Monday, February 09, 2009

A question of trust

An interesting item in The Independent opens up a hornet's nest on the issue of press accountability and, more generally, on the performance of the media.

For those who hold – as we do – that an effective and well-founded media is an essential prerequisite of a functioning democracy, the report which spawned the piece, from the Media Standards Trust, is an important contribution to an ongoing debate.

The report itself can be found here, with a summary/press release here, the essence of which is retailed by The Independent report.

This tells us that financial pressure and the introduction of fast-paced new technology could combine to increase the risk of press intrusion and inaccuracy. This is backed by a survey carried out by YouGov which finds that few people (7 percent) trust newspapers to behave responsibly and three-quarters (75 percent) believe papers frequently publish stories which they know are not true.

The Media Standards Trust uses this as a platform to argue for a "more accountable press" calling for urgent reform of the industry's existing self-regulation system, the Press Complaints Commission, describing it as "insufficiently effective" and "largely unaccountable". "Without urgent reform, self-regulation of the press will become increasingly ineffective at protecting the public or promoting good journalism," the Trust concludes.

One can entirely sympathise with the Trust's views on the adequacy of the PCC, our experience with it over the Qana affair being less than happy, leading us to conclude – as with other matters – that it is a toothless and largely useless body.

However, we cannot help but feel that the Trust's emphasis on more or better regulation is somewhat misplaced, as the PCC and the other issues it focuses on are – in our view – only the smaller part of the problem.

As we pointed out in an earlier post, the bigger problem is not so much what the newspapers publish, but what they do not. Much of the distortion in the media comes from its inability – or unwillingness – to carry out its basic function of reporting the news. And no amount of regulation is going to change that.

Further, another pressing problem is the competence of many journalists, whose knowledge of their subject and their ability to carry our basic research and fact-checking is extremely suspect. We saw a classic example of that recently, where the media got hold of completely the wrong end of the stick and, as a result, gave a completely wrong account of an important story.

However, the Trust's report concludes that, "Public trust in the press has fallen below the level necessary for it to perform its proper role in a democratic society,” then adding that: "Until the system is reformed there is little chance of trust being raised.”

The response of PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer illustrates that we have an uphill battle. Even to the relatively mild criticism offered, he reacts by saying the report is "careless and shoddy", and then pours out defensive bureaucratese, which demonstrates that he is not even past the starting gate when it comes to understanding that there is a problem.

At this point, of course, we could offer the view that the "new media" will overcome the shortcomings of the "dead tree media", except that there is no sign of this happening. The blogs and other web-based output is as much part of the problem as the old media.

Where we go from here, therefore, is anyone's guess, but it is interesting to see that a body which we didn't even know existed is taking on a debate which needs to happen and needs to be resolved.