Article - Issue 20, August/September 2004

Lloyd’s Register Lecture – ‘Crisis Journalism’

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Introduction

By Lord Broers, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering As we are all aware, the modern media has the most enormous influence in the way it shapes the public’s perception and understanding of events. The newspapers, television, radio and most recently, the Internet, all vie to give us as much information on events as quickly as is possible. In today’s society the public have the right to know what is happening on topics as diverse as the war on terror to the state of the nation’s railways. So what role do the newspapers play in contributing to an understanding of these events and how do they fit in to the changing nature of the modern media itself? Inevitably, the question must be asked, ‘Do the press contribute to crisis or to an understanding of crisis?’

On that note, it is with great pleasure that I welcome tonight’s speaker, Mr Robert Thomson. Mr Thomson is an extraordinarily distinguished journalist. He began in the centre of the world with the Herald in Melbourne, he then as he said went overseas to Sydney where he worked for the Morning Herald but then he began a long and extensive time with the Financial Times, first in Japan for five years I just learned, and then successive positions in the FT. In 1998 he became Managing Editor of the Financial Times and took primary editorial responsibility for the FT group’s ambitious expansion in the United States when circulation grew from 33,000 to 146,000. He was appointed Editor of The Times on 6 March 2002. He is with us here tonight, despite an understandably busy schedule, and he is going to provide us with some insight into the complex world of ‘crisis journalism’. I am delighted that we have the support of The Lloyd’s Register Group: their generous sponsorship of this evening’s activities is of course central to this event’s existence. I would particularly like to welcome the Chairman, Mr David Moorhouse and Mr Vaughan Pomeroy of Lloyd’s Register, who have been a driving force behind this event. I would also like to welcome several other Directors and Managers from Lloyd’s.

It is indeed a very great pleasure to welcome Mr Thomson this evening to discuss ‘crisis journalism’.

Thanks very much Mate. Sorry about this Australian conspiracy thing, but it’s just the way it is. I guess it’s been a long time since a respectable, professional body such as the Royal Academy of Engineering should choose to invite a representative from a disreputable profession to provide enlightenment, particularly the Editor of a ‘tabloid’ newspaper such as my own. I apologise in advance.

It must be particularly daunting for a profession, which builds and maintains things, to be told how to think by a representative of an industry that likes to knock things down without much ceremony. We are very good at building straw men, but of course that’s merely for the purpose of knocking them down too.

We are however, somewhat expert at creating crises or turning controversies into crises or dross into drama. Now, when I say we, I guess it’s the royal we, or perhaps the republican we in some cases, as it applies to all the media. I mean there is no media like that of Britain, no market like that of Britain and it is in part because there is no greater gathering of talented, committed, hardworking, overworking journalists as there is in London where clever and crafty individuals are seeking each day to outwit the opposition, and each other, and to surprise readers whose palate has been jaded by a steady flow of rich and sometimes thick journalism.

Before becoming too self–critical and intentionally provocative, I should point out that the British press genuinely is a national treasure. There is nothing like the feistiness, the creativity or the sheer good journalism that is on display daily in London. There are vices and we must discuss them and confront them but there are virtues and there are great journalists, and many of them I would argue are at The Times.

It is a paper, or I should say at the moment it is two papers, that I am proud to edit because of the quality of the journalists around me and because of the high standards that our readers expect of us on a daily basis and the pain that we do and should feel when we let those readers down, as we will inevitably at times though hopefully not too often.

I plan to highlight two areas, one of which is often a failing of the political right and the other often a failing often of the left, although not exclusively so. These failings have a role in sometimes creating a sense of crisis or in making it more difficult to comprehend the nature of crisis or understand the response to that crisis. I hope not to be so theoretical as to be irrelevant and I certainly don’t mean to be philosophical, that’s the province of obscure journals and obscurantist editors.

The afore mentioned national treasure that is the British newspaper market, as well as bringing out the best in our journalism, can stimulate responses that are neither truly competitive nor remotely admirable. There must be a certain amount of theatre in journalism but it must be thoughtful theatre. There needs to be a confluence of history and histrionics in every issue of The Times, whether it be the broadsheet or the compact.

And journalism is surely the most imperfect of sciences, there is limited space and merely by promoting one paragraph above another, you are implicitly creating a potentially flawed hierarchy of information. The news stories can only be understood as a result of political bias that is inimical through the great traditions of objective reporting. Of course there should be many and varied opinions in a newspaper but those opinions should be on the opinion pages or from those who write letters to the editor and not if at all possible in the reporting. The objective should be to be objective.

