Most remembered his time in charge at the Sunday Times, where the investigative journalism he sanctioned helped expose the scandal of thalidomide. A few, however, recalled his days as editor of the Northern Echo, where I began my career, long after he’d moved on to Fleet Street. And where his name was still the stuff of hushed tones and a degree of reverence rare among hacks.
For many commentators, Sir Harry represented the ‘right’ kind of journalism. Holding truth to power, illuminating falsehood, crusading for the marginalised. The ‘wrong’ kind of journalism now occupies a larger part of the public imagination. I was reminded of this when I sat down with the children to watch The Crown this week. It was series one, episode two. In it, the young Princess Elizabeth is in Kenya, oblivious to the news that is breaking all over the world that her father, King George VI, has died.
We see a group of photographers hot-footing it to the scene, hoping to capture an image of the future sovereign as she is told about her accession. “Leeches!” one of my children shouted. It was not an opinion she had formed in intellectual isolation, but a prejudice she had downloaded from the prevailing culture – and an ironic one at that, given that both her parents had been part of the leech tribe.
The iPhone is not Argus, with an all-seeing eye.
The trope of reporter or photographer as vulture or voyeur is not only lazy, but damaging. It is so, not because it ignores the nobility of the journalism practised by Harry Evans, but because it creates a specious distinction between journalism that is well-meaning and that which isn’t.
I was reminded of this recently when news broke about a serious crime in London. I won’t go into details because they’re liable to change between the time I write these words and their posting. But suffice to say that a few years ago a story like the one I have in mind would’ve become less opaque, sooner. The sort of hacks vilified as grubby practitioners of tabloid propaganda would’ve brought the details of this case into the public domain sooner than they emerge nowadays.
To which many will say: amen. Let the Metropolitan police control what facts emerge, and when. Let’s not go back to the bad old days of cops drinking in pubs with crime correspondents and spilling the beans. We can stop harmful speculation, channelling information about crime through the proper channels and signed off by the press office. Nobody gets hurt, least of all grieving families.
There’s a problem with this.
I’ve seen it happen again and again over the last few years. An event happens, often a violent one. The public are shocked and want to know more. The relevant authorities decide they will control the flow of information. Then, given how meagre the resources of most newsrooms now are, and how cowed many journalists are by the dead hand of officialdom with its constant injunctions to ‘respect privacy’, the authorities get their way.
Eventually, the truth – by which I mean, every element of the story – trickles out. Or, more typically, it emerges weeks later as part of an official account, perhaps at an inquest or even an inquiry. But by then, of course, public interest – a fickle beast at the best of times – has moved on.
This may seem an odd thing to say in a world where anyone with a smartphone can become a citizen journalist. In some respects the gap between the flash and bang of information has never been shorter. A terror attack happens and within minutes Twitter is awash with footage. The deluge of images and assertion, however, only ever gives a partial and incomplete account. The iPhone is not Argus, with an all-seeing eye.
The trope of reporter or photographer as vulture or voyeur is not only lazy, but damaging.
Maybe one of the reasons officialdom feels less free and easy about loosening its grip on information is because of the feeding frenzy we often witness where speculation is allowed to let rip. Add that to the chilling effect of the Leveson Inquiry. A broad sense that the rights of victims are the only things that matter under any circumstances. You begin then to see how important stories are not properly ventilated in public: not because the facts are suppressed, but because their dissemination is delayed.
Again, you may feel this can only be a good thing. We can think of hasty legal changes that have been ushered in by a tabloid-fuelled moral panics. Remember the Dangerous Dogs Act? Hard cases make bad law. But those hard cases take on a real life of their own when they are not, at least, mediated by trained editors. Now, it sometimes seems, we have the worst of both worlds. Trained journalists, too few, too circumscribed, to interrogate emerging facts quickly. Citizen journalists, too numerous, too ungoverned, to give a fair account instantly.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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