Towards a higher journalism: The Sun, Trevor Kavanagh and tabloid news culture

For those of us who enjoy a little schadenfreude with our morning coffee, today was a very good day.

At the weekend, five senior journalists on The Sun were arrested in dawn raids involving considerable numbers of police officers as part of Operation Elveden, the investigation into allegedly illegal payments to police and other public servants for information. The paper’s associate editor, and former longstanding political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, took to its pages to vent his  spleen, crying foul at what he called a witch-hunt against the paper and its staff. He compared the tactics used against them unfavourably with those of a police state. It would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh.

Kavanagh claimed, with no discernible trace of irony, that News International journalists were being treated as if they were part of an organised crime gang. Well, quite.

But, despite enjoying the discomfort of The Sun’s staff to no small degree, I have to agree, reluctantly, that Kavanagh has a point. The heavy-handed style of the police raids smacked of point scoring, if not worse. Elveden’s sister investigation into phone hacking, Operation Weeting, has been frequently excoriated for the its genteel invitations to the likes of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson to attend police stations when they were to be arrested.

These raids, by contrast, seemed designed as much as anything for the news bulletins, a bit of police theatre aimed at media profile rather than investigative efficacy. That papers such as The Sun have gleefully encouraged this sort of police action in the past, not infrequently sending photographers and journalists to accompany such raids, made for effective and delightful irony. Rarely can an organisation and a culture have been so exquisitely hoist with its own petard.

But that doesn’t make the police’s approach right.

Nor does it help alleviate the feeling that the wrong people are being targeted. That, at a very senior level, relationships between news organisations and the Metropolitan Police in particular were – to say the least – over-cosy, seems undeniable. Whether such relationships were legally corrupt, I do not know. They certainly appear to have been morally so, with the police being appallingly compromised. To a great extent, The Sun’s staff are now bearing the brunt of police and public recognition of that fact.

Unfortunately, the net result of this is that the investigation into payments for information – an aspect of the news-gathering process that requires the nicest and most delicate of judgements – is being prosecuted in the bluntest and least thoughtful way possible.

The truth is that all serious news-rooms, especially those involved in reporting crime, pay for information. Sometimes that involves entertainment; sometimes gifts; sometimes hard cash. Sometimes, perhaps often, the legality of such activity is dubious. But it is also often necessary to get the story. A news industry without the ability to reward its sources is not one that is going to survive, because it removes one of its most effective tools for leverage on a source. Lord knows, enough newsprint is squandered as it is on press releases tarted up as independent reporting.

Which brings us to the question of what kind of news media we are going to have once the police investigations and the Leveson inquiry have run their course.

Implicit in much criticism of newsroom behaviour is the idea that there is a kind of higher journalism, practised by men and women of unimpeachable integrity who would never sully their hands with improper or, heaven forbid, illicit news-gathering techniques.

If you will forgive a digression. In Raymond Chandler’s great 1950 essay on detective fiction, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ he wrote of Dashiell Hammett that he rescued the genre from the chintzy rarefied concoctions of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, et al, that he brought it back out of the drawing room and onto the street again:

Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley… He wrote … for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.

Dashiell Hammett

That is not too far from a defence of tabloid news culture. A reporting culture that speaks primarily, if not exclusively, to the drawing rooms and metropolitan salons of the world, will be a pale and deracinated thing, with barely enough life to make it worth the reading.

There is no higher journalism. There is just journalism, good and bad. Great reporting is a dirty and difficult business and always will be. Making reporters jump through more hoops won’t improve news reporting; it will kill it.

There are good reporters and there are bad reporters, but what distinguishes them isn’t their morality: it’s their effectiveness, their ability to break fresh and interesting stories.

Great reporting, even when exposing injustice, suffering and immorality, is by no means necessarily a campaigning role, although it can also be that. Great reporting is, at heart, amoral. What matters is the integrity of the story and your ability to stand it up, and – above all – that you got it first. No one expects war photographers to put the camera down and help those they are photographing. A great reporter is, first and foremost, a witness; he or she is a recording angel, not a ministering one.

This is not, of course, to excuse the tawdry celebrity-obsessed rubbish that passes for news in too much the papers – tabloid and broadsheet alike – these days. But if you go too far in neutering a reporter’s ability to find a story, you attack all reporters, not just those whose beat you disapprove of. Why? Because the skills and the processes are essentially the same.

It is the job of a good reporter, a good hack, to find information that people – usually powerful people – want to keep hidden; to write things that those people don’t want written; and to get interviewees to say things that they either should not say or would rather not say unless persuaded to do so. Sometimes that persuasion is delicate and empathetic. Sometimes it is not far short of blackmail. That is not necessarily a particularly edifying skill; but it is a rare and a vital one for a thriving democratic liberal culture.

To be a good hack requires perseverence and dedication, and also – in the willingness to do whatever it takes to get the story – a degree of self-righteousness. It requires both sensitivity to intellectual and emotional subtleties and a very thick skin, both doggedness and rigour.

A good hack, therefore, is a thing of wonder.

But he or she also requires support. Good journalism must of necessity have an organisation behind it with serious muscle. By that I mean, of course, money and a willingness to spend it in defence of a story and those who have written it. But I also mean an organisation that is up for the fight, that everyone knows will throw its weight around, that no-one wants to cross, that is to be feared.

It is not obvious that there will be such organisations in ten or twenty years time in Britain. Many of them have become so swollen with hubris over the last few decades that they have all but destroyed the intellectual and moral case for their existence.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

They have brought this crusade upon themselves. But when it is done, I fear we won’t be left with only a higher kind or journalism. More likely we will be left with nothing worthy of that name at all.

3 thoughts on “Towards a higher journalism: The Sun, Trevor Kavanagh and tabloid news culture

  1. It may sound like point scoring but it happens to others every day. They loose their jobs because of arrest and bale. Journos loose interest after slagging the arrested off. This is what it is like for everyone else perhaps next time one of the tabloids goes on a law and order rant or accopanies the police on a raid they will have a little bit better idea of what it’s like.

  2. A very good post. It’s a cliche that the public gets the press it deserves. But cliches are usually true and this one certainly is. Despite recent revelations about phone-hacking – which even within the News of the World was kept tightly among a small number of journalists – Britain in fact has an extraordinarily broad range of very good journalism. It will not all be to everyone’s taste and it is very easy to sneer at the ‘red tops’ for their obsession with celebrity and sex, an obsession mirrored in their readership. But they do also deal in real stories and very often break the story before the quality press even knows it exists.

    ‘if you go too far in neutering a reporter’s ability to find a story, you attack all reporters, not just those whose beat you disapprove of.’

    There is a far more worrying issue here than journalists being arrested at dawn as if they are gangsters. And yes the media does take the police to task when it needlessly does this with others.

    There is a team from Murdoch’s News Corp parent company sat inside Wapping handing out details not just of journalists but also of sources, sources inside government organisations who passed information on wrongdoing to the press. Sources who were assured their identities would not be disclosed have been revealed to the police, ensuring that others will feel less free to come forward in future. The law on paying sources for information is not as clear-cut as the headlines have led the public to believe, and if it didn’t happen many stories that ought to be aired would have stayed secret. MPs expenses being a very clear case where money was rightly paid to secure illegally obtrained information the disclosure of which was palpably in the public interest.

    Those journalists who break the law should and must face justice. The Metropolitan Police palpably failed to ensure that happened in the case of phone-hacking. But they now appear to have swung the other way. They need to be very careful. At the moment, they and the CPS appear to be in cahoots with an organisation that is doing serious damage to the future of a free press.

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