‘Serious journalists’ are the most tabloidesque of all

The Newsnight/paedophile fiasco has utterly exploded the idea that modern British journalism can be divided into Good and Bad camps.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Over the past year of the Leveson showtrial of the tabloids, a distinction has been made between journalism that is ‘in the public interest’ and journalism which merely titillates the public. Serious broadsheet journalists have described themselves as a ‘different breed’ to the kind of sensationalist hacks who worked for the News of the World. Where those red-top rabble-rousers inhabited an ‘amoral universe’, in the words of one leading anti-tabloid campaigner, and were interested only in prying into people’s private lives and splashing fact-lite horror stories across their front pages, the better bred broadsheet folk pursue ‘matters of genuine public interest’. The whole Leveson process is in effect about copperfastening this distinction, making life harder for amoral hacks who tantalise the public with schlock, and easier for serious journalists who educate the public about interesting things.

The Newsnight/paedophile fiasco has exposed this phoney distinction for the nonsense that it is. It has exploded the idea, cleaved to by pretty much the entire chattering class, that British journalism can be neatly divided into Good and Bad camps, and that where the former deserves official approval, the latter deserves official reprimand. Indeed, the Newsnight controversy – where that BBC news shows ignited a feeding frenzy on the internet after it falsely claimed that a high-ranking, Thatcher-era Tory had been part of a paedophile ring in North Wales in the 1980s – reveals that so-called serious journalism has far more in common with tabloid journalism than it would like to admit. What unites both of these forms of journalism – a powerful and permanent sense of moral outrage; a determination to expose ‘evil’ networks; a belief in witches that runs ahead of any evidence for their existence – is far more important than what divides them.

Since the Newsnight programme unleashed a Twitterstorm in which Lord McAlpine, the treasurer of Thatcher’s Conservative Party, was falsely named as a paedophile, there has been a great deal of focus on the BBC and its editorial shortcomings. The director general has now resigned and other corporation bigwigs are ‘stepping aside’. Yet while the BBC’s failures are certainly worth interrogating, what is far more interesting is the involvement of the so-called Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) in this debacle. It was the BIJ’s lead reporter, Angus Stickler, who made the Newsnight report in question, and it was its director, Iain Overton, who kicked off the frenzied online naming and shaming of Lord McAlpine after he tweeted on 2 November, shortly before Stickler’s report went out, ‘If all goes well, we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile’. What is striking about the BIJ’s involvement in this most tabloidesque of journalistic witch-hunts is that this organisation is intimately bound up with the influential layer of serious journalists who for the past three years have self-consciously juxtaposed themselves to the lowly tabloids, and who have depicted their journalism as being morally superior, as being ‘in the public interest’.

The BIJ is based at City University’s Journalism School in London, a key meeting ground of the sort of respectable journalists who have been cheerleading Leveson’s showtrial of journalism that is ‘not in the public interest’. Indeed, one of the bureau’s best-known trustees, George Brock, is also head of journalism at City. The journalists who were involved either in the initial discussions that led to the creation of the bureau or who have written fawningly about it look like a roll-call of Leveson supporters: Nick Davies, David Leigh, Roy Greenslade. One of the BIJ’s editorial advisers – Isabel Hilton – is also a campaigner for Hacked Off, the anti-tabloid collection of celebs, academics and broadsheet journalists who want statutory regulation, since our ‘national newspapers are incapable of regulating their own affairs’. (By ‘national newspapers’, they mean ‘tabloid newspapers’.) It remains to be seen whether Ms Hilton feels as ‘hacked off’ about her bureau’s invasion of an innocent man’s private life as she was by the News of the World’s invasion of celebrities’ phones and bins.

In its submission to the Leveson Inquiry, the BIJ made a distinction between the serious journalism that it practices – what it referred to as ‘public interest stories’ – and other media outlets that pursue ‘populist subjects’. It even suggested that the big newspapers should be made to pay a levy that would be used to fund investigative journalism – that is, fund the BIJ’s existence – since we need journalism that is of ‘public interest and value’ and ‘not simply responsive to the market for journalism and news’. Likewise, BIJ trustee George Brock told Leveson about the need for ‘public interest journalism’. He challenged the idea that we should have a ‘consumer-led approach’ to the question of what is in the public interest, where it is believed that ‘whatever the public is interested in is in the public interest’. In short, the ‘public interest’ is not something that is defined by the public or whatever its fickle brains happen to be interested in at a given time. As Brock said, ‘Not everything calling itself journalism is entitled to a “public interest” defence or protection’.

