Tabloid journalists have long had a certain reputation. Most of my colleagues have faced a situation in which they announce they work for a tabloid, over say the white tablecloth and sugared almonds of a friend’s wedding reception, only then to find themselves facing a barrage of abuse along the lines of “you journalists just make up stories” and “all journalists are scum.”
The individual that said this to me, it transpired, had the rather dubious profession of selling people’s addresses to junk mail companies, but that is by the by.
This week, the reputation of British journalists has plummeted. The public has reacted with revulsion (and rightly so) over the revelations that murdered school children and widows of war heroes had their phones hacked simply for a newspaper to gain a good line on a story.
We all know the result, and today, David Cameron has announced a public inquiry into the culture, ethics and practises of the British press. Twitter meanwhile is filled with glee from individuals who claim that tabloids journalists are only getting what they deserve.
I am a part of the British press, and my agency Talk to the Press has, over the past three years, supplied dozens of stories to the News of the World.
I – and my staff – am close to a number of people there, and have always felt incredibly proud to see our stories published in the most popular and well read newspaper in the country, as well as other ‘red tops’ like The Sun and the Mirror. We’re devastated that the paper has been closed, and so many good journalists have lost their jobs.
We have all heard that the current News of the World is a different beast to the one it was back in the period that phone hacking took place, and certainly that has been my experience of working with them. Let me tell you about how strict the NOTW has been about the provenance and integrity of stories over the three years I’ve been dealing with them.
Take a very recent situation in which my agency was contacted by a ‘tipster’ (a member of the public wanting to pass on information to the press) claiming to be a relation of a celebrity who is always in the news and who is featured pretty much every day by the tabloid press.
Certainly, this person seemed to know a lot about the person in question and the story that they were offering, about the next steps in this celebrity’s career, would have been a great story for the paper.
So, were the News of the World happy to speak to this voice on the end of the phone and run the story that weekend? Absolutely not. Before the story could go ahead, they wanted to meet this person face to face, have him prove his identity and relationship to the celebrity in question, as well as prove that what he was saying was not completely fabricated.
All very reasonable requests if you want to do your job properly and be sure about what you are printing before you even print it. When the tipster refused to meet them, the News of the World felt the origin of the story could not be sufficiently qualified, and it was instantly dropped.
It is the same when selling photographs to the News of the World, or any other red top for that matter.
The origin and ownership of the photograph has to be transparent and above board. If there is a risk that the person selling the photos has simply lifted them from someone else’s private Facebook page, or invaded someone’s privacy by snapping them on private land or in a private place, it has been my experience that tabloids will not touch them at all.
So, we have a situation where, across the UK, there are many assuming that all ‘great’ stories of the sort you saw in the News of the World week after week are only achievable though at best duplicitous and at worst illegal means.
This is categorically not true. Over the years, I have dealt with dozens of stories of the sort that send people rushing out to buy a paper simply to read it. None have come from phones being hacked.
In fact, many people want to share their story with the press. They actively phone into newspapers, or press agencies such as mine, and ask to share their story.
Ordinary people and celebrities alike are also invited, quite politely and in a manner which is appropriate (say a letter sent in the post or a phone call to an agent) to share their story. Many respond positively and say they’d love to speak.
Likewise, there is no need to hack phones to get tips or leads about scandal or wrongdoing that may be worth investigating. Here, at Talk to the Press, the phone rings every day with people offering us information about all sorts of things, and the same people will be contacting newspapers with their information too.
It is easy to think only of the cliché – that all tabloid journalists are thick skinned hacks who don’t care. I can’t speak for all, but I know that I am not thick skinned, and I know that I do care, and I know many journalists working on red tops who feel exactly the same way.
We operate with integrity, we are determined to do our jobs as best as we can, to never leave a trail of devastation in our wake and to feel proud of all we have achieved. Journalism is not a profession in which everyone working for it wants to add to the pain of relatives of murder victims, but one in which most want to give a voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard.
As the police inquiry continues, no doubt there will be more revelations that will appall us all, and ultimately more journalists jailed. It is without doubt a sad day for British journalism and phone hacking is both wrong and utterly inexcusable.
But whilst rogue operators continue to be uncovered and held accountable, the rest of us must be allowed to hold our heads up, continue with our jobs and not watch our reputations and professions being destroyed by the actions of a minority.