It’s all a question of trust

Can we trust police officers to behave professionally and even-handedly if they get too close to people (whoever they are) who break the law? More to the point here, how can people trust journalists to tell them the truth and operate in the public interest?

If the flow of information is an essential fluid of democracy, we need decent, reliable journalism to tell us what’s really going on and to hold the powerful to account.

So what would a new system to regulate the press look like? That remains to be seen: one good placed to start would be the Code of Conduct of the National Union of Journalists – and its clear definition of ‘the public interest’. But would it be such a disaster if the newspapers had to obey the sort of rules which apply to journalists in broadcasting?

The BBC’s editorial guidelines and Ofcom’s code lay down the law for broadcasters. Sometimes those rules can be annoying; they certainly restrict the way journalists can operate. But in 25 years working for the BBC and ITV – including many years as an investigative journalist – I never felt I had been prevented by the broadcast rules from pursuing a story. In fact, the need to meet a high standard required me to do my work properly and have reliable evidence, obtained in an ethical way, before I could go to air.

At the recent conference of the Association for Journalism Education, Kevin Marsh – who recently retired as head of the BBC College of Journalism – said the most important thing that schools of journalism should be doing is to train young people in ethical reporting. He said the BBC is ‘one scandal away’ from issuing ‘ethical passports’ to journalists, without which they would not be allowed to practice.

In recent years, BBC journalism had to address the question of the public’s trust because of a series of incidents – most of them nothing to do with factual programmes – which undermined the audience’s confidence in the corporation. (See Julie Kissick’s blog last week.)


Source: British Journalism Review

Research shows that public trust in tabloid journalists is very low – which perhaps explains why the general public are not surprised to discover what reporters on the News of the World have been up to. When they are asked what they think of broadcast journalists, their response is much more positive. Is that not evidence that adherence to professional standards is in the public interest?

James Stewart

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About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism. http://staff.glam.ac.uk/users/1713-jstewart
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