Observations with Joe Cooper: The truth is worth fighting for

Newspapers must still be committed to telling the truth.
Newspapers must still be committed to telling the truth.
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Is there nobody we can trust anymore? Over the past few months and years, our collective faith in politicians, the press, the police and social services all seem to have been shaken, if not decimated. Even the comforting telly heroes of yesteryear are no longer a safe bet as the net of Operation Yewtree seems to snare yet another each week. But they seemed so nice on the telly!

The grubby goings-on at the red top newspapers may have shocked many, but surely most people did not find phone hacking particularly surprising. A scandal of a different, more serious measure, threatens to engulf the broadsheet press this week as veteran political commentator Peter Oborne publicly resigned from the Daily Telegraph. He did so because of the paper’s non-coverage of the HSBC tax avoidance story, accusing it of a “form of fraud on its readers” and should be applauded for his position. He said stories on HSBC and Tesco were ignored for commercial reasons – HSBC’s was supposedly an “extremely valuable” advertiser with the paper, advertising that it could and did withdraw if it did not like the paper’s coverage.

It goes without saying that this is a fundamental betrayal of its readers and the purpose of a free press – to hold power to account and not “pander to political power, big corporations and rich men”, as Oborne said.

(I’ve never felt any such pressure while at the Reporter Series!)

Local newspapers are still largely a trusted source. Two-thirds of people trust what they read in their local paper while fewer than a fifth trust what they read on Facebook, according to 2013 YouGov poll.

I certainly hope that our websites and their associated Facebook and Twitter feeds are trusted sources of information.

Local newspapers can still be trusted to act as a beacon of truth amongst the noise of the internet and social media. They are bound by publishing laws and the rules of their own employers to do so, not to mention journalists’ own professional integrity.

Other sources of online information may say they are news sites but lay little claim to that title.

Rumour, gossip and tittle-tattle often rule over hard facts and balanced, fair reporting.

And this can be dangerous.

There are some who seem determined to peddle so-called “stories” that simply inflame tensions and incite hatred. One such pernicious myth tells the story of a Muslim woman criticising a supermarket cashier for wearing a British flag lapel pin. She is then put in her place by an elderly man in the queue and applause ensues. It is an unproven tale of Anytown, variants of which are shared in the United States and Australia.

I’ve heard similarly bogus and divisive stories while at the Reporter. One such was that two Muslim women had made a complaint in a local library after children were heard making pig noises while reading a Peppa Pig book. It could never be verified.

Papers are sometimes accused of political correctness when covering stories. For the record, I dislike political correctness as I feel it inhibits plain speaking, a sentiment George Orwell agreed with.

I would refute such claims and say we are unafraid of reporting on any issue regardless of race or religion, it is factual correctness not political correctness we hold dear.

It means we do not smear people or jump to conclusions when covering any story.

While some people may struggle to believe it, accuracy is still journalism’s golden rule and that should never be compromised – by corporate interests or by pandering to frenzied, hysterical populism.