What is journalism actually for? According to the late humorist Finley Peter Dunne:
Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.
More recently, the American Press Institute explained:
The purpose of journalism is… to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.
Journalism’s job is to tell the truth when other people try to obscure it. As George Orwell didn’t write (it’s widely attributed to him, but there’s no evidence that he ever wrote it):
Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.
So what should we make of the Shropshire Star’s coverage of the MP, Daniel Kawczynski, and his online comments about the Marshall Plan?
If you aren’t familiar with the story, Kawczynski is an anti-EU backbencher. He posted to Twitter:
Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany.
That is untrue. The largest recipient of funds from the Marshall Plan was, er, Great Britain. We got 26% of the aid compared to 11% for Germany.
The internet was quick to correct the MP, but his local paper chose to describe the story as a “row” where “critics” were “questioning the MP’s apparent claim.” Here’s how it sold the story on Twitter.
Daniel Kawczynski hit back at critics saying: “Those affiliated to Europe in this country hate any challenge to their point of view.”
That’s not the story. This is the story:
Daniel Kawczynski lied.
The linked article, by the paper’s senior reporter, gave the MP the opportunity to double down on his nonsense. It has since been edited after a “row” where “critics” pointed out that the paper was missing a fairly obvious point: the MP lied. It wasn’t an opinion. It wasn’t a different interpretation. It was a bare-faced, flat-out, easily checkable lie. Rather than say that, the paper went with a diversionary quote from the lying liar who lied, presenting the patently untrue claim as if it were just one side of a debate.
This matters, as FT contributor David Allen Green explains.
Politics in the UK – and USA and no doubt elsewhere – is in a poor shape.
And one reason for this is the casual dishonesty of politicians and their supporters, and the unwillingness or inability of the media to check the falsehoods of politicians and their supporters.
…A politician lies, people shrug, the political caravan moves on.
The political lie serves its quick and cynical purpose, and is soon just forgotten.
This particular example is over Brexit, of course, but the issue is endemic. It’s in the columnists who don’t declare conflicts of interest when they write about particular groups and who repeatedly lie in the service of a personal agenda. It’s in the churnalism that regurgitates press releases, prizing “truthiness” over actual truth. It’s in the collapse of fact checking and the “clicks first, check later” culture that makes so much modern journalism worthless. It’s the repositioning of news media as a branch of showbusiness.
We’re regularly told of a crisis in journalism, the ongoing difficulty in getting people to pay for news. But the sad truth is that some news simply isn’t worth paying for. As I’ve written before, bullshit is not a precious and rare commodity.
Journalism’s job is to ask questions; as the viral quote puts it, to “look out the fucking window” when somebody claims its raining. Journalism that doesn’t check facts, that enables liars to double down on falsehoods, is journalism that fails its readers. Journalism that doesn’t do its job is journalism that isn’t worth saving.