What is a journalist?

The jailing of Craig Murray hasn’t only raised serious questions about Scotland’s justice system, it has made vexed the matter of what constitutes journalism and who is entitled to call themselves or be regarded as a practitioner of journalism. The issue of the justice system I leave for another time. And perhaps for another writer. Here, I want to ponder two associated questions. What is a journalist? What is journalism? But first we must decide which comes first. Is a journalist a journalist because what they do is journalism? Or is journalism journalism because it is done by journalists? And why is this important?

The question is important because however we define journalism we must acknowledge that it plays a highly significant role in our lives. We swim in a sea of mediated messages. Actually, so dense is this this sea it is more akin to a broth. But let’s continue to refer to it as a sea as this conjures a less disgusting image. What I intend to say is that we are immersed in mediated messages as we might be immersed in water. Like water, those messages press in on us – each and the whole of us – from every direction, all seeking a way into our minds much as water seems to seek a way into our lungs. There we leave the analogy behind. Because where the characteristics of water are determined by the laws of nature, media messages are fashioned by the human imagination. Which leaves a scary amount of scope for the form and nature of those messages. The content can be anything that someone can imagine. The content can be true or false; factual or fictional; accurate or inaccurate, and just about any other pair of opposites you might think of.

Those messages are created. They are mediated. Which essentially means that they go through a system of filters as they travel from source to recipient. For every media message you receive there is at least one creator. At least one person has chosen the form of words in which the content of the message is conveyed. That form of words has significant implications for our understanding of the message and hence our appreciation of the thing that the message relates to. Ultimately, the world we perceive is the world as seen through the lens created by the manufactures of media messages. It stands to reason, therefore, that we should take considerable interest in who those manufacturers are and what interests they serve.

Journalists are creators of media messages. They are not the only creators of media messages. Not all media messages are created by journalists. What distinguishes journalists from other creators of media messages is that the subject matter of the messages they mediate is the real world and actual events. If media messages are divided into the two categories of supposedly factual and explicitly fictional, journalists are involved in the former.

At this point I had intended to offer a small selection of dictionary definitions of the terms ‘journalism’ and ‘journalist’. While searching for suitable material I came across something which, despite being in a dictionary, illustrates nicely the vagueness of the concept of journalism rather than clarifying it. The Merriam-Webster entry for ‘journalism‘ starts uncontroversially enough with a definition that is in line with every other dictionary I looked at. It defines journalism as “the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media”. Other definitions, however, seem to obscure more than the clarify. Compare these two statements –

writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation

writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest

My first thought was that precious little of what is presented to us by the traditional media falls within the parameters of first definition. And absolutely none of it satisfies the criterion of being “without an attempt at interpretation”. Some of it – arguably the best of it – attempts to minimise the amount of “interpretation”. But the very act of choosing the words is by definition, interpretation. Taken together with the notion of “direct presentation” Merriam-Webster seems to be asking us to afford the messages presented to us by journalists parity of status with the evidence of our own senses. Let’s just say I’m a bit wary of the idea that journalists should be considered literally our eyes and ears on the world outwith the reach of our own sight and hearing. Not least because of the second definition in the above quote.

Are we to assume that what appeals to “current popular taste or public interest” is the same as “direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation”? Or that direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation is what appeals to “current popular taste or public interest”? Maybe it is my cynicism that causes me to see a distinction between factual reporting of events and pandering to the lowest common denominator of public taste and interest. The mass addressed by the mass media is more concerned about football than facts and more interested it tits ‘n’ arse than truth ‘n’ accuracy. Or at least such would seem to be the judgement of the mass media if its output is a true reflection of what its audience demands.

Merriam-Webster defines the term ‘journalist’ as “a person engaged in journalism”. Collins defines ‘journalist’ as “a person whose job is to collect news and write about it for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio”. Cambridge says a journalist is “a person who writes news stories or articles for a newspaper or magazine or broadcasts them on radio or television:”. All the dictionary definitions I looked at defined journalism in terms of the product and/or the act of producing it. Without the product, there are no journalists. The product would exist even if there was nobody calling themselves a journalist. The product existed long before there was anybody calling themselves a journalist. People have always told each other stories about the word. In particular, people have always told other people stories about things those other people might otherwise have no knowledge of. Journalism is the product. Journalists are the producers.