The danger of distorting a debate becomes particularly profound when the theatrical devices of journalism are combined with the pseudo-scientific approach that is merely an attempt to provide substance for theorising rather than a foundation for reporting. That is often the case in the immigration debate, where it is clearly easy to find statistics, in part because figures are often unprovable, to provide apparent support for the most intolerant of arguments. In this, there is the oddest of coming togethers between the hard right, which has a shameful tradition of intolerance and the soft left which merged or muddled arguments based on traditional union protectionism and environmental evangelism that are inherently exclusionary and implicitly racist. That there needs to be an informed debate about race and immigration is a given, that the government has been somewhat deceptive is certain. But that is not an excuse to turn a controversy into a crisis that feeds the worst instincts of some readers.

Britain is a far more cosmopolitan place than it gives itself credit for being, it even tolerates a foreigner editing The Times, and a foreigner who turned The Times into a tabloid. And yet a confected crisis can have political impact to the detriment of that cosmopolitan culture.

Now to the second crisis-related failing in newspapers. A failing that, were it limited to the leader columns, would not be a matter of substance, but it is the back flow of opinion into the news pages that again makes it as poisonous as rogue bacteria. The failing is one of both the left and right but I will focus on the left today because I believe that the lunch tables of London list a little to the left and thus it is more of a political problem.

When editors allow their newspapers to become well meaning or to indulge in idealism in the news pages they are conspiring in the creation of an air of unreality that can contribute to crisis or place obstacles in the road to really coping with those crises.

Take the UNDP annual report, which focuses on the tackling of poverty. I suspect that there is no one in this room in favour of poverty and all would agree that the sooner that absolute poverty is banished absolutely, the better. There are few issues that are as fundamental or as human and real in their consequences and while the UNDP report last July found that at levels unprecedented in human history, hundreds of millions of people were being lifted out of poverty or actually more importantly and more accurately were lifting themselves out of poverty in South and East Asia. That did not rate even one word of mention on the front page of a newspaper, which devoted much of its front page to that report last July. Perhaps it was just a statistical oversight; perhaps it was just because progress in India and China was linked to market related reforms and thus ideologically inconvenient for report. But what I might call louche liberalism borders on the immoral and it is just as racist as the ranting and right wing nonsense in some of the tabloids.

Not confronting reality creates an air of unreality in which mutant ideas thrive, in which implausible platitudes are an overvalued conversational currency and self-serving, self-aggrandising, louche liberalism is a smug measure of personal self worth but hardly a way to measure the social good. It contributes to an environment conducive to the incremental institutionalisation of crisis.

It was fascinating to read the thoughts of Trevor Philips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality on the subject of multiculturalism last week. But his thoughtful comments were the subject of so much controversy and I suspect will be the stuff of continuing debate, was revealing. His thoughts were hardly revolutionary and were clad in the most reasonable of language. And while some regard themselves as tolerant could not tolerate his argument. Whether you agree with Mr Philips or not, it is important that interviews be done with people like him and that his views are fairly reported.

The greatest danger to tolerance in Britain, and a real crisis for multiculturalism, would come if there is a terrorist attack, and we hope that there is not, but the intelligence services would suggest that it is inevitable and if, as a society Britain has not had a mature debate about diversity, its benefits and its costs. That debate needs to be informed by reporting as well as flavoured by conflicting opinion. But that debate will never be as mature as it should be – as it must be – if illiberal liberalism narrows the terms of reference.

That’s just about filled my rhetoric quota and perhaps it’s useful to be practical for a moment. A lot of you will have to deal with the media, and if you do have to deal with the media, newspapers in particular, it’s worth emphasising a couple of strategies; many companies do have a good story to tell but journalists sometimes fail to get to even the end of the first part of a press release. In part, that’s because journalists are not as assiduous as they should be but it’s also because the professional relationship with the media should not just be about press releases.

My best tip to getting on with Times journalists is, apart from regularly leaking them sensitive information, which I hope you will all do henceforth, is to actually read the newspaper on a regular basis and to begin to get a feel for a rhythm of the reporting. If, for example, your company is involved somehow in crisis management, and handling what you might regard as pesky journalists and of course what I regard as sacred practitioners, then handling them in the right way is surely a priority. Journalists will rarely have your level of specialist expertise and the smartest journalists often ask the dumbest questions and you should respect their admission of ignorance as a mark of their professional credibility.

 Anyway, that’s enough social engineering from me, I thank you all very much for coming, I sincerely wish you well in your work and I am now ready to be chastised, contradicted or merely questioned. Thank you very much.

‘When newspapers indulge in idealism in the news pages they are conspiring in the creation of an air of unreality’

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