Sex, death and celebrity – the other enemies of quality journalism

Photo by Je@an (Flickr)

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

It’s one of those stories behind the story – the fact that alongside the well-worn narrative about the crisis in financing journalism runs another tale of a cultural shift which, over the past decade, has led to the British media becoming less and less receptive to serious reporting.

In the interview I did with him last month, editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism Iain Overton explained that his main challenge lay not so much in finding the money to do in-depth investigative reporting, but the media outlets prepared to publish it.

‘Persuading the gatekeepers of mass media to allow us space to explain complicated issues is our biggest difficulty,’ he said. ‘The problem is not so much doing quality journalism, but trying to translate it into someting that sells in today’s media landscape.’

Overton described a commissioning culture in which the sensationalist and the simple pushes out stories seen as dry or complex as editors and publishers compete, in a fast-moving and fragmented media scene, for ‘as many eyeballs as possible’.

His comments vividly called to mind my own experience of trying to place foreign stories. When I published a book on Lebanon a few years ago, I got a call from the features editor of a high-circulation woman’s magazine wanting an article. Initially, I demurred – I couldn’t produce the kind of ‘gang-raped in Rwanda’ piece the magazine tended to run, but the editor insisted that something gentler, more human was wanted, and we discussed variations on ‘love in a warzone’. At her request, I then wrote a detailed proposal about the difficulties facing couples marrying across Lebanon’s sectarian divide.

But the idea was vetoed higher up for failing to contain any honour killings, which don’t generally happen in Lebanon. ‘Flip-flops by the concrete, that’s what they want,’ explained a chastened-sounding editor. ‘A woman’s got to die, or nearly die, as a result of her marriage, or we can’t run it.’

I had a similar experience with a national newspaper that should have known better. In the summer of 2006, Israel was busily bombing Lebanon, and the British navy was sent to rescue the Brits resident there. Among the several thousand British nationals who were shipped away were a small number of Lebanese who, by a quirk of history and family, held British passports and used them to flee the fighting. They were being housed in temporary accommodation at Essex University courtesy of the council, and I was commissioned to write a feature on them.

The exiles were a diverse group of all ages and religions, some bewildered and without much English, others educated and enterprising. They were, in fact, a microcosm of the society I had come to know in Middle East, now bizarrely transplanted onto a British university campus, the latest instance of the diaspora that characterises the Lebanese condition.

A few days later, I was surprised to see, in the same paper, a feature on Lebanon telling the story of a Shia woman killed in the bombing. The picture that accompanied it showed a female corpse splayed over rubble, the head encased in a hijab – an image neatly confirming the western stereotype of Arabs as Muslim and dead, preferably by violent means. The commissioning editor no longer wanted my story of displaced Lebanese because, he said – I’m quoting verbatum – ”they’re not dead, and they have accommodation”.’

I won’t bore you with the numerous other instances I could cite. But such examples seem to illustrate, as do Overton’s travails in remedying the gap in investigative reporting, a threat to quality journalism as great as the lack of money.

It’s all too easy, when we focus on the financial side, to forget that the problem is not just about money – it’s about how money affects attitudes and behaviour. But if journalism is to fulfill its raison d’etre of telling the truth about the world rather than distorting it, it’s essential to remember the complex interplay of cash and culture.