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Press is not just a necessary check on power, but is itself a power

Journalism needs to be held to account in the same way it holds the powerful to account, writes John Lloyd

Image: Scott Webb/Unsplash

Image: Scott Webb/Unsplash

In 2004, I wrote a book called ‘What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics’ which criticised the (mainly British) media for an exaggerated hostility to politics and politicians.

John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor for the Financial Times.

It got some attention, also mainly hostile, from colleagues in the press, including a review by Trevor Kavanagh, then Political Editor of The Sun, who saw the book as little short of desertion in the face of the enemy.

I had a debate with the then leader of the broadcast attack pack, John Humphrys, main presenter on the closely followed Today Program on BBC Radio 4.

He amiably denied my point that politicians were too important to our democracy to be approached with an a priori assumption of bad faith (he later confessed, from the safety of his post-BBC memoir, that he now regretted his harassment of politicians).

My point then, and remains, that journalism is not just a necessary check on power, it is itself a power.

Keeping journalism in check

Taking journalism as a whole, a trade which is diverse both within and among states, it sometimes knowingly lies, more often is inaccurate.

It needs a check, and it needs institutions (NGOs) whose staff members know how journalism works, know how essential it is to be independent, and know how to assist its core aim — including through informed criticism.

It is of course increasingly taught in universities as part of media studies. But it needs the attention of independent institutes with a brief to support, observe and critique.

Especially strong in the US, journalism NGOs like Pew, Poynter and the Nieman Lab, put out a stream of commentary and debate about journalism. All of them focus on the relentless culling of the local media and seek to at least moderate it by spreading the word on those media which have managed to continue, and on how they do it.

All are liberal. It is a fault of most journalist NGOs, and faculties, that the themes and approaches of conservative journalism are usually given only derisive attention.

Where such media endorse or spread lies, or whip up hatred, criticism should be unsparing (and is).

But not all do. The conservative defection from trust in the media is a large issue which cannot be improved by mockery, and must be better understood.

The Judith Neilson Institute joins the galaxy of media think tanks at a good time. Every kind of journalism is now in turbulence, roiled by social media, the all but limitless capacities of the internet, the ebbing away of the newspaper culture, and the lack of belief — often, incredibly, promoted in universities — in the existence of something that might be called the truth.

Journalism, like justice, requires that belief: the workaday amassing of checked facts, the finding of answers to the questions of who? what? when? where? why? It requires a practice of objectivity and of informed scepticism — in some ways the opposite of the [reporter Louis] Heren belief (which he could never live by) that every politician was a liar.

Journalism needs to hold to that. It needs independent centres to support its continued vigour and hold it to an account as rigorous as that to which it aspires over the powers that be, of which it is one.

John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor for the Financial Times, co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and a member of JNI’s International Advisory Council.

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