anchors the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 and has a reputation as a controversial figure, the terror interviewer of politicians in particular.

His comments towards the end of an hour-long address were in response to a question from someone in the audience, who asked Humphreys for his opinion regarding an apparent attempt at suicide last year by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s daughter. The questioner wondered why, if it were true, that apparent event never made the news, let alone news headlines as it surely would have done if made public.

Humphreys said that, if the story were true, it would have been "utterly disgraceful" for any media to publish it as it is completely irrelevant to Tony Blair’s role as Prime Minister on the basis that it related to something highly personal to the Prime Minister and his family. He said there are lines you don’t cross as a journalist, who know lots of things about politicians that don’t get published. But if those things have an impact on their public life, he said, then they should be reported.

I agree, actually, with the view on relevance – just because you know something about somebody doesn’t mean you should just make it public. That applies in any situation, not only about politicians.

Yet whether this particular story is true or not – and the way Humphrey’s reacted to the question makes me think that it is – Humphreys’ unequivocal view is saying that a journalist can make a decision on withholding news or information based on a subjective judgement about that news or information and, in a sense, act as a censor.

To me, this highlights a yawning gap between how some people see the continuing traditional role of the journalist – as the guardian or gatekeeper of what the public should be told – and what is actually happening today. If anyone with a blog can be regarded as a journalist, and many people say precisely that especially in the USA, how long will it be before someone with a blog – and that someone could equally be a ‘real’ journalist – does publish information that will make big news headlines and who doesn’t subscribe to any view about codes of practice, journalistic ethics or any other commonly-held views on professional behaviour.

I think it’s just a matter of time before a truly mega news event makes massive headlines, either in one country or globally, because of a disclosure by a blogger. And that mega news item, by the way, will be just that, not about trivia such as journalists in the US getting the can. That blogger will just go ahead and publish the news simply because it is news. He or she won’t think twice about codes of practice, etc. Indeed, that blogger won’t even regard him or herself as a journalist, even if others might.

When that happens, the disappearing world of traditional news reporting and consumption as portrayed by EPIC gets one step closer.

[Side note: I’m on the Oriana which sailed from Southampton on Wednesday evening. There is internet access, via satellite, at an uncomfortable access price of £15 per hour. Access is via a dedicated ‘internet cafe’ on board – you don’t just turn on your laptop and get a wireless connection. So I hope to blog some more about the conference between now and the weekend as opportunity allows, or until I use up my £15 access credit. But let’s put price in perspective. At least there’s high-speed internet which works out at 25 pence per minute. Imagine if it were only dial-up where the cost of making a phone call from the ship is an eye-watering £4.25 per minute.]

9 thoughts on “The days are numbered for ‘gatekeeper’ journalism

  1. Wow. You have really done something here. Sure, there’s been talk in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Sure, there’s been a conspiracy of silence among MSM, whether under pressure from the cabinet office or not. I don’t know.
    But it seems to me there is a line and I think you just crossed it by echoing the rumour. Your blog is popular. For every person who reads it, I suspect they will pass the story on to three, four or maybe more people. Who knows what will happen then?
    We’ll all start rooting out pix of Blair at the time and ask ourselves whether his own appearance (I seem to remember he was pretty haggard at one point) and, more pertinently, his decisions were likely to have been affected.
    As both a journalist and a blogger, I think I feel uncomfortable with seeing this made public (again). I don’t think I’d have done it. But then, you were reporting a public event and repeating a (slightly) public rumour. This is right at the juncture of tebbo the journalist and tebbo the blogger. It’s making me think hard.
    The press is supposed to be self-regulating. It’s all that saves it from being quangoed. I wouyld guess that coverage of this alleged incident would provide a perfect excuse (in the government’s collective view) to introduce some kind of formal controls. Maybe this is why the MSM held back. God, some of the UK press is Pravda-enough already, let’s not make it official.
    Gosh. Rather you than me matey. It will be interesting to track the conversation from this post.

