“You never know when you may need a professional journalist.”
On the face of it, it’s a slightly strange phrase. Plumber, yes. Chiropractor, perhaps. But journalist?
And yet those words from Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford in defence of journalism and its hugely important public service role are among the most striking I’ve read in these last very unsettling couple of months.
And they hint at an unfortunate truth which I think is at the heart of the angst being felt by a lot of the journalists I know at the moment.
Most people have never met a journalist: never been interviewed by one, never heard one speak in real life, never seen one face to face.
And it’s that face to face element that’s never been so important – and yet also never been so difficult.
Every day seems to bring a different editor expressing absolutely justified and absolutely heartfelt concern at the abuse directed at his or her staff online – on Twitter, Facebook, or below the line on stories.
One that caught my eye was a tweet from Jenni Phillips, who is currently leading the herculean online efforts of Gloucestershire Live, and who questioned whether some of her site’s critics would say to her staff’s faces what they’re happy to say from behind a keyboard.
Traffic to her site – and virtually every news site up and down the country – has soared during the coronavirus crisis, mirroring the surge in audience for traditional TV bulletins.
But appreciation of those sites’ efforts doesn’t appear to have shot up in the same way.
Here’s Jenni again (and again, and again):
One of the stories Gloucestershire Live has taken some stick for is its report of some leaked figures for virus cases in the county .
I can understand the basis for some of the criticism – that the hotspots around Cheltenham merely reflect population density, rather than proximity to the town’s world-famous racecourse, where the festival went ahead as other countries began tentative steps towards lockdown.
But there’s a legitimate debate to be had – one that now involves serious figures such as former government chief scientist Sir David King and renowned academic Anand Menon.
More worrying still is a situation my friends at Plymouth Live found themselves in.
They picked up on an appeal from Paignton Zoo for financial help from the public, amid fears that the future of some of the attraction’s animals could be threatened unless it could find new sources of funding.
When Plymouth Live reported this, the zoo effectively accused the site of making the story up – in comments that have now been withdrawn.
Up the M5, Bristol Live is also feeling the pain.
The Daily Express hasn’t exactly helped itself in the past, but it was shocking to see just how ready serious people were to believe – wrongly – that it had used a pre-lockdown picture of a busy sea front to illustrate abuse of the government’s essential travel and social distancing rules.
There’s always a debate about the extent to which the country takes its moral lead from its corridors of power – one that has been played out over Boris Johnson’s flurry of inappropriate comments down the years, especially that one about letterboxes.
But I do wonder if some PR teams have felt emboldened by the double whammy of lengthy rebuttals from Downing Street in the face of critical stories from the FT and Sunday Times – and that extraordinary last line in Number 10’s response to the Guardian’s story on SAGE membership.
As an aside, the tactic seemed to be to focus on convenient details which might be easy to challenge in the hope that the credibility of the whole enterprise would be massively dented.
And, from the government’s point of view, it seems to be working.
Trust in its message seems to be holding up, as trust in journalists stays rooted towards the bottom of the league table.
Or trust in ‘the media’.
You know, that great, monolithic entity, where everyone is the same – from the dodgiest phone hacker to the most ethical and detail-driven science editor?
This, from so-called comedian Frankie Boyle, wasn’t helpful, as Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson pointed out.
There is slightly better news in a more recent study, for the authoritative Reuters Insitute for the Study of Journalism.
It’s not surprising that broadcasters came off much better in this survey – as they always tend to.
They have two advantages: the audience can see and/or hear the journalist, and can see and/or hear that people are actually saying the things they’ve been quoted as saying.
And when you have Ofcom breathing down your neck, as well as huge public expectations, the stakes are suitably high.
Some of my students and I had a fantastic Q&A session on Zoom with a regional TV bulletin director this week, in which she told us: “The pressure to get it right is incredible.”
I was also really struck by a key part of an interview with one of the heroes of this crisis, the BBC’s medical correspondent Fergus Walsh, who said he ‘agonises over every sentence’ in his pieces.
The efforts that all the Jennis and their teams up and down the country are putting in aren’t just in the face of mindless abuse and cynical confected challenge.
If you work for a commercial news organisation, you’re also battling with a financial crisis that has felt almost existential at times, as advertising collapses.
That’s not to say there aren’t signs of hope, as editor Polly Curtis was keen to home in on during an otherwise massively sobering session organised by the ‘slow news’ site Tortoise on the future of journalism last week.
And the brilliant journalism keeps on coming.
At a local level, Jenni’s weekly threads of Gloucestershire Live’s best stories are a constant joy.