There is journalism, therefore there are journalists. Not the other way around. Whether someone is entitled to call themselves a journalist depends entirely on whether what they do is journalism. And the term journalism covers a very wide range of content. Not just reporting but analysis and commentary and opinion and even parody. Think of the content of an established newspaper. All of it is written by people who consider themselves journalists; and whose entitlement to do so is seldom questioned. Journalism is pretty much anything that isn’t explicitly fictional or purely academic. That final Merriam-Webster definition of journalism is accurate. We recognise it because it accords with what we are daily presented with as journalism by the traditional media.

I have always rejected the label ‘journalist’. I did so mainly because I considered the term devalued if not contaminated by many of those generally thought of as journalists. I didn’t want to be classed with those I’d be wise to avoid mentioning by name lest I stray into the area of defamation. I refer to the self-styled journalists who use their training to manipulate messages not for the purpose of informing or illuminating but solely to misinform, mislead and deceive. I suspect everyone reading this will have immediately thought of one or more names from my own top ten despicable journalists. I therefore choose not to be called a journalist. I prefer the term ‘writer’.

It was only when considering this whole question of what constitutes journalism and therefore what is a journalist in the light of everything that has happened to Craig Murray that I realised that what I do is journalism. There is no way of denying it. Take this article, for example. Imagine you had been handed it in the form of a printout with no clue as to its provenance. You don’t know who wrote it. You don’t know where, if anywhere, it was first published. You are asked simply whether the article could be regarded as journalism. If you answer yes, then you cannot deny any claim I might make to be a journalist. Because by your own admission, what I am doing is journalism.

And if you say no, it isn’t journalism, then the onus is on you to explain what differentiates this article from what you regard as journalism. Bearing in mind that this explanation cannot reference the author or the source publication or anything other than the content. You would have to explain how, given two articles devoid of any further information, you distinguish one from the other to say one is journalism and the other is not. You would be required to state the criteria you were applying. Or you would be rightly mocked.

Precisely the same is true of Craig Murray’s writing. It is in essence indistinguishable from writing that is accepted as journalism without question or hesitation. Of course there are distinguishing features of language, style etc. But no more than exist in any two pieces of writing authored by acknowledged journalists and published in recognised organs, What Craig Murray does is journalism. It is journalism unless someone can demonstrate that it can be distinguished from known examples of journalism on the basis solely of the content.

What Craig Murray does is journalism. Therefore, he is a journalist. He is perfectly entitled to style himself as such. We are fully entitled to regard him as such. A journalist has been jailed for doing journalism. Like it or not, I am a journalist doing journalism. As are most of the bloggers I read. If Craig Murray can be jailed, how safe are the rest of us? If Craig can be excepted from the protections afforded journalists on the grounds that he is not a journalist without any explanation as to what distinguishes his writing from journalism, then how easily might other bloggers be prosecuted on the same basis?

The ground before bloggers such as myself has suddenly turned to quicksand. It may be highly unlikely that I will attract the vicious attention of Scotland’s prosecuting authorities. But I have no way of being certain. I have been made to feel threatened and insecure. I might well be forgiven for stopping writing altogether in order to be sure of avoiding the fate that befell Craig. It would certainly be understandable if bloggers such as myself were to become more circumspect in our writing. We might succumb to self-censorship – that most pernicious form of a pernicious practice – even without being aware of it. I could don my macho suit and protest that I don’t give a shit, I’ll say what I think needs to be said and to hell with the consequences. But will I? I might well be more cautious without being consciously aware of it.

The question the public should be asking is whether it is acceptable that anybody doing journalism should be made to feel such insecurity. It is in the nature of things that the new media attract the dissenting voices which less readily find an outlet in the traditional media. Is it tolerable in a democracy that those dissenting voices should be muted? Does democracy not rely on the informed consent of the people? Is it not essential to democracy that people have access to those dissenting voices? Is it beneficial to democracy that the people have access only to messages mediated by professional journalists who one way or another are in the pay and the pockets of established power? Can democracy survive this?

Tomorrow, will I even be able to ask these questions?



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21 thoughts on “What is a journalist?

  1. A powerful critique Peter, your penultimate paragraph I am sure will be weighing heavily in the subconscious of the blogging community who seek to inform. All power to your contribution.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Very good piece, Peter, and I would say that most, if not all, bloggers are journalists. However, Mr Murray was not prosecuted for his journalism, as such, or for being a journalist; he was prosecuted under the law of a strict liability offence. That offence was to continue to write oblique blogs about the Salmond case after all forms of journalism – the MSM and bloggers – had been told to desist from anything that could help to identify the women in the case who were being sheltered under a court ruling.

