Today I was reminded of the difference between the kind of journalism I have spent the last 20 years of my life producing, and the kind that poisons the public against what was once considered - across the board - an honourable profession.
Let me cut straight to that which has compelled me to put pen to paper: The Sun and its decision to rake up a harrowing family tragedy the like of which nobody should endure. I will not lower myself nor my newspaper - PAMCo’s Most Trusted Newspaper in Britain - by recounting the details of what happened to Ben Stokes’ family, save to say I cannot for the life of me understand how any editor, any individual, could countenance what they did today and come to the conclusion that it was a right and proper thing to do. It wasn’t, and I don’t care how they dress up their excuses for having done so.
Ben has given this nation a summer of joy. His contribution to England winning the World Cup was a more-than-welcome distraction from the political turmoil of Brexit, for starters. He and his teammates have given us all immense pleasure.A release. A memory that will last a lifetime for millions of proud Englanders.
And yet, Tony Gallagher, Editor-in-Chief of The Sun, has taken the decision to torture and torment the Stokes family in an incomprehensibly inhumane way. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised anymore: remember ‘Bonkers Bruno?’ ‘Turnip (Graham) Taylor?’ Is this really how we in the media should treat those who give their all for their sport and for their country? Not for me, it isn’t. Sorry.
Earlier in the day I instinctively tweeted this: “It is decisions like these by editors unlike me that heap shame upon our profession. It kills the trust we work so hard to build. It gives every journalist a bad name and legitimises those who seek to discredit the Fourth Estate. I am sorry you have been treated this way, Ben.”
It wasn’t intentional, and I am willing to wholeheartedly apologise to Ben Stokes if I have caused him any offence, but I instinctively reflected on how The Sun’s journalistic modus operandi reflects on the profession of which I ought to be proud, but often find myself utterly ashamed.
The number done on Ben Stokes’ family bears all the hallmarks of the darkest days of Fleet Street that saw a handful of mercenaries working on national newspapers (not regional titles) - such as the disgraced News of the World - marauding over common decency in pursuit of scandal and misery.
Since the days of phone hacking and home bugging, this profession - my profession - has purportedly cleaned up its act. Really? I am afraid that today I saw the spirit of those heinous individuals who hacked into the phone of the then deceased Milly Dowler emerge from the shadows.
How am I, as an editor, meant to look regulators, Ministerial policy makers and most importantly the public in the eye and reassure them they can trust me and my teams to do the right thing when it comes to publishing good, honest, fact-checked journalism that is undertaken without malice and with the kind of care and common decency that right-minded people expect?
How can we as an industry really say ‘everything has changed’ post-Leveson when it is as plain as the nose on my face that - in certain crevices of the Fourth Estate - the rot remains festering.
The short answer is; we can’t. Until every journalist, editor and publisher commits to guiding their work with the same editorial principles and standards, we will not - and quite understandably - win the trust of anyone.
That is dangerous. It is dangerous because it fractures the keystone in the archway that holds up our democracy. Without an effective, trusted, decent free Press, malfeasance among the powerful grows. It grows not because nobody is holding the powerful to account, but because nobody will believe those holding power to account. Wolf! has been cried once too often.
And this is where we have lost our way, but I am fed up of cowardly decisions being taken and those who took them hiding behind the premise of a free Press. It is a free Press’ job to hold those in power to account; to campaign alongside readers; to undertake investigative journalism without fear or favour. It isn’t the job of a free Press to pour salt in private wounds without a shred of compassion for those whose grief is being violated.
Of course, I am quite aware, especially in a week where a title I respect enormously - The Guardian - managed to lose its grip on the moral compass when levelling quite callous criticism at David Cameron in relation to his own familial grief, that even the best of us make mistakes. Myself included, but I’d like to think I slipped up only ever in trying to do the right thing. What The Sun did today was the antithesis of the principles that ought to guide my profession.
My only hope is that by continuing to lead a team of people who are as committed as I to doing the right thing, holding true to the values instilled in me by my family that now run through the journalism for which I am responsible, we can offer people a place to turn to for journalism they can trust.