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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