Suzanne Breen’s court victory in her battle to protect her sources, and – it’s no exaggeration to say, her life – was welcome news in a week which showed that, for all the talk of crisis, there is still much to engage, stimulate and celebrate about the media. Suzanne’s was the latest victory in the long struggle to protect that most basic and vital of principles – that journalists have the right to keep sources confidential. She was backed all the way by her union, the National Union of Journalists. The union is often criticised, but it plays a vital role in helping to defend the basics of the trade, and this should not be forgotten for all the arguments.
Sources have been much in the news this week, with much debate over the unmasking of police blogger Nightjack by The Times. Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog, always a good point of reference, carries a round-up of views while tending towards disapproval of The Times’s action. While I appreciate the expressions of regret, I tend towards the view expressed on FleetStreetBlues, which says, “Why should newspapers be prevented from naming the author of a published website just because they’d rather not be named? There is no automatic right of privacy in the street – and neither should there be on the information superhighway.”
But there are some tough questions to confront. The most obvious is the old chestnut of what exactly does ‘the public interest’ mean? All media uses it as justification for publishing what it wants to, but clearly there are degrees, and viewed another way ‘the public interest’ often seems to be little more than the interest of increasing circulation. Another question that needs some thought is whether there is any contradiction between arguing for a journalist’s right to protect the identity of a source and the journalist’s right to expose the identity of someone who wishes to remain anonymous. My view is that there are important differences, but we need to be clearer and more consistent in our application of the public interest defence. If we’re not, we allow those who seek tirelessly to restrict the media’s ability to operate – relatively – independently the opportunity to blur some important boundaries.
Journalists are not the only people who need to ask hard questions about the consistent application of principle. Contrast the frequent attempts by government to intimidate journalists into revealing sources with the unwillingness to publish details of their expense claims. It seems many MPs believe in Freedom of Information About Other People. I’m not going to go too far in joining the national sport of slamming greedy politicians – while this is of course an important story which does not paint the political class in a good light, I wish we’d debate the value of politicians based on their policies. (But I suppose that would mean they needed to have some in the first place.) What really strikes me about the whole affair is the utter stupidity of publishing information in a heavily censored form in the full knowledge that the censored information is already in the hands of the press. I can’t make up my mind if it’s stupidity or arrogance, but either way it doesn’t say much for the mental faculties of those who are supposed to be running the country.
I’ve added a couple of links to the media blogs section. FleetStreetBlues, as mentioned above, and Playing the game are both very readable, challenging and necessarily pithy commentaries on the trade. They are also very entertaining, showing the much-underrated power of humour.
I’ve also been enjoying the #nicerfilmtitles trend on Twitter (my favourite so far is The Brides of Frank and Stan) and sharing the fascination with the micro-blogging service’s emergence as an organisational tool in the wake of the Iranian election. Spending some time at #iranelection also provides a great lesson in how and which of the traditional principles of journalism need to be applied when following a story on Twitter. The most obvious thing that struck me was how easy it is, when caught up in the rhythm of the feed, to accept some ‘news’ as true before verifying it.
End of college term
It’s something which, if I’m teaching at the London College of Communication again next year, I want to introduce as a topic. I’ve heard good news about how students on one of the courses I helped teach on have done, but no news so far on the other. One of the problems of being a visiting lecturer is that we are often outside the loop. It’s been a challenging first year teaching, but it has been encouraging to see the abilities and enthusiasm of a new generation, and inspiring to see that in the midst of all the – often justified – gloom, there are still people who want to be journalists, and who have new and good ideas.