The argument over whether journalist Isabel Oakeshott was right to leak more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages given to her for the purposes of ghostwriting a memoir by the former health secretary and Tory MP Matt Hancock is, ostensibly, about the ethics of journalism.
Those who defend Oakeshott argue that she has behaved as any decent journalist would, by putting the public interest first so that all of us can understand how policy decisions were made early in the pandemic. “No journalist worth their salt could possibly question the validity of the public interest defence”, writes Julia Hartley-Brewer in The Telegraph, the newspaper Oakeshott leaked the messages to.
Those who denounce her, meanwhile, say she is guilty of having breached one of the most fundamental principles of journalism by betraying the trust of a “confidential source”. They argue that Oakeshott has caused long-term damage to our profession by showing sources that journalists can’t be trusted, discouraging them from coming forward and making it harder for us to do our jobs.
The reality, though, is that where many newspapers stand on this seems to be less determined by ethics and more by their position on the government’s response to the pandemic. And this brings up a more important ethical issue: basic journalistic principles — courage, fairness, independence and the pursuit of truth — are too often considered less important than planting a flag in a particular ideological corner.
As far as I’m concerned, the idea that a former minister who had hired someone to write a propagandistic memoir for him should be thought of as a “confidential source” needing protection is something of a stretch. However, I also find my eyes rolling skyward when I see Oakeshott saying that the reason she leaked the messages was in order to avoid a “whitewash” of the government’s pandemic response, when it seems to me that she quite happily spent a year writing the former health minister’s whitewashed Pandemic Diaries.
But it is the focus on tribalism rather than truth, not the leak of some embarrassing WhatsApp messages from a man who has eaten animal genitalia on live television, that is really damaging trust in the media.
And this is indeed at a low ebb: according to Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, trust in the media in Britain is among the lowest levels in the world, at just 37 per cent. That’s even lower than in the US, where the figure is 43 per cent.
A recent poll conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, meanwhile, found that 50 per cent of Americans feel most national US news organisations “intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public”, with just 26 per cent of respondents saying they had a favourable view of the news media.
It is interesting that the word “persuade” was included in the poll. It seems some journalists believe that persuasion should be their role (and not just those of us who write opinions for a living). The columnist Arwa Mahdawi argued recently that “there is no clear-cut line between advocacy and journalism”. And the former executive editor of The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr, has urged the media to “move beyond objectivity” in order to build trust.
I fundamentally disagree with these arguments. How could moving “beyond objectivity” possibly make journalism more trustworthy? The only way this could make any sense would be if “trust” of news was based not on whether it was factually correct but whether the facts were morally worthy. I recognise that news reporting is influenced and shaped by the individual’s — and the institution’s — biases and perspectives, but that doesn’t mean that we should eschew the goal of trying to be as objective as possible in our reporting.
Too often, simply presenting both sides of an issue — particularly if it is contentious — gets dismissed as false equivalence or “bothsides-ism”: there seems to be an idea that the “wrong” side should not be given any space or airtime. But the public does not agree: in a Pew Research survey last year, just 22 per cent of Americans — but 55 per cent of journalists — agreed with the idea that “every side does not always deserve equal coverage in the news”.
It is vital that we remember what the role of the press is: to hold power to account and to report on the world not as it should be, but as it is. A man who calls the media “the enemy of the people” could be voted back into the White House next year. Now is not the time to abandon long-held journalistic principles; it is time to double down on them.