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Journalism, Observations, Opinion

A rare display of journalism’s highest standards

If other Editors and journalists understood the law half as well as Private Eye’s Ian Hislop, some of them might not be in quite the trouble they now find themselves.

Ian Hislop’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry  should be required reading for anyone practising the once noble profession of journalism.

In fact just a bit of reading, of any description, would do wonders for much journalistic output, which seems largely restricted for many to the cutting and pasting of press releases.

Hislop is the Editor of Private Eye which recently celebrated 50 glorious years of scandal, rumour and gossip, as well as a distinguished record of exposing corruption, dishonesty and hypocrisy wherever it lurks.

I’ve been a loyal reader on my own account since 1986 when I moved to the UK from Hong Kong where I grew up. But I was aware of Private Eye for far longer than that.

My parents were journalists and so were all their friends and every journalist I ever met who seemed like a good ‘un to me had a lot of time for Private Eye.

I first fell in love with the Dear Bill letters which my father would share with me when he’d finished with the copy passed on to him from his mate John before he handed it over to next-in-line Peter.

I told you they were all journalists – as reluctant to pay for content as anyone else, if not more so.

It was Dad who told me that Brenda was the Queen and Brian was Prince Charles. He also explained, in a very ‘dad’ way, so that I had to surmise most of it, the term ‘Ugandan discussions.’

If all of this is a mystery, if Private Eye has never crossed your radar, I urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to get on to Wikipedia as a good starting point.

At the very least I recommend that you Google Arkell v Pressdram.

Oh alright, just for you, here’s a link to a good summary of that matter by UK lawyer David Green on his Jack of Kent blog.

Private Eye has made its reputation on its willingness robustly to test the law. And it should be said that not every lawyer’s letter has been dealt with as cheaply as Arkell v Pressdram.

It was a delicious irony to see the highest standards of journalistic integrity upheld and explained in simple terms to the Leveson Inquiry by the Editor of Private Eye, a publication regularly dismissed by the Great and the Good, including a good many proprietors and Editors, as nothing more than a scurrilous scandal-sheet.

If other Editors and journalists understood the law half as well as Hislop, some of them might not be in quite the trouble they now find themselves.

Hislop is the most sued man in English legal history, according to his Wikipedia biography. His background is entirely in satire and comedy. He has never worked for a newspaper.

But he understands journalism, its responsibilities and challenges, better than any of the Editors, journalists or proprietors preceding him in the stand at Leveson.

His evidence referred to journalists and Editors doing whacky things like checking facts, questioning motives and assessing the credibility of sources.

He seemed to think the arcane world of investigative journalism could be boiled down to something as old fashioned and straight-forward as “people ringing you up and telling you things.”

Weirdly, he didn’t see any ambiguity in journalism’s existing code of ethics, the finer points of which seem to have eluded many of his august counterparts and their paymasters.

And, hilariously, he seemed to genuinely misunderstand a question about interacting with politicians because it was framed in terms of something he might do for ‘social pleasure.’

Hislop believes greater regulation of the press carries a real risk of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

He told Leveson: “If the State regulates the Press then the Press no longer regulates the State, and that is an unfortunate state of affairs.”

Hislop’s evidence confirmed my view that too many journalists no longer understand the basic principles of their profession and yet they are quite simple.

For too many journalists, the highest expression of the purpose of their existence is to sell more papers or win more viewers or score more hits.

And clearly for some, anything seems to be justified in pursuit of that noble enterprise.

But to the journalists who inspired me and to the few who continue to uphold the highest tenets of the profession, journalism is about a bit more than selling papers.

I grew up in Asia, surrounded by journalists. I understood, from the outset, that journalists get thrown in jail, get shot at, get harrassed, get killed, just for doing their job, because it happened to people I knew.

I was advised as a young reporter, not to put ‘journalist’ on my passport because it could make travel to some countries difficult.

Above all, I heard again and again of journalists across Asia battling for the kind of freedom enjoyed by the Press in Britain. Fleet Street was held up as a beacon of their highest aspirations.

That battle continues in countries across the world where journalists seek to hold the State to account and keep their readers informed of what is being done in their name.

So it was something of a disappointment when I arrived in the UK to see just what the British tabloids did with the freedom their counterparts in other parts of the world were – and still are – fighting and dying for.

The revelations of the phone hacking scandal seem an inevitable consequence of the relentless race to the bottom that’s been going on for decades.

Hislop’s fears will probably be realised in the form of greater regulation and the baby probably will disappear down the plughole with the bathwater.

And not just in Britain. The abuses there have led to greater scrutiny and calls for tougher regulation in other countries too, including Australia.

Journalists who have abused their mandate, through ignorance or malice, deserve the greatest contempt. But in the end, they are merely representatives of their readers.

If they treat us, the readers, with contempt, it’s because we buy the crap they peddle and Hislop raised that uncomfortable truth too.

Yes, he told Leveson, the Press should be kept to account by the Law. But, it should also be kept to account by the people who buy newspapers.

“I do hope you’re going to call some members of the public and ask them why they bought the News of the World, what they thought they were getting,” he said.

Read more Baxter:

Private Eye – the only news I still pay for

Baxter’s Best Bits – extracts from Ian Hislop’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry 

© Sally Baxter 2012
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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