Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Naughty Words

Despite intermittent backtracking, Labour now seem to be talking seriously about the idea of a register for members of the press from which 'bad journalists' could be struck off. That they could ever have thought this is a good idea is illustrative of how desperately they still need media advice (which doesn't need to be from Murdoch types – Coulson didn't exactly do a brilliant job for the Tories anyway). It is rarely a good idea to make enemies of large numbers of journalists, as the Murdochs are now finding out. If one finds just one supporter in the profession, well, Independent editor Chris Blackhurst hasn't been looking like the shrewdest judge of journalistic quality lately. And it is also unwise for Labour to lurch back so quickly toward the authoritarianism Ed Miliband recently assured us they were leaving behind them. But all this aside, how do they suppose such a register could ever hope to function in the real world?

The closest thing we currently have to a register of journalists is the NUJ. Membership is voluntary, of course, but one has to qualify for it (and be recommended), which means that it provides at least some guarantee of quality when it comes to writing skill. But alongside well known broadsheet columnists, the NUJ represents the kind of tabloid hacks most likely to attract public ire. And despite being the chair of a media watchdog organisation (as well as an NUJ member myself) I fully support this. Breaches of newspaper etiquette, plagiarism and so forth should be dealt with by editors. Libel should be dealt with by the law. Regulatory bodies can work to ensure fair play. But journalists are workers like any others, and must have a union they can rely on to ensure they're fairly treated even if what they're saying is unpleasant.

Where would this leave a register? Several difficult questions arise. How do we define who is and is not a journalist? If we use NUJ membership as a barometer, we'll find there are quite a few freelancers and occasional scribblers who wouldn't be included. Then there's the issue of blogging. This is already an issue for the many journalists who occasionally need to supplement their income with state benefits. They're required to declare how many hours they work. But when is writing work, and when is it just self expression? We can't use pay as a marker. Some blogs pay even if they don't employ professionals; many small print publications and respected online news outlets don't. As journalists need to keep their profiles high in order to get work, writing for free can sometimes be essential. And anybody who has a public profile also needs to be aware that any time they express themselves it can impact their careers, even inadvertently. So is a journalist ever completely off work?

Given the difficulty these things present in determining who should be on a register in the first place, just what would striking someone off it involve? We might ban them from writing in a certain list of officially recognised publications – newspapers and magazines over a certain circulation, for instance – but of course that would need to be limited to those based in the UK (restricting foreign publications would result in real disaster). But this would only work if they were honest about their authorship or editors were astute enough to recognise their style (and honest in reporting them). It's easy enough to switch to a pseudonym and even a hint of whom that name belongs to can quickly summon back old readers. It would rely, in other words, on co-operation – not an easy thing to gain in the circumstances.

Let's suppose, for the meantime, that it did work. What, then, would we do about blogging? Attempts to regulate the internet are already in a mess, with politicians repeatedly demonstrating their cluelessness about the technical and sociological issues involved. And if it could be done, would it be ethical to stop de-registered journalists from putting down their thoughts like anyone else? When is a blog personal and when is it political? That's a philosophical minefield beyond Messrs Miliband and Lewis' pay grade.

Back in the old days, before blogging was an option, unofficial journalism was conducted through letters, journals and newsletters. Some freesheets met with the disapproval of the authorities but were still pretty easy to get hold of, just as illicit drugs are easy to get hold of now. Now, of course, we also text. We borrow each other's phones. It's very hard to be sure who's saying what, or where. And in the absence of such options, as Egypt's revolutionaries demonstrated, we can go back to spraying messages on walls.

I have a number of friends who are trained martial artists. Some of them are licensed as such. This gives them certain extra responsibilities should they find themselves caught in altercations. Their particular skills being recognised, they are expected to show a greater ability to restrain an opponent; they are granted less leeway for causing harm in self defence. This is all very well when it comes to fighting because most of us do our best to avoid getting into fights most of the time, and many will spend their whole lives without a serious encounter. But can we treat people who are skilled with words in the same way?

Police officers, miners, accountants and librarians are, by and large, valued for what they do (or are perceived to do). Journalists are valued for who they are. We might not always like them, but silencing somebody is a serious business with implications that go far beyond the professional sphere. Before Ed Miliband says that 'bad' people should be forbidden from engaging in journalism, he should ask himself how he would give up engaging in politics.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Biggest Aspidistra in the World

Truth will out. At least it will if you're a habitual liar; lies built upon lies are almost impossible to keep balanced forever. Like many habitual liars, Johann Hari spent months crafting new inventions in an attempt to escape the consequences of those he'd made before. Now he says he's truly sorry. But should we believe him?

In a situation like this, many people consider it churlish to withhold forgiveness in response to a proffered apology. There is a suggestion that those who refuse to engage must be revelling in some kind of malicious glee. It is of course possible that this is true of some, but I would counter that there can be an equal degree of self-interest in rushing to say that the apology is accepted, that everything is alright now. It makes us feel magnanimous, but it isn't necessarily an honest or a wise response.

The real problem with forgiveness is that it is only a response; it cannot solve the underlying problem on its own. To mean anything, it has to be a response to genuine contrition, and contrition is not possible without a full understanding of what has been done wrong. Hari now says that he regrets altering Wikipedia pages to slander people he disliked because he would have been sad if they had done that to him. Not because, you know, it's wrong, never mind that it's professionally unacceptable. This is certainly an improvement on denying that he ever made those alterations, but it falls considerably short of the level of moral understanding required of a journalist who frequently focuses on the moral responsibilities of others. If Hari cannot improve on this, it doesn't matter whether or not his fans still believe in him – he simply will not have the authority to speak as he wishes to.

So what are Hari's options? Journalism school is a good start. There's no doubt he's already a good writer, but one hopes that he might learn something about ethics – or at least how to craft a more believable story next time he falls prey to temptation. The usual approach to moral gaffes like this is to disappear for a few years and then return as a reformed character, Portillo-like, complete with a book full of painful confessions emphasising one's noble sense of guilt. The journalist becomes the story, his abuses the sensation – and, of course, he still profits, though if he's smart and wants long term success he'll make a hefty donation to charity. Hari is a good candidate for this, because he's young and because he can produce elegant prose. But that opens up another question – why does he want to return to journalism at all?

I cannot be the only person to have observed that Hari's real success has been as a writer of fiction. The problem was that he was passing it off as fact. If he ceased to pepper it with pieces of other people's work (something editors will be very wary of in future) and if he constrained his cruel characters to speaking within the confines of a novel, he might give us something truly compelling. Hari's tragedy (such as it is) centres no on his fall from grace but on his failure, from the outset, to speak with his own voice. By hiding behind pilfered material he has belittled his own talent. His challenge, now, must be to show us what he is capable of.

The return of an Orwell prize already destined to be taken from him is a poor gesture on Hari's part. Journalism is about more than good writing – it is about social awareness, honesty, and a certain fastidiousness, at none of which Hari excels. His pursuit of it at this stage suggests a childish desire to be a somebody rather than the intelligent realisation of his talents. If he really wants to be taken seriously again, he needs to take a different path.