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The Baron's Briefings

The Sickness of the British Media

Brian Cathcart, a former Reuters correspondent, press reform campaigner and journalism professor, painted a depressing picture of the state of the British media in an online talk for The Reuter Society and The Baron website, in the latest Baron’s Briefing

He paid tribute to the "ethical rigour" and accuracy he had learned at Reuters but issued a sweeping indictment of the majority of the British media, accusing it of deception, dishonesty, unethical behaviour, political corruption, inaccuracy, and unaccountability.  The newspapers “lie by omission, they distort reality or they simply fabricate,” he said.

“Too much of the press is owned by too few people, and those people share, broadly, a right-wing or very right-wing outlook which is projected in their newspapers.” The interests of these papers had merged with those of the Conservative government over the last decade.

Even the BBC had lost its independence and was following the right-wing lead of the Daily Mail rather than setting its own news agenda, he said. 

“Journalism in this country is in a very sick state,” he declared. “All that inaccuracy is poisoning the bloodstream of our society.”

Cathcart, who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards a dozen years ago, said that the investigation of phone hacking and other press ‘crimes’ had not resulted in any meaningful reforms. “It’s a depressing picture,” he said. In particular there had been no self-analysis by the press, no self-criticism, no peer review.  “Dog does not eat dog.”

Looking ahead at the possibility of a Labour government taking power at the next general election, Cathcart was not optimistic, saying the outlook for reform under Keir Starmer was not at all promising because of his fear of upsetting the press.

But in conclusion, he offered three policy ideas for a Labour Party manifesto:

*   Establish a new inquiry into the press, focusing on ownership issues.

*   Restore the independence of the BBC and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom --ending government appointment of their chairmen.

*   Review the future of ‘public interest journalism’ -- possibly founding an independent institute on the lines of the Arts Council, with support from ‘big tech’ and public funds.

In a lively Q&A following Cathcart’s presentation, several former Reuters journalists and managers pushed back in partial defence of British newspapers and broadcasters, arguing that some of them, at least, were among the best in the world, less deferential to politicians, and more readable, than most of their European counterparts.

Marcus Ferrar, moderating the session, asked Cathcart directly: “Do you see anything good in the British media?”

“Of course I do,” he replied. “The problem is that the good does not excuse the bad.”

Brian Cathcart joined Reuters as a graduate trainee in 1978 and reported from Paris, London and The Hague. After leaving Reuters in 1986, he was one of the founding journalists at the Independent and held senior roles at the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman as well as writing about several major British scandals as a freelance. He became a professor of journalism at Kingston University in 2006 and in 2011 jointly launched the Hacked Off campaigning organisation to press for a public inquiry into hacking and press standards. ■