As the Leveson inquiry into press standards resumes (on 9 Jan) it might be interesting to put the current debate about the behaviour of the media into a historical perspective.
Here’s a list of concerns about newspapers and journalists:
‘Complaints are made of (1) the tendentious handling of news, by omission or distortion of facts; (2) the policy of suppression … ; (3) sensationalism; (4) “stunts”; (5) personal journalism, involving improper invasions of privacy in the quest of news; (6) the reporting of “sex” matters beyond proper limits; (7) the loss of independent expression of opinion …’
If this sounds familiar, it’s interesting to note that it was written in 1935, when – among other concerns – the concentration of press ownership was a matter of public debate.
The list was compiled by F. J. Mansfield, who – until the previous year – had been a journalist on the The Times and a lecturer in journalism at the University of London.*
What was to be done? There were calls for legislation. Mansfield quotes an unnamed contributor to the New Statesman who wrote: ‘Are we to see governments intimidated, news garbled, and the tastes and intellects of millions enfeebled or corrupted, without any power of remedy? The power of the Press is so damaging that the State may be compelled to reconsider their present relationship with it.’
The Institute of Journalists was proposing a system of registration of journalists (something which the editor of the Independent suggested was a possibility last year). The National Union of Journalists, back in 1935, was opposing such moves as ‘futile and potentially mischievous’.
Mansfield concluded: ‘It would be strange if in a new world that has not yet found its bearings the Press had not its novel problems to meet … In Britain the Press is still free to carve out its own destiny. As the master of its fate it has within itself the power of high service and great achievement.’
In 2012, thanks to phone hacking and other misdemeanours, the British press faces many of the same criticisms and challenges as it did almost 80 years ago.
*The Complete Journalist by F.J. Mansfield, Pitman, London (1935) (366ff).
‘Dedicated to all my fellow craftsmen who are striving to uphold the best traditions of British journalism and to carry it to a higher peak of efficiency, independence and public service’.