  2. Jumping in here; I felt rather uncomfortable with the dialogue around the alleged incident and response but appreciate the way the subject of accountability and blogging has been approached and recognize that it has to be discussed at some time and with candor.
    On levels of relationships of any kind family, business, or community there are gatekeepers (or discretion), and blogging and the blogging community only represent relationships on a far more efficient level. Not just by degrees is the blogging arena different than traditional journalism but in kind as it represents more of the abilities to communicate, more speed, more technical manipulation, and above all more audience, and here is the difference, it is not simply the raw power of the tools but of the efficiency to distribute along the network of relationships. And blogging and the internet in general is very efficient with networks.
    Think of it; comunication between people has evolved only as fast as the tools to spread the information could be developed. There has always been an audience and there has always been tough stories, it is only a matter of time before someone shoots the messenger again because of some falsely identified bad guy.
    Blogging is not the bad guy here it just represents more power in this arena than we have ever seen and discretion is still the choice we all have in sharing information in this arena.

  3. Interesting piece. You conclude your post by saying “That blogger will just go ahead and publish the news simply because it is news. He or she won’t think twice about codes of practice,” and yet that is exactly what you have just done by repeating a rumour with apparently scant thought for whether or not it is true. One problem with any published media is that readers may skip past the caveat claiming the story is only a “rumour” or “reported” (as often used in MSM) and go straight for the nub of the story as if it were fact.
    In light of that, I would be very interested in hearing how much agonising went into whether or not to recount this rumour on your post.
    Like you, I have no idea whether it is true or not and for that reason, would not dream of publicising a possibly eroneous and, for Blair’s family, hugely distressing private matter (whether true or not) in such a way.
    The main hub of the piece talks of journalists acting as censors but in the MSM, there are already enough journalists to ensure that that can very rarely, if ever, be true. If you or your publication decides not to print a story, there is no guarantee the next competitor will do the same and be seen by the public as “scooping” you.
    If there are, therefore, cases were journalists agree collectively not to publish a story – and this applies as much to sport reporting as political – there is usually a very, very good reason.

