Press standards – what’s new?

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.

James Stewart

*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’.

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About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism.
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One Response to Press standards – what’s new?

  1. rob says:

    There’s nothing like the long view, and apologies for making it longer still, but only yesterday I tripped over this piece from the Atlantic Monthly in 1907, in which Tory-minded literary journalist Charles Whibley rants for 3,600 words against Yellow Journalism (for which, read today’s tabloid journalism). He’s a Briton complaining about American newspapers, but fears the cancer of sensationalism is spreading to Europe.

    The papers in question, he writes, are “ill-printed, over-illustrated sheets, whose end and aim are to inflame a jaded appetite. They seem to address the half-blind eye and the wholly sluggish mind of the imbecile.”

    We hear the same arguments today.

    Whibley longs instead for “the perfect newspaper, [which] would present to its readers a succinct history of each day as it passed. It would weigh with a scrupulous hand the relative importance of events. It would give to each department of human activity no more than its just space. It would reduce scandal within the narrow limits which ought to confine it.”

    And just in case the agenda didn’t set itself, or the copy taste itself, he goes on: “…murder, burglary, and suicide would be deposed from the heights upon which idle curiosity has placed them … the foolish actors and actresses, who now believe themselves the masters of the world, would slink away [onto] a back page.

    “The perfect newspaper, in brief, would resemble a Palace of Truth.”

    It sounds like an awfully stuffy newspaper, accessible only to those with both education and leisure, and it would have excluded more than just the occasional imbecile.

    Not for Whibley, then, the Paul Dacre argument (as aired at Leveson) that human interest sells the papers that pay for the Palace of Truth. And naturally, for a 1907 Tory, no suggestion that the popular press might have its own Palace, or perhaps something more plebeian, perhaps a Shed of Truth, celebrating popular interests.

    In the meantime, what’s Whibley’s cure for the Yellow Press?

    “There is none, unless time brings with it a natural reaction … A law to check the exuberance of newspapers would never survive the attacks of the newspapers themselves.”

    We shall see about that, perhaps during 2012. Whibley yearns for someone to do something, and wanders off towards the Last Chance Saloon in which the press has been drinking since the dawn of time.

    “In their inception the newspapers were given freedom, that they might expose and check the corruption and dishonesty of politicians. It was thought that publicity was the best cure for intrigue. For a while the liberty of the Press seemed justified. It is justified no longer. The license which it assumed has led to far worse evils than those which it was designed to prevent. In other words, the slave has become tyrant, and where is the statesman who shall rid us of this tyranny?”

    Rob Campbell

    You can read Whibley in full at

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