THE BLOG

Is the Public's Perception of Journalism Really the Fault of Journalists?

18/03/2014 14:41 GMT | Updated 18/05/2014 10:59 BST

Last month I was involved in Leeds Trinity University's sixth annual Journalism Week, where guest speakers come into lecture students and offer their insight into the industry.

Previous editions of the event have seen names such as John Snow, Jeff Stelling and Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger all make an appearance.

This year, the event was headed by the brilliantly charismatic Gabby Logan, and featured talks by Football Focus presenter Dan Walker and Sky News reporter Gerard Tubb, but it was a controversial talk by a relatively unknown sociologist that got most people talking.

Professor Alan Middleton has written a book called Journalism Beyond Leveson, in which he claims that journalism cannot possibly be considered a profession, because it doesn't meet a set of specific criteria, including universally held qualifications and a straightforward code of conduct that is followed by all.

He believes that the entire industry needs to be reset and reshaped in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, after which he says there was "an immoral panic" by the press who opposed his findings. He went on to denounce most journalists as "delinquents" and perhaps most alarmingly of all, asserted that, "Journalists don't always have to pursue the powers that be."

Prof. Middleton is perfectly entitled to his opinion about an industry in which he has never worked, in the same way an armchair football fan is equally entitled to their views on sport.

But I challenged him that it was unfair to use the admittedly rogue behaviour of a number of tabloid journalists and apply a damning blanket verdict on everyone and everything in the industry, including local papers - the vast majority of whom behave perfectly ethically whilst newsgathering.

"How do you know that local papers are behaving ethically?" was his response.

Well, aside from the fact that this can easily be measured - by the number of complaints to the PCC, what about the basic premise that you are innocent until proven guilty? There has never been any suggestion from anyone that the malpractices of reporters who have been jailed ever spread to local rags.

But by his own admission, Prof. Middleton had never set foot in a newsroom. He deemed this to be irrelevant, and insisted that he had "friends" that were journalists.

From my own experience, the reality is quite different to what he portrays. Leveson has been on the minds and lips of most editors I've met. Local papers, for all their concerns about plummeting distributions and bank accounts running dry, are more wary of their ethics than ever before. One lost libel case could shut them down.

Interestingly, Middleton himself made the point that journalists are among the least trusted professions in the country.

I would suggest that whilst a lot of the blame for that falls on the (alleged) phone hackers and privacy invaders of the tabloid world, books such as his are at least partly responsible for the negative conceptions the public hold of journalists. And that is affecting the hard-pressed and well-meaning local gazettes up and down the country.