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Press: Readers care about truth — if it affects them  

23 June 2023


WHY do newspapers tell the truth? Why do they even try? These are not rhetorical questions: if we could establish the answers, it would help to explain why many of them, most of the time, don’t even try.

It’s a subject that I have had to think about a great deal over the years, but it’s prompted this week by the coverage of the Committee on Privileges’ utterly damning report on Boris Johnson, which was reported in the Daily Express under the headline “The most spiteful stitchup in the history of politics”.

Every single word of that is a lie, if words have any meaning. It is not, therefore, news, in any accepted sense of the word. But it is most unlikely that the newspaper lost a single paying reader as a result. News is not what its readers pay for. In the delightful words of Walter Bagehot, when he was editor of The Economist, the typical reader wants an article “which he can lay down and say ‘an excellent article, very excellent, exactly my own sentiments’” (Press, 19 May).

THIS is not what readers are meant to want, and the high-minded papers go to great lengths to pretend that their readers want something entirely different.

The New Yorker carried a long, pious interview with A. G. Sulzberger, the sixth Sulzberger in dynastic succession to run (and own) The New York Times. He told them: “The Times serves the cause of the truth. An informed public, we believe, is the most important ingredient in a healthy democracy. We believe a common fact base is the most important ingredient in a democracy. Independent journalism — I don’t believe it’s nihilistic or amoral or valueless . . . the role of journalists [should] be to independently follow the truth and try to arm the public with the facts and the context and the understanding it needs for this giant, diverse democracy to come together and self-govern.”

These are all sentiments to which The Guardian would subscribe. In weaker moments, almost any working journalist would. But they are not how the trade really works, and I don’t think that they could be. Sometimes, the problem is bad journalists, who are entirely unconcerned with truth.

Mr Johnson would be one example. The deliberate dishonesty of his reporting from Brussels shocked his colleagues and competitors there — but such people can be very successful in professional terms. Mr Johnson gave his readers exciting and entertaining dramatisations of stories which they wanted to be true. Excitement and entertainment is what they wanted far more than factual truth.

This is not a point scored against the Right. When I wrote about Sweden for the English press, I discovered that people took from my articles only the bits that they agreed with. Whether on the Left or the Right, they all knew already what Sweden was like. My job was simply to supply entertaining embellishments to that picture.

This is true of almost any subject. The reader is convinced that they know more than the journalist; the journalist believes that they know more than the reader; the people who are written about know that they understand far more than the media. All are often wrong, but very few can be convinced of it.

This is because, for most people, there is no immediate penalty for being wrong about anything in the national news. What happens will happen irrespective of our opinions. There are very few exceptions to this rule; but, in the Covid pandemic, a great many people who thought that it was all a fuss about nothing died as a result of their own scepticism.

The New York Times’s position is absolutely blind to this reality, and to the class divisions that make for it. The Guardian is, too, which explains why it so grotesquely misreads the popular mood sometimes. Both papers assume the existence of a politically active and influential public that wants to be educated because its decisions matter — and both carry on as if the vastly more numerous public, of whom none of these things are true, didn’t matter or didn’t exist.

THIS is not a counsel of nihilism or despair. To attempt to live up to the principles of independent journalism is very much better than the alternative.

The New York Times’s principles about factual accuracy are an important standard in the trade. But the readers’ concern for truth in news is a political matter: it is about power, which readers mostly don’t have. We are all naturally and unavoidably most concerned with the truth of those matters that affect us personally, and which we can ourselves affect. That is why the Church Times, written for people in the trade, has to tell the truth.

It is also why The Daily Telegraph chose for its front page, on the Privileges Committee report, “Johnson allies vow to oust MPs who vote for his censure.” You might think that this was an inadequate summary of the story, but you are not a Tory MP. For them, it was extremely important news, which is why 240 of them abstained rather than bear witness to the truth of the committee’s report.

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