The view from my bedroom at Windsor Castle takes in St George’s Chapel, the final resting place of eleven English monarchs.
My near neighbours include Henry VIII, Charles I, George III and The Queen’s father, George VI. With the mortal remains of kings and queens so close, it seems appropriate to consider the much-heralded demise of my estate, the Fourth Estate.
I have worked in journalism, predominantly newspapers, for a quarter of a century. In the course of my work, I have stayed in lavish hotels but my modest room inside the world’s oldest inhabited castle trumps the lot.
I am at the royal palace for a consultation on the professions held by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Academics from the Centre and attendees representing diverse fields, including medicine, education and finance, are gathered in Vicars’ Hall, where Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was first performed in front of Elizabeth I.
There are discussions about moral practice, wisdom and service. As a former crime reporter, I tell myself to park my prejudices at the castle keep. Do lawyers and accountants contribute to the public good? Really? Always? Do hedge fund managers act as touchstones for human flourishing? In fact, are the bosses of banks and retail conglomerates professionals at all? And what of journalists? Oh, just don’t go there…
Go there, however, is exactly what we must do. Otherwise, what is the point? The industry in which I ply my trade is not known for its riches, not as far as employees are concerned. According to the National Union of Journalists, one in five of my fellow newsmen and newswomen earn less than £20,000 a year. The salary of a senior journalist could be £35,000 to £40,000 but job responsibilities might include managing reporters, a task akin to herding cats. I should know; I’ve done it.
This means there must be other reasons for entering the profession such as the desire to safeguard human rights, democracy, the rule of law and social justice. Admittedly, there is a smidgen of ego at play in the pursuit of a byline. Bankers get six-figure bonuses; reporters get their name on a story. We are easily pleased.
There has never been a better time for self-reflection and self-analysis in journalism. The explosion of free content via the internet, allied to the newspaper industry’s implosive reaction to the commercial threats posed by the web, has led to the collapse of circulation figures, the withering of advertising revenues and the closure of titles. The newspaper where I cut my teeth, the Chatham News, sunk without trace in Kent’s former naval port in 2011.
Who has taken over the territory vacated by reporters on papers like the Chatham News? What are their professional credentials? And who are their paymasters? If you can get hits on a website publishing lists like “The 15 Top Places to Buy A Crisp Sandwich,” why bother sending a journalist to cover the local magistrates’ court or the council’s general purposes sub-committee? The latter costs money, not just in time commitment but also in training reporters so they understand the importance of libel law, contempt of court, corroborating sources, grammar, story construction and all that boring non-crisp sandwich stuff.
Today, it is the bloggers, vloggers, tweeters and “citizen journalists” who are the new media stars. Much has been written about their innovative messaging, communication strategies, audience engagement and the speed of transmission. There is much for the traditional media to learn in this regard.
But what training do the digital communicators, list-disseminators and news-regurgitators receive? What is their motivation? What is their moral outlook? And, perhaps crucially, are they answerable to anyone other than an algorithm?
The new generation of “content creators” is unsullied, as yet, by the corruption scandals that have dogged the UK’s newspaper industry. Phone-hacking, illegal payments to public officials and collusion between the police and the press have damaged public perceptions.
In light of these upheavals, it is timely to assess the professional state of play in journalism. What are we to make of the 24/7 digital behemoth that has seized the information vacuum vacated by local, regional and, in many cases, national newspapers?
Such questions run through my mind at Windsor Castle. Rigorous debate centres on the need for professionals to extol good character and virtuous conduct. I am still working on my virtue literacy, but I get it and, most importantly, I see the value. I understand the need for honesty, compassion, resilience and courage. Humility is really hard for a journalist but I am getting there, too.
It is right that I am candid. One phrase that re-appears at the Windsor consultation troubles me. It is the concept of the professional as a “moral agent.” Morality is a biggie. In journalism, it is usually associated with its opposite, namely moral duplicity and its odorous bedfellow, hypocrisy. Take the politician who parades his family for a photo opportunity only to be revealed as a “love cheat.” Or the popular children’s entertainer who is exposed as a paedophile.
As far as reporters are concerned, morality is a bear-trap. And yet it seems to me, post-Windsor, that the time is ripe for journalism to turn the light upon itself and illuminate its own professional practices. It might just be the one thing that saves the Fourth Estate because character, or the lack of it, goes to the heart of what we do.