What is journalism for?
Paul Chadwick had a crack at answering this small question in the Guardian in November. He suggested that journalism is for answer is nuanced, but boils down to four key elements: to “help civil society cohere”, to “facilitate democratic processes”, to “lubricate commerce”, and to “make and mix” culture.
These are all valid observations, and nothing I will say below will contradict them. But I do think there is a more fundamental answer.
On the Today programme this morning there were three items which examined aspects of the same question. Jim Mullen, new CEO of Reach, defended his newspapers’ treatment of Caroline Flack and their approach to local journalism; Julian Assange’s lawyer spoke in his defence ahead of his extradition hearing; and the unlikely duo of Toby Young and Trevor Phillips spoke in defence of free speech and the launch of Young’s Free Speech Union.
It is striking that all the articles were in defence of their subject. Journalism is under attack from all sides. Today’s programme follows a week which saw the publication of Amal Clooney’s report recommending international sanctions to protect journalists, a man charged with the murder of reporter Lyra McKee, and France opening up a new line of investigation into the death of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. And Number 10 Downing Street – led by former journalist Boris Johnson – threatening the BBC with the withdrawal of the licence fee.
What is journalism for? It is a tough question – but let’s try a thought experiment. What would a world without journalism would look like? It would be a world in which sustained ignorance was the norm, where seniority demanded respect without earning it, and businesses were able to act with impunity. It would be exactly the kind of world that demagogues and tyrants hanker for: and is the reason why so many countries cited in Clooney’s report take great pains to restrict the work of their media. As I have mentioned previously, I used to live in Zimbabwe: I know what that looks like. It results in a society where no-one in authority is questioned, and where the poor starve while the plutocrats embezzle with impunity, and imprison or murder anyone who stands in their way.
Here’s my take on what journalism is for: journalism should be about providing truthful answers. Full stop.
I know it sounds reductive. But whether in B2B or consumer journalism, whether through sports journalism or features writing, or in celebrity gossip, or in technical writing, journalists are – rightly or wrongly – looked to as people with the access and the knowledge to illuminate issues and subjects that people are curious about.
Whether the question is ‘which politician is telling the truth?’ or ‘where should I plant my primulas?’ or ‘how do I help my business grow?’ or ‘why should I care about Victoria Beckham?’ journalists are the interlocutors between those people who hold specialist knowledge and their readers. Journalists have the access to pick up the phone and ask challenging questions in a way that their audience couldn’t. It doesn’t have to be confrontational, as the retreating Tony Hall has suggested; but it should always be insightful.
It is the act of providing answers that is so provocative. There are whole institutions, cultures, companies and individuals who don’t want everyone to have access to those answers. It is the instinct for the democratisation of information that gave us every advance in media from the Tyndale Bible to the internet.
Clooney’s report is both timely and necessarily timid. The report suggests that sanctions should be imposed on governments or officials who clamp down on freedom of the press: it is a huge indictment of advanced societies that even this uncontroversial suggestion has not been wholeheartedly embraced. But it is not a surprise: when the country that gave us the First Amendment is led by a President who consistently refers to “the corrupt media” and “fake news”, we are in danger of allowing a fundamental principle to wither.
We have to be watchful, and Clooney’s report should be taken seriously.
Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.