  4. I can see your point, it is central to the idea of a free press, self censorship is still censorship. EXCEPT that I personally have very strong views about privacy, even where it relates to the (in my opinion!) most publicity seeking personalities such as the late Diana Princess of Wales or the Beckhams. I do believe that people have separate personal and private lives and that reporters, employed or not, must respect this. If it gets out of hand then we’ll get very heavy duty privacy laws which will then affect things which possibly should be in the public domain.
    A journalist of Humphries’ experience is simply balancing all of these things into his decisions what to report. In his case one can hardly say it’s because he loves authority or fears it! It would be interesting to speculate if he might break his rules for some juicy titbit about Butler.
    One significant point which came up with the Internet commerce explosion and which Bloggers seem completely oblivious of is: the law. The point about the Internet is not that it is not subject to national jurisdiction, but that it is subject to ALL national jurisdictions. What is happening and will continue to happen is that Bloggers will get sued, the courts will take away a lot of their money, they probably have no professional indemnity insurance, and then the world will go on about its business realising that Blogging is subject to the same rules as a mainstream journalist.
    In this specific case I would say that Blair probably has no right to privacy, he is a public figure who attempts to use the press, however at no point have his children, (I think only one is in his majority) ever done so. It is not Blair who should be afforded privacy, it is his kids. So if there’s some story, true or not, would be a huge invasion of the privacy of a non public figure who is also a minor. That’s a laser cut case.
    I think you’re right, we can expect some Blogger to report some mega news story, it will be amazing, then we’ll get another and it will be false reporting, the Blogger won’t follow the rules which journalists do of checking facts or of checking law as they will not have the training or experience. Then we’ll find that we get REAL censorship and laws which allow governments to put people in jail for saying the wrong thing. Of course in many countries they already have those.
    I’m afraid I don’t see EPIC, I see 1984.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments thus far.
    I’d like to jump straight to a point of yours, Scouse, where you asked how much agonizing I went into before deciding to ‘recount this rumour.’ Well, yes, I did think hard: should I mention the apparent matter or not? The balance fell on the side of yes, primarily as it was at the heart of the point I’ve made in this post about journalism and the changes we’re already seeing with the advent of blogs. It’s not about the rumour, which you can clearly see. Plus, I did take care to include words and phrases like ‘apparent’ and ‘if it were true’ (which John Humphreys did as well in his remarks last night).
    David1, you talk about a conspiracy of silence among MSM. I find it more disturbing that this matter has been a ‘secret’ rumour for so long. If many journalists have known about this for some time, I’m actually surprised that any story hasn’t emerged. I’m not part of MSM and the first I heard of it was last night.
    Again, my post isn’t about this rumour. I’m certainly not spreading a story, nor intending to do so. If my post had been about nothing but the rumour, with my own speculations and opinions throughout, then we’re talking and lines definitely would have been crossed. But it’s not.
    That’s not the point of what I posted or why.
    On your point about others talking and commenting about my post, I hope many do discuss the point of my post – which is not to do with any apparent event.
    Graham, I think your final comment in particular is highly pertinent, ie, the means of instant opinion and communication that blogging represents gives more people the ability to communicate that opinion instantly to a global audience. With that, of courses, comes risk and responsibility, topics which we could debate and discuss until the cows come home. You’re right about the messenger, but as I’ve been in the organizational communication business for some time I am used to messengers being at the receiving end of shooting.
    David2 (and continuing some thoughts on Graham’s comments), this whole issue of bloggers who just publish things without fact-checking (and we know that every journalist always checks facts at all times, right?) is part of the landscape now. That’s certainly not taking any view on whether it’s right or wrong. The consequences of posting somethign to a blog that contains real and damaging inaccuracies will, I’m sure, land a blogger in some kind of legal soup sooner or later.
    Which leads to an interesting point. David2, you mention privacy laws and bloggers getting sued, etc. I’m not a lawyer, but I imagine there would be some difficulty in determining under which jurisdiction you might sue a blogger (as opposed to prosecute – important distinction). If the bloggers’ in country A, his blog is hosted on a server in country B which caches that information on hardware in country C, and the person or entity who sees the material on his computer screen is in country D, which country’s law is allegedly being infringed and where do you file your lawsuit? This looks a similar dilemma to that of copyright law relating to blogs.
    As for your 1984 view, you may well be right. I think it’s more aligned with the picture painted by EPIC – and which in my post about EPIC last week I likened in some way to 1984.
    Actually, if you watch the EPIC movie, notice that the example Googlezon ID card shown has the name ‘Winston Smith’ 😉

  6. Neville,
    I take your point about not all journalists checking facts, something the BBC and the Today programme know to their cost, however, in general, the MSM is more prone to do this, it is part of their training and they more often than not have the in house expertise to help with legal matters. Presumably the more contentious the style of the publication the larger the in house legal team, although on that basis I can only assume that Private Eye has an in house legal team numbering in the hundreds, all of whom are studiously ignored by the writers.
    On the jurisdictional issue, there is no confusion, I’m led to believe that you chase people for damage or infringement where you can show the damage occurred or where you can get at them. The point is that courts will issue judgements in absentia and if you are a public figure or company to whom such things matter (and have sufficient funds) you can also go to a foreign court to pursue it. Prosecution of unlawful acts is much easier.
    I had not seen the nametag on the Googlzon employee; I have yet to see the end of the EPIC swf, it dies on my machine! Which is somewhat galling, considering the spec and the software. Presumably I need a zSeries server, or maybe a Mac, although they’ll be running Wintel, sorry Intel chips soon. Micrintooglezon anyone?

  7. David: you can get EPIC without BitTorrent – can’t remember where, but a search will turf it up. Should run fine.
    Neville: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
    Just because a rumour isn’t the point of a posting doesn’t really excuse its repetition. And all the ‘apparents’ and ‘if it were trues’ in the world won’t save you if someone decided to give you a hard time.
    I’m not trying to give you a hard time. You can point back to earlier breakings of the story to protect yourself. And, I guess, to the person who raised the issue in the closed conference.
    Just adding a little of my perspective.

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