    Contempt of court is an offence against the honour and dignity of the court, not against individuals or groups. I don’t believe he did identify the women. To anyone not in the know – that is, anyone who was not in court while the case was taking place, anyone not au fait with all the details of the case, etc. – it would not have been possible to identify them. To anyone within the charmed circle at Holyrood, in the MSM, or anyone who had knowledge of the case from the other side, it would not have been difficult – without any help from Mr Murray.

    Even where a case of alleged sexual assault is not proven and the accused is found not guilty, that does not remove the court ruling on anonymity; it is a legal convention that was hard-fought-for and hard-won by women. I am of the opinion that an accused of such a serious crime should also be afforded anonymity; and I am also of the opinion that women who deliberately use the anonymity afforded them to continue to snipe from behind its shield should also receive some suitable restriction.

    It was never intended to be used in that way and the women should have been made aware of that. Any woman who is dissatisfied with the result of a case can seek redress via the civil courts, but, although the hurdle of proof is not as high in civil cases as in criminal cases, with good reason, it must still be cleared with a standard of proof that satisfies the court.

    It was actually in the sentence that I believe the real unfairness occurred and I also believe that it was intended to sound a warning knell to all online blogger journalists that they, too, have to abide by the rules which pertain to the MSM. That the MSM was given a degree of licence to report the case which, in the end, was not afforded to Mr Murray, makes no difference to the eventual reason for prosecution – which was that he continued to report on the case in ways in which the court had disapproved of earlier – allowing ‘jigsaw identification’, or, more simply, allowing titbits of information to leak out that, though not in themselves identifying anyone, if put together with other pieces of information previously disclosed, however they had been disclosed, even if inadvertently, would afford an opportunity for the women to be identified.

    In light of his personal circumstances, the court had the opportunity to be lenient, but chose not to take it. A blunt warning and admonishment would have served the same end, so we must speculate as to why he was jailed. I would imagine that few other bloggers are in the same category as Mr Murray who is also a human rights advocate and a thorn in the side of the establishment over the Assange case. The maxim, however, of ‘pour encourager les autres’ has always been an aspect of the law as it affects the state and/or politics. You, along with all the other favourite bloggers, are most definitely among the ‘autres’, I’d think, wouldn’t you?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Nothing Craig Murray wrote, made it possible to identify anyone.
      The Judge made the claim he did, but that is false.
      There is no way any jury would have convicted Craig Murray.
      And when we see that others did actually write stuff that could identify individuals, and they got away with it, simply because they wrote in a newspaper, that makes this case all the more unacceptable.

      The Judge seemed to have a rather strange view of those who write for newspapers, allowing them to break the Law she had imposed upon Craig Murray, and she singled out the fact he wrote online, and not for a newspaper.
      That is a bizarre way to go about Justice..
      It sounds more like she was determined to get someone, as she didn’t get Salmond.
      That is the way this is coming over.
      It is a disgrace, and a person who is in effect, innocent, is now in jail. While others who are guilty of doing the very thing the Judge told them not to, are free.
      That has be questioned.

      Liked by 10 people

    2. lorncal: ‘autres’ they most certainly are unfortunately purveyors of perjured evidence, which in my opinion is a greater contempt of court, appear to have avoided sanction and this distinction by means of anonymity. The sequel to this travesty may yet be played out.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. I wonder if they can or would take it to the European Court of Justice?
        Ok, that takes ages and ages, but if they found a miscarriage of Justice, here, then it would be worth it, I’d think.
        Also, the term “Political Prisoner” comes to mind, with this.

        Liked by 2 people

    3. “In light of his personal circumstances……”.

      I don’t know where that sentiment comes from. What’s it about? Mrs Murray might hire a nanny? Mr Murray might lose his job? 🙂 His personal circumstances are a shed load better than most of his chavez.

      The courts evaluate people’s personal circumstances prior to sentencing. Doctor, psychiatrist, social services, the whole lot. It’s all part of the burden he has put on society through his actions. As for his sentence, when you take the piss out of the judiciary through contempt or perverting the course of justice, the consequences are usually life-changing. Four months then parole is lightweight. You would get longer for pretending you weren’t the driver in a speeding car.

      Like

      1. What the fuck do you know of Craig Murray’s personal circumstances? You are just venting your own ill-informed prejudices. Too shallow-minded to appreciate the true significance of his persecution.

        Liked by 5 people

      2. Obviously I know a fuck lot more than you do, Peter.

        Consider the fucking idea that it is you that are fucking venting your ill-fucking informed shallow-minded prejudices. Rich foolish Morningside mansion dwellers should be above imprisonment, and the law, and should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they are pro-indy, sounds like what you are braying about. I know much less about you – perhaps you are of the same ilk as Mr Murray?