Here, in these BIJ-related submissions to Leveson, we can glimpse the powerful sense of moral superiority that drives those who claim to be making journalism that is ‘in the public interest’. They clearly see themselves as superior, not only to the tabloids, but to the public itself (or what they sometimes refer to as ‘consumers’ or ‘the market’). What the public is interested in should not be confused with what it is in their interests to know, which is apparently something that can only be worked out by the likes of the BIJ, the BBC and broadsheet newspapers. Yet the Newsnight mess suggests that ‘public interest journalism’ (that is, serious journalism) is these days not that different to ‘consumer-led journalism’ (that is, tabloid journalism). So where the BIJ told Leveson that it makes reports that are as ‘close to incontrovertible as possible’, here it has issued a report which is full of holes, and which, far from being in the public interest, has done harm to public discussion and public trust in both politicians and journalists.

This is not a one-off cock-up, either. Rather, much of the contemporary journalism that is defined as being ‘in the public interest’ actually possesses many profoundly tabloidesque qualities. Indeed, Angus Stickler, who spearheaded the Newsnight report, has previously made claims about child abusers that later turned out to be at least questionable. For example, pre-BIJ, when he was a reporter for the BBC, he reported about the abuse of so-called ‘devil children’ in African Christian churches in London, which led to the arrest of a pastor called Dr Dieudonne Tukala. But following a 10-month investigation by the Metropolitan Police, Dr Tukala was released without charge due to lack of evidence (1). In 2005, someone at the Met leaked a report to Stickler, then at Radio 4’s Today programme, which said that young African boys were being trafficked to the UK and murdered in ‘human sacrifices’. Stickler said he had heard things that were ‘absolutely chilling’ and said ‘the most gruesome details come from the African communities’. Newspapers leapt upon the story, with the London Evening Standard running with the headline: ‘Children sacrificed in London churches.’ However, the claims weren’t true. The Met later said that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever’ of human sacrifices taking place in Britain. Its internal report was purely ‘anecdotal’, it said, and should never have been leaked, far less splashed with such seriousness on the Radio 4 airwaves (2).

More broadly, so-called serious journalism frequently carries out the same sort of fact-lite exposure and demonisation of ‘evil’ people that the modern tabloids also go in for. From their depiction of the Serbs as the ‘New Nazis’ during the Bosnia War to their hysterical pursuit of ‘paedophile rings’ in the 1980s and 90s, from their obsession with Big Oil and its control of public life to their bonkers claims about climate change precipitating the end of the world, journalists who act ‘in the public interest’ can be just as destructively moralistic and estranged from objectivity as any tabloid. Indeed, even their pursuit over the past two years of phone-hacking tabloid journalists and the apparently all-powerful Murdoch Empire that unleashed them is, ironically, motoroed by the same tabloid-style urge to uncover wickedness and stamp it into the ground. The Guardian’s George Monbiot unwittingly summed up the problem with modern serious journalism in his ‘abject apology’ for having thrown himself into the feeding frenzy about ‘political paedophiles’, during which he smeared Lord McAlpine. Monbiot said, ‘I allowed myself to be carried away by a sense of moral outrage’; that is what many ‘public interest journalists’ do these days, like some of their tabloid counterparts.

The Newsnight incident shines a light on the many points of connection between modern tabloid and serious journalism. Both invent imaginary constituencies to justify their particular brand of journalism – the tabloid refers to the desires of ‘Our Readers’, while the broadsheet refers to the ‘public interest’. Both love to ‘name and shame’, particularly alleged paedophiles. Both sometimes allow their belief in networks of evil – whether it’s paedos, Murdoch’s army of clones, or politics-controlling oilmen – to run ahead of evidence for the existence of such things. And both can do harm, whether by giving rise to public protests outside the homes of suspected child abusers, as the News of the World did, or, even worse, creating a scarily medieval climate of finger-pointing and fear over well-connected alleged child-snatchers, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism did. Why should be we trust one set of morally crusading journalists to sit in judgement on another, and potentially control what they can say and do, as has been happening over the past year and more? Far better to grant them all the freedom to publish and let the public – yes, them – decide what is interesting and what is just hysterical, harebrained bullshit.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) See The Devil’s Children, Jean La Fontaine (ed.), Ashgate Publishing, 2009

(2) Private Eye, No1166, 1-14 September 2006

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Topics Politics


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