What is the best we can hope for from journalism? Leveson has lifted the lid on a tawdry story of decline over a decade and more. It has offered plenty of confirmation of key points in Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News which pointed to nose-diving media capacity for research and judgement in the face of financial and time pressures. Davies was dismissed by some as shrill, but it now all looks rather sage.
The interviews in the course of the Leveson inquiry point to many of the same conclusions. Some aim at the consumer: ‘you get what you pay for’ and ‘get the media you deserve’. But mostly they point to governance and regulation: democracy needs quality journalism, and that requires purposeful nurturing and protection.
You have to hope that Leveson is a turning point, but the conclusions are likely to be weighty and lengthy, so here is a simple and naïve proposition in the meantime: can we today start a campaign for fairtrade journalism. What might an established broadcaster, paper or new-kid online source need to do to win the badge?
- Fair payment: media consumers should accept that quality comes at a price. A fairtrade journalism logo on the masthead will give them the warm glow of satisfaction that their license fee or £1.50 or so a day for a paper is going to support a well researched, well presented body of content that has been produced in conditions that don’t threaten to shorten the lives of journalists through the sheer miserable dreary overwork that comes with reworking press releases.
- Quality: Supporting a good slice of ambitious investigative journalism, and decent levels of fact checking should be baseline practices for fairtrade journalism. A proportion of revenue should be invested as a matter of routine in research and review time. This is as important in local media as national and international in terms of ensuring scrutiny of government, business and other claims and obligations.
- Traceability: where a story is founded on, or makes reference to, research findings or public policy documents (environment; health; economy; Europe; life sciences and on and on) links to the relevant publication should be included. This is as easy as an html link. Lazy linking will be weeded out by crowd sourced checking. The absence of a link to a publication or other reputable source will have to be explained. And slack journalists, editors and outlets will have their reputation dented if they fail to follow this simple practice.
- Trust: certification as a fairtrade journalism outlet would assume that the whole media content supply chain had been regularly checked over in terms of ethical and professional standards. One thing Leveson has done very effectively is reminded everyone what those are.
This notion of fairtrade journalism is of course a really silly suggestion. But of course until relatively recently it was silly to imagine News International execs in the dock, and Murdoch facing intense public scrutiny. It probably seemed silly when a handful of British vicars gently suggested that the price of your cup of tea or coffee should include a fair price to the distant growers. They and their Dutch counterparts went from selling poorly packaged dusty tea in their vestries in 1979 to changing the way that leading brands trade with commodities growers within just three decades. Even without God on our side we can do some simple things to make a permanent change to the relationship between consumers and producers of journalism.