The work up and down the country is celebrated on a regular basis by the marvellous industry partnership Behind Local News, as in this uplifting piece.
And on TV, Fergus’s work, and that of many others – from the sensitive interviewing of Charlie Stayt to the forensic analysis of Lewis Goodall and the beautiful wordsmithery of Alan Little and Fergal Keane – take us on a much-needed emotional and intellectual rollercoaster every day.
There have been some splendid defences of journalism, from Simon Jenkins and Mark Austin, for example.
But there still seems to be a disconnect between our industry and the people it seeks to serve, as my fellow journalism lecturer Paul Bradshaw has pointed out.
At times, a kind of Falklands mentality seems to be in the ascendance.
The journalists are the naysayers, the critics, the pullers of threads, the destroyers.
I think we all accept that this is an utterly unprecedented crisis, and one which politicians are trying their best to deal with, working around the clock and having to think through thousands of different projects, policies, solutions and scenarios.
But there are still legitimate questions to be asked, on behalf of all of us.
Hugh Pym doesn’t put Matt Hancock under pressure over PPE for the fun of it. He does it because he and his colleagues are inundated with heartfelt pleas for help from frontline health and care workers.
As always, Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall puts it best.
Significantly, the first question from a member of the public this week was about when the lockdown would end and she could hug her grandchildren. The sort of line of questioning journalists had been criticised for.
Yes, journalists should – and do – accentuate the positive.
But there are politicians at the heart of this battle who allowed decisions to be made on their party’s watch in the last ten years which are now coming home to roost. Decisions (or lack of them) on social care, on local government funding, on pandemic planning, on immigration policy planning, on NHS spending – and on Brexit.
They cannot suddenly pretend those decisions don’t have real consequences in the here and now, and they deserve to be reminded of them. If not now, when, and all that.
Some of them treated politics as a game. They now know it most agonisingly and tragically isn’t.
The danger is that people no longer recognise the truth when it’s right in front of them.
Instead of believing trusted news outlets with – in some cases – hundreds of years behind them, they choose to give credence to made-up stories about ICU nurse deaths and dead vaccine pioneers.
There’s been a spate of slightly cheesy TV adverts by many big brands, stressing the ‘we’re all in this together’ theme and promising to stick with us all on this difficult journey.
One of the best – yes, a little cheesy, but also hugely heart-warming – has been the BBC’s trailer featuring big names such as Huw Edwards and Sophie Raworth.
The risk is that not all journalists and media outlets will be there for that journey, and that some might not emerge on the other side.
In future, Thalidomide scandals may go uncovered, Windrush cynical cover-ups unreported, Rotherham abuse negligence uninvestigated and Stafford Hospital horrors swept under the dirty lino.
In future, more politicians may be able to outrageously rewrite their own pathetic personal history on the hoof in the way that Donald Trump has astonishingly attempted to do in the last few days.
In one sense, it’s never been more difficult for journalists to meet their public, to prove their humanity and honesty face to face.
But perhaps the technology that is now allowing us to do journalism could also be a way of saving that journalism.
I wonder whether there isn’t an opportunity to put our faces in front of more people than we could ever dream of doing in the old world.
As I was writing this, this morning, James Mitchinson posted a link to exactly the sort of thing I had in mind: a wonderful video made by his staff appealing for people to take out subscriptions to the Yorkshire Post or its sister titles.
The message – from journalists in bedrooms, dining rooms and kitchens across Yorkshire – is exactly the right one: we’re human, we’re going through what you’re going through, we care, and we’re doing the best job we can.
Tortoise has shown a model – perhaps a privileged, slightly middle class elite one – of engagement with an audience, of inviting the people into your newsroom and your thought processes.
It’s the kind of lifting of the curtain that fuels enterprises from Hearken to Behind Local News.
So, could we lay on Zoom sessions for our readers and web users?
We might end up preaching to the converted and we’ll perhaps never have the conversations we wish we could have with the most cowardly of our trolls.
But as long as journalists can be depersonalised, as long as they can be lumped into one amorphous, grey, faceless mass, journalism will suffer.
And that means democracy and society suffer.
It’s easy for me to come up with wise words and ideal world solutions because I’m not having to deal with the kind of abuse that Jenni and thousands of others are subjected to every week.
My final thought is this, though.
The temptation is to put up the barricades and withdraw into our steel-lined bunkers.
But we have to show our faces and stare, charm and brazen our critics out.
No one else is going to make the argument for journalism for us.
We have to keep making it all over again, one day at a time, one story at a time, and one person at a time.