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This is a “Sliding Doors” moment for the UK – and the future of press freedom is in our hands

By Simon Davies

These are horrible times for any “real” investigative journalist in Britain. There’s a faecal odour around the entire profession that is rapidly dragging reporters to the social status of tax collectors or bailiffs. Indeed, tax collectors and bailiffs are worried about this trend.

who could have predicted that investigative journalists would be likened to the worst privacy invaders on earth

Who could have imagined even a year ago that a once noble profession could have sunk so speedily below the sewer. And who could have predicted that investigative journalists would be likened to the worst privacy invaders on earth, ruining reputations and destroying the lives of innocent people.

In the wake of scandal upon scandal the mighty BBC twists in the wind, the New of the World is rotting in its coffin and a hundred media bosses chew their fingernails as Lord Justice Leveson prepares to blow away much of the remaining integrity in the UK press. Sure, Leveson is likely to negotiate a positive spin on his findings, but the latest BBC furore will test his vocabulary.

As mighty media institutions fall into the mire many people must find it hard to imagine a future where the profession will regain pride or dignity.  Nonetheless, I believe there are brighter days ahead – although not before the Great Catharsis.

In the wake of scandal upon scandal the mighty BBC twists in the wind and the News of the World rots in its coffin

For me, this is a complex prediction. As a teenager I cut my teeth in journalism on a belief in truth in reporting. In later years I cut my teeth as a privacy advocate on the realisation that much of the industry had become corrupt, self-serving and invasive. I took solace in the knowledge that there are countless decent men and women in the industry who believe in ethics and truth in reporting. The immediate danger arising from the public mood is that people may overlook that reality.

There is a huge threat here – even greater than the immediate shadow of the current scandals. At the more obvious level Leveson and the authorities could easily back away from tackling traditional media and start a witch hunt against Twitter and the new forms of social media. Governments across the world have a track record on that score, and the latest BBC controversy is likely to lead to calls for censorship of new media.

However there is an even more alarming possible outcome. If we all eagerly support an institutional denigration of the media then those who seek to protect their own corrupt interests may indefinitely achieve protection from a generational stereotype. The very values of a free press could be sullied to the point where people may not know how to disentangle the good players from the bad. What is at stake here is a pillar of trust that for centuries has helped steer societies – a sort of “rudder of truth” in reporting. Nothing – not even the drama of the past year – should override that dynamic.

Ignore the management failures, the editorial misjudgments and the botched investigations. The real poison is that media had come to believe the falsehood that people should trust in its judgment without there being any true accountability. That’s what needs to be addressed. Institutions such as the Press Complaints Commission were always a farce. Everyone in the industry knew as much, but journalists said little and MP’s fell silent in fear of the consequence of criticism. At least those failures are now being addressed.

What is at stake here is a pillar of trust that for centuries has helped steer societies

Yes, it is difficult to avoid the soap opera. Right now media executives are – as the press like to romanticise it – “falling on their swords”.  Indeed so many are falling on their swords that the media scene now resembles Masada more than some glorified Roman battle defeat. Yet in my view – like the aftermath of most glorified Roman defeats – a positive future will be wrought from the carnage. It’s a future that I believe will reinstate the true values and ethics of journalism, and it is a future that may set journalism on a genuine foundation of public trust and self worth.

To glimpse this new horizon requires honesty, so let’s be honest about the past.

The media – in particular the British media – was traditionally dominated by bullies, thugs, criminals and self-important tyrants. One only needs to recall such figures as Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black to understand the jagged nature of UK media ownership.

The media – in particular the British media – was traditionally dominated by bullies, thugs, criminals and self-important tyrants.

As for the Murdoch dynasty, Tom Watson MP neatly summarised what many people dared not speak: “These people corrupted our country, They have brought shame on our police force and our Parliament. They lied and cheated — blackmailed and bullied and we should all be ashamed when we think how we cowered before them for so long.”

http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/01/world/europe/uk-phone-hacking/index.html

At its most benign level this dysfunction was manifested in the crazed egomania of editors and controllers who wanted to put an axe through their staff rivals by “modernising”. At its worst it was institutional criminal behaviour.

The BBC – as a case in point – was never a consistently noble institution that cradled the ethics of true journalism. For much of its history it was infested by micro-tyrants and neurotic ladder-climbers who twisted the rules to suit the internal political climate. The recently departed Director General was right to sound the alarm over in-fighting, bitter rivalry and an endemic silo mentality in the organisation.

Equally, the British tabloid press that proclaimed so loudly its status as the righteous vanguard of truth were – and to an extent still are – controlled by vicious, opinionated news editors who sapped the idealism from talented journalists and fashioned them into the tools of the current owner. It was always thus. They corrupted the idea of investigative journalism.

What happens here will sweep across nations. The best antidote may be to look to a positive outcome.

As for radio broadcasting, it would be hard to unearth a more neurotic and terrified population anywhere on the planet. Anyone with long experience in radio will understand the terrible fear that stalks many broadcasting organisations.

Is this situation unique to the British media culture? No. Here’s a message for the critics outside the UK, tut-tutting and uttering condescending barbs about the fall of Old Blighty: you are next.

Have no doubt. Media  across the world are nervously waiting for the domino effect as the truth is revealed about the twisted corruption embedded in media organisations. What happens here will sweep across nations. The best antidote may be to look to a positive outcome.

Take heart. There will be five such positive outcomes.

Parliamentarians will no longer be terrified to criticise or to investigate media organisations. We can look forward to greater transparency.

Bodies entrusted to protect media standards will be expected to do their job. The bad old days where such bodies were given over to press owners are gone.

True journalism – investigative journalism – will have an opportunity to rebuild its definition and its credibility without the poison that infected it over the past twenty years.

The moguls and tyrants that ruined media will be flushed out, and journalists themselves will feel more empowered to challenge bad decisions by editorial management.

Finally, the rights of people will be more genuinely respected by a new generation of journalists who understand the importance of ethics and responsibilities.

If even some of those outcomes emerge this horror story may well be worth the trauma.