        You never know, perhaps the true significance of his conviction is that he is guilty of contempt of court? Ever considered that?

        As for blogger/journalist angst, who the fuck cares – you’re not going to be reporting the news anyway. Writing opinions is more like being an historical novelist.

        Like

  3. The choice of vehicle to conduct one’s journalism for the most part has been the printing presses. Now there’s a new kid on the block and that’s the Internet. I think Lady Dorrian has just used the bloggers as an excuse to go for Craig Murray. Some folk think it’s a warning to all bloggers to back off. Initially Craig was told he couldn’t sit in the press/Media section during the Trial as he wasn’t working for a broadsheet or a Tabloid. What arrogant nonsense. It’s a bad day for Freedom of Speech when this happens. Facism at its ugliest.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I call myself a philosopher and wordsmith. If pushed I would say writer or blogger. But I would never sink so low as to call myself a journalist. When I dip into politics in my blog, I am only expressing my opinion, and from quite an academic position, historical or philosophical perhaps. I am not reporting on events or trying to influence public opinion.

    Nevertheless, I think your point is well made. The bottom line here is that Mr Murray was stitched up and handed out a punitive sentence because he is a thorn in the side of the British state. Nothing about what is said to justify this makes any sense whatever. The explicit distinction between real journalists who work for respectable news outlets and the rest of us scares the bejesus out of me. Not because I believe that I am a threat, but it is the thin end of a wedge. Who will be next? We are already witnessing the most inane cancelling of anybody who does not kowtow to the stupidities of identity politics ….

    Liked by 4 people

  5. “ALL Under One Banner’s (AUOB) static rally against Trident which is set for Faslane on Saturday, August 28, has been boosted by the support of Now Scotland.”

    https://www.thenational.scot/news/19498239.auob-static-rally-trident-faslane-boosted-support-indy-group/

    “Now Scotland is, and will remain, entirely neutral on all matters outwith the core question of Scottish independence.”

    https://www.nowscotland.scot/about_us

    and (actual “matter” – Fossil Fuel Free – in the URL)

    https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/nowscotland/pages/185/attachments/original/1622645210/FossilFreeScotland.png?1622645210

    Which one is it to be? Neutral – or having policies?

    A bit like journalism – the people can have whatever views they like, but the articles must at least attempt to be neutral and balanced. Otherwise it’s “opinion”, not “news”, and they are columnists, not journalists.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well,

        Well, people could ask themselves whether they think the following are journalists or opinionists. In no particular order:

        Severin Carrell
        Paul Hutcheon
        Kirsty Wark
        Rev Campbell
        Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh
        Dani Garavelli
        Adam Tomkins
        add your own!

        Like

      2. I did, but you didn’t answer the question, which in any case wasn’t just to you. “people” is plural and “themselves” is also plural.

        I personally would say that journalism is based on truth, and that parody for instance is one form of satire, which most people wouldn’t think of as truth or “news”.

        I, however, would also say that journalism is independent of medium – which neither includes nor excludes any of those in that list. In fact I think I was the first poster on CM’s blogs to point out the discrimination against bloggers shown in the judgement. Journalism based on journal as in day events goes back way further than paper in my opinion, no matter how reliable or unreliable a story-teller might be – or the markings on a cave wall.

        Journalism, journalists, the rule of law – and the judging of the law – should be open matters for debate. So far it seems only to be being debated by bloggers, not “traditional” journalists. I look forward to the first article in the Herald, the Grun, the Times, or even on the TV where, as far as I know, no blog has ever been reported on “What the papers say”.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Is membership of the NUJ limited to MSM “journalists” ?
    Is there a journalists’ union which includes online citizen journalists among its members ?
    If not – maybe time to form one ?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Interesting.

        Having a look at Guido Fawkes (order-order – I’m not a fan and don’t read it) about, Global & General Nominees Limited is a Hong Kong company it seems, the editor is outside the UK, and the site is hosted in the USA.

        https://order-order.com/about/

        A bit of an indictment of the UK, frankly, Can’t find any bloggers organisation.

        I was agnostic about the whole thing, probably as neutral and outsider as you can get even though I started as a netizen on a Demon Tam when 1p per minute call rates became available amnd I think the giddy heights of a 2400 but modem or something like that, but the NUJ do seem to be being very short-sighted and possibly dodoistsic, with the rundown of print media.

        Sorry if this posting is lop-sided, I can’t see it properly with my Win XP no longer updateable Firefox.

        Like

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