Wednesday, February 17, 1999

by Michael Smith
London--17th February 1999

Mahatma Gandhi once said that "the sole aim of journalism should be service". The aims of today's newspaper moguls seem to be increased profit margins and political influence. Press ownership was one of several issues dissected at a recent "Media and Public Confidence" conference, hosted by the Financial Times in London. The event was an unprecedented gathering of senior British newspaper editors and assorted journalists from around the world and from across the political spectrum.

Gandhi, quoted at the conference, saw the press as a "great power" but he believed that "an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy". He was against press control which "can be profitable only when exercised from within."

The conference was a surprisingly soul-searching examination of the need to exercise control "from within". Were editors "dumbing down" quality broadsheets with trivial content in a bid to capture young readers and market share? What is a free media's role in democracy? Had newspapers and broadcasters abandoned serious study of great issues in favour of the cult of personality? And what about the obsession with sex, pornography and prurience, which the media feeds and profits from?

The event came days after the dismissal of England's football coach Glen Hoddle, following remarks he gave to a Times journalist which implied that disabled people suffered through their own fault: it was the consequence of their karma from a previous life. His views may have caused offence to Western ears. But his hounding out of office by a voracious media was "sanctimonious" and displayed an "emotional correctness which worries me greatly", said Mick Hume, editor of LM (Living Marxism) magazine, whose views sounded like those of a true liberal democrat. Here was the press, the very bastion of free speech, rounding on an individual like the hounds of censorship. The Sunday Times columnist Melanie Philips agreed that the Hoddle saga "illustrated the media's triviality, bullying and arrogance".

Veteran broadcaster Sir Robin Day was more worried that The Times, in the same week as the Hoddle saga, had given scant coverage to the debate in parliament over the future of the House of Lords--a major constitutional issue. Other broadsheets had done little better. Chris Woodhead, Britain's Chief Inspector of Schools, lamented the lack of any serious analysis of the government's revue of the national curriculum, even in the educational press.

Will Hutton, Editor of The Observer, however, said the media had dumbed up--with more attractive writing, clear "hooks" and narrative stories--in the need to capture readers. The British consistently spent 23 hours a week absorbing information from an ever increasing range of press, books and TV. But he was worried by the effect of media "locusts" who descend on a story for 48 hours and then move on, "leaving those who have been on the receiving end looking completely disabled and battered".

Sex was no longer represented in the media as "a subject of moral concern", said philosopher and writer Roger Scruton. There was no recognition of right and wrong and anything could be portrayed if it attracted "a sufficient number of readers". The acts of sacrifice involved in bringing up a family were being "short-circuited" by a pornographic approach to sex.

Describing herself as a "libertarian", Sunday Telegraph columnist Minette Marrin found herself agreeing with Scruton. She feared censorship, but was alarmed by television porn. Worst of all was porn's violation of privacy. Young people would only conclude that intimacy, modesty and discretion were meaningless.

For Daily Telegraph feature writer Graham Turner, the notion that sex was the sine qua non for fulfilment was the great lie of the last half-century.

But he warned that moralists who are themselves short of morals are "empty vessels. As one who has had to apologise to his wife for misdemeanors in this area, I speak from rather painful experience."

BBC TV news reader Martyn Lewis, who is well known for his calls for a more balanced approach to news reporting, said that the media had an obligation to "hold up an undistorting mirror to the world". The BBC's own review of news policy now stated that "audiences are alienated by journalism which appears fixated by problems. They want a sense of how issues can be resolved." Reporting of problems needs to embrace solutions "and we need more often to return to stories to see what became of them and what can be learnt."

Behind all these issues was that of ownership and profit. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, was alarmed that American newspapers were increasingly owned by a few big chains, a trend developing in Britain.

This put pressure on editors to cut staff, and editorial quality, to achieve profit margins of over 20 per cent. Rusbridger's own newspaper is owned by a Trust, which gave him as editor more freedom.

He didn't mention the media boss Rupert Murdoch by name, but advocated three rules: no proprietor to be allowed too great a concentration of ownership; a bar on papers being owned by proprietors living abroad; and self-regulation of proprietors as much as journalists. As Catholic writer Mary Kenny, a "Burkian conservative", commented, the old and lamented Left had at least provided a "non-conformist conscience" and an "opposition to rampant market capitalism".

International participants were brought together by William Porter, chairman of the International Communications Forum which helped to organize the event. Jim Carey, Professor of Journalism at the Colombia Graduate School of Journalism in New York, believed that "there was more good journalism in the United States now than at any time in its history".

But it was being lost in a sea of material and harder to distinguish. Veteran French correspondent Bernard Margueritte, based in Poland, said there was an economic dimension to freedom. "Now we have to build the moral dimension." How could there be a good media in a materialist, hedonistic, consumerist society? The media had a fundamental role in building the new society for the 21st century. But there was no room for mediocrity and "to change the media I first have to change myself".

Lord Nolan, who chaired the conference, saw journalism as "undoubtedly the world's most influential profession". Last year, he had headed the British government's Committee on Standards in Public Life. They had summed up the ideals of public goodwill as being "honesty, openness, accountability, integrity, leadership, selflessness. They are not bad mottoes for any organization." He added that courage was "a very necessary quality for journalists"--as well as humility, humour and a sense of proportion.