Sunday, 12 August 2018

Who needs standards in journalism?

In this era of "citizen journalism", insisting on high standards in reporting - demanding pesky things such as accuracy, genuine balance, correct spelling, punctuation and grammar and, God forbid, paying journalists for their work - exposes one to mockery. 

Never mind that accuracy is the foundation on which credible journalism is built, or that balance on issues of climate change will not be achieved by wheeling out Lord Lawson to punch science in the face, or that journalism is more readable when spelling, punctuation and grammar are in order, or that journalists should be paid for their work because, well, it's work...

Instead, as part of the world's inexorable descent into idiocracy, the rise of the "citizen journalist" means that anyone, it seems, can call themselves a journalist. We wouldn't allow "citizen brain surgeons" to open our skulls but, it seems, many of us are happy to let "citizen journalists" tell us what to think, whether its accurate or not.

"Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?" I hear the indignant crowd shriek at me. After all, I've made a pretty good living out of being a journalist for more than 20 years now. Why would I want these untrained upstarts parking their tanks on my lawn? Why don't I just go back to my manual typewriter and report on the intrigues of the church fete and let "citizen journalists" take over?  

OK, I'll tell you why. Because journalism is a profession. Training is required. Journalists do not need to spend years and years at university, as is the case for doctors, and it is a shame that the days of cadetships, where aspiring hacks could leave school at 16 and work their way up the ladder at newspapers, have fallen by the wayside. But there are skills that need to be taught, an understanding of media law is essential, and ethics are as important as ever. These can be taught at college, university or on the job - or a combination of these - and they are essential for professionalism. 

This is not about Old Lady Lewis yelling at technology. It's great that social media can be used to break news, for people who are on the spot as news events unfold to film or write about what they see through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook Live. 

Hell, I'd be a massive hypocrite if I demanded that bloggers get shut down, particularly as bloggers have shown incredible bravery in less liberal parts of the world in their quest to expose true horrors and corruption. Raif Badawi, for example, is still languishing in a Saudi Arabian jail. He has been publicly lashed over charges, including insulting Islam and apostasy, because of his pro-free speech blog.

But plenty of bloggers and assorted social media users seem to be unaware of the responsibilities that come with writing either reportage or opinion pieces. They risk getting sued for libel or prejudicing court cases. Often, they contribute to the growing mountain of bullshit that can be filed under "fake news". 

The tidal wave of ignorance about the British criminal justice system and rules in regard to reporting on court cases has been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks. First, there was the #FreeTommy crowd, foaming and indignant that Stephen Yaxley-Lennon could be guilty of contempt of court when they thought all he was doing was telling the truth about rapists - except that his "reporting" has the potential to cost the taxpayers thousands in aborted trials and could cause rapists to go free. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is not a journalist.

And ever since the trial of cricketer Ben Stokes commenced earlier this month, the armchair experts have been out in force crapping all over social media with their inane pronouncements of guilt or innocence. These fools do not care that the trial is ongoing and, at the time of writing, not all evidence has come before the jury. 

As well as being told to avoid the traditional forms of news media, jurors are now being advised to steer clear of social media, lest their decision is coloured by online pitchfork-wavers. The journalists reporting on the case have to be very careful with the language they use, to not allow opinion to creep into their stories, but head over to Facebook and everyone seems to know exactly what happened that night and what should happen to those involved. It's pathetic.

Of course, not all journalism is perfect and bad journalism should be called out. This week, for example, there was a mass outrage because apparently an innocent British woman was jailed in Dubai for the heinous crime of having a glass of wine on an Emirates Airline flight. Except that's not quite what happened - and the reporting of this case in the UK media was almost universally terrible.  

The woman in question, Ellie Holman, a Swedish citizen who lives in Kent, arrived in Dubai from London with her daughter. At passport control, she handed over an expired Swedish passport. Understandably, she was not allowed into the country, as would be the case if she tried to enter any country with an expired passport. Ms Holman then produced an Iranian passport - Iranian citizens cannot get a tourist visa on arrival to the UAE, just as they can't if they want to visit the UK. She had the option of paying on the spot for a visa which would allow her, as an Iranian citizen, to spend 96 hours in the UAE. But she refused. 

As the situation escalated, she filmed the border control officials - again, this would land you in trouble at pretty much any international airport. In the UK, for example, while filming in public places is legal, airports are privately owned businesses and, as such, they can set their own rules in regard to filming and photography. 

Ms Holman was asked if she had been drinking and she said she'd consumed a glass of wine on the plane. But her detention was not for drinking a glass of wine - it was for visa irregularities. However, it was decided that charges would not be pursued and Ms Holman and her daughter should be arriving back in the UK today. 

If someone rocked up to Heathrow on an expired Swedish passport and then tried to enter the country by producing an Iranian passport without a valid UK visa - and then filmed border control officials as the situation escalated - they too would be taken aside and public sympathy would be non-existent. 

As someone who has herself fallen foul of the law in the UAE, I am not going to sit here and tell you all that UAE law is perfect. It's not and there are plenty of good reasons to criticise it. But I am also someone who believes in accurate journalism and there is nothing to be gained by reporting on Ms Holman's case in such a shoddy manner. It undermines the good work other journalists have done on reporting on legal matters in the UAE and neighbouring states.

If people who declare themselves "citizen journalists" would like to become professional journalists, there are multiple options available for training. It would be great if such people did take the time to make themselves aware of media law, of rules and conventions particularly in regard to court reporting, and of media ethics. Good things have come out of the rise of blogging and social media - but when you publish something, you have responsibilities. I'm sure plenty of people, if they have made it to the end of this blog post, will still dismiss me as a boring and bitter old hack, trying to take all the fun out of their crusades - but if you cannot be bothered with accuracy, you are not a journalist. 

Photography by from Pexels

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