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Home   /   Will the Martin Bashir scandal lead to a crackdown on press freedom?


The Martin Bashir scandal will have struck fear into every working journalist.

Public trust in the media was already at an all-time low long before revelations emerged the former BBC reporter had forged bank documents to gain an exclusive interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.

As the outrage about his actions and the subsequent cover-up spread, politicians, public figures and our future King Prince William have all, rightly, had their say.

The fact Bashir’s deception happened nearly 26 years ago will do little to dilute the revulsion felt towards the media by a public who have never forgotten the phone-hacking scandal that ultimately brought down the News of the World.

We may have more stringent rules in place now – such as the Editors’ Code of Conduct, governing everything from accuracy to privacy and reporting suicide – but how many citizens will be cognizant of that?

And if they are aware of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), one wonders how much trust the public has in the body given it is self-regulating and key players such as The Guardian, Independent and Financial Times never signed up to it.

From the views I have heard about the Bashir scandal public opinion is ‘if this can happen at the BBC it can happen anywhere’.

As a journalist your word is everything. If people don’t trust you they won’t deal with you and if your reputation is damaged then you can quickly become persona non grata.

So Bashir may never work in the profession again, but what damage does he leave behind and how will this affect the rest of us trying to make an honest living?

Conservative politicians have been openly gunning for the BBC for years and this gives them the perfect ammunition to justify a clampdown on press freedom, which would punish everyone.

There’s probably not a journalist anywhere in the world who hasn’t been accused of misquoting someone or being “taken out of context” – even if the interview was recorded.

I recently experienced this myself when someone accused me of singling out one part of an interview and being “sensationalist” in order to get hits on my website.

But a headline or a tweet is exactly that, it’s a snapshot of the story. It is what journalists use to attract people’s attention in the hope they will want to click on the link and read the full story.

You can’t include everything in a tweet or headline, but you pick what you believe is the most interesting angle based on your judgement and experience.

And sometimes highlighting something that is negative is the point because if you choose to ignore it you risk becoming complicit in covering up the problem when highlighting it publicly could lead to positive change and help give others confidence to speak out.

That’s ultimately the role of journalism in its gatekeeping role – to speak truth and hold power to account – and there will always be some form of backlash to that.

But you cannot carry out the noble values the profession was founded on unless you are without reproach yourself.

What’s crucial for the future of the media is how ethical journalists are in how they obtain stories and how they conduct themselves because the problem with the Bashir scandal is we all get tarred with the same brush.

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June 2024