The young mother was almost incoherent with anger. Shouting over the lusty cries of her baby she explained how the damp in her high-rise flat was making her child ill, and pulled a corner of wallpaper back to reveal ugly black mould marching up the plaster. Earlier, another council tenant had shown me a urine-soaked stairwell where, she said, drug addicts gathered every night, making her afraid to go out, a prisoner in her own home. A few days later I witnessed bailiffs storming a cottage to evict a farmworker and his frightened family, the father desperately clinging to the doorframe in a futile attempt to block their way.
As an 18-year-old junior reporter, fresh out of an independent school and away from a comfortable middle-class home for the first time, I found myself pitched into a world of which I knew little. Learning my trade on a big city evening newspaper was a passport into alien lives, from the pomp and power of those in authority to those that today we would call the left behind, those who looked to “their paper” to articulate their worries, their needs. It educated me. It changed me.
Last week we heard Jon Snow’s reflections on today’s media – how the digital explosion has not filled the void left by a severely diminished local press nor allowed the voices of the disadvantaged to be heard to any great effect.
He rightly worries that the media draws its intake from too narrow a spectrum; middle-class, often privately educated, not sufficiently diverse, without the capacity “to reach into swaths of society with whom we have no connection”.
That’s true, but it is also true that the regional press, that fast-disappearing training ground, once enjoyed healthy profits and employed a much broader intake; so-called posh boys like me were very much in the minority. Caught in a vicious spiral of declining advertising and falling circulations, newspapers today cannot afford large staffs to do the sort of foot-slogging that so many of us did in our youth. Stories go untold. Would Grenfell Tower have happened if a vigorous local media were reporting tenants’ concerns and putting pressure on the council? I doubt it.
It all feeds into the current crisis of faith in journalism – a trade that failed to foretell the crash of 2008; failed to predict that Britain would vote to leave the EU; failed to see that Trump would win; failed to see that Theresa May would lose her majority. There are many reasons for this but lack of money is chief among them. When the media is struggling to make a profit, it can’t have teams of journalists out in the field listening, reporting – and confounding the accepted view.
That lack of faith is now fuelled and exploited by a new breed of politician, with Donald Trump as chief cheerleader. Backed into a corner, they blame “fake news” produced by “bad people”. That mantra is feeding into complaints to this paper: too often I will receive emails that make no attempt to tell why a story might be wrong: it is simply labelled as fake. No one is pretending that a choir of angels inhabits every newsroom – Leveson taught us that – but to condemn every outlet and its output as corrupt is a gross distortion, and it misses the point: shoot the messenger and democracy loses.
But with all that, the media can do more to help themselves. Readers are quick to tell us when we are wrong, unfair, or when we stretch credibility to breaking point. They don’t like it, for instance, when we claim to know the mind of the nation. A headline over a recent piece on a popular pub chain – “How Britain fell for Wetherspoon’s” – drew this response from a reader. “Britain has not fallen for Wetherspoon’s, only those that frequent it have, and even then many of them really haven’t. This standard journalistic practice of claiming an inaccurate uniformity (“England mourns Princess Di”, etc) is part of what led me to suspect and reject newspapers as a teenager.”
A quick search of Observer headlines over the past two years revealed a few more examples of these sweeping claims: “Britain has grown rich by chasing the cash. Now it has lost the scent”; “Whether we like it or not, Britain is now a nation of flat-dwellers”; “Britain is becoming mean and narrow-minded”; “The Spice crisis: how the ‘zombie’ drug is devastating Britain”; “The Mexican wave sweeping across Britain”; “Vic and Bob, Britain’s favourite Dadaist comedians”; and, rather bizarrely, “Britain gripped by saga of five whales beached on the North Sea coast”.
When the media have repeatedly proved not to know the minds of their audience, it’s surely time to start turning down the dial on so many overheated headlines before even more of that dwindling faith is lost.