Journalism for sale: can media overcome the corruption now threatening the newsroom?

Peter Oborne's revelations were just the tip of the iceberg. Corporate influence runs deep in the media.

Aidan White
17 March 2015



The conflict of interest between advertiser power and journalism revealed last month by Peter Oborne, who walked out of Britain's Daily Telegraph accusing the management of censoring stories about HSBC bank and tax evasion, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corruption inside media.

A report published this week by a team of writers from 18 countries commissioned by the Ethical Journalism Network reveals that financially-stricken news media are being overwhelmed by political and corporate interference. Even in the most democratic countries, ethical rules are being flouted to suit advertisers or unscrupulous politicians. 

The report, Untold Stories: How Corruption and Conflicts of Interest Stalk the Newsroom, reveals how media managers are doing deals with advertisers to carry paid-for material disguised as honest news; some reporters and editors accept bribes and irregular payments; and there is a culture of dependence on political and corporate friends that makes it increasingly difficult to separate journalism from propaganda and public relations. 

The Oborne case is a rare example of whistle-blowing inside journalism about this newsroom crisis, but anyone who has worked inside mainstream media will know what he’s talking about. However, few editors or individual journalists have the courage to speak openly about it.

The report shines a light on the self-inflicted wounds caused by destruction of the invisible wall between newsrooms and the commercial departments of media as well as the scandal of low pay and precarious working conditions of people working in journalism, but it also highlights how the major threats come from outside media, from political spin-doctors and corporate communicators who increasingly are taking advantage of newsrooms weakened by cuts to shape the news agenda.

The EJN hopes this will spark a debate inside media on how best to defend ethical and public interest journalism, but that will not be easy. Its evidence confirms how journalism has become less important as an investment opportunity and many of today’s media owners buy into journalism not for commercial reasons, but mostly to promote their own business and political agenda.

The report highlights three main concerns:

1) The widespread infection of paid-for journalism with political or commercial content disguised as genuine news reporting;

2) A lack of transparency over allocation of advertising, both public and private, is leading to massive self-censorship. Crucially, government control often means only the ruling party’s political friends in media get access to lucrative state advertising;

3) A continuing waves of editorial cuts – even in rich countries – is making journalism ever-more precarious, opening the door to petty corruption at every level within the news business.

A problem the world over

Journalism is often compromised by too-cosy relations between politicians and media owners. That’s the case in countries such as Egypt and Turkey where media play a pivotal role in shaping public opinion on social and political issues.

In Ukraine, which is fighting a full-scale information war with Russia, media aren't manipulated by politicians to the extent they are in Moscow, but journalism still suffers because of widespread corruption and paid-for journalism disguised as real news. The same is true in India. In many countries it’s often impossible to distinguish what is honest reporting and what is paid-for propaganda.

Just as challenging is the situation in countries like Nigeria, Philippines, and Colombia where precarious working conditions and poverty pay rates provide fertile conditions for hand-outs and bribery. So-called “brown envelopes” and under-the-table cash payments to reporters and editors are part of the routine exercise of journalism.

The struggles facing journalists in settled democracies, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark, are less stark, but no less challenging.

A revealing comment on the extent of petty corruption in the UK media shows that it involves even some of the best paid people in media. “Accepting gifts in return for coverage is not something that is hidden away, it is openly discussed,” says an anonymous journalist working on a leading UK tabloid. “In fact, it’s almost a competition for who can get the best ‘freebies’. The further up the newsroom ladder you are, the better the ‘freebies’ you get. I know editors who haven’t paid for a holiday in years.”

Of course, none of this is entirely new. Indeed, much of the British experience of a corporate squeeze on journalism has been well-documented by Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News, and cash-rich advertisers have always been able to use their muscle to influence the newsroom.

But in the past independent journalism providing added value to the marketing of mass media, was often protected by strong-willed editors who argued that public-interest reporting is an essential part of the mix in marketing journalism. Today the balance of power has shifted.

Corporate and commercial interests are overwhelming traditional notions of editorial independence and, as this report indicates, despite some honourable exceptions, editors struggle to defend their newsrooms.

In many European countries the indicators of decline – the disappearance of thoughtful, investigative journalism; the diminishing space allocated to foreign news; the rise and rise of showbiz, lifestyle and celebrity reporting – are self-evident and made worse by the elimination of decent jobs for a new generation of journalists.

It’s the same story or far worse in other, less visible, parts of Europe. In the countries of the western Balkans, for instance, with a shared and painful history, media corruption and political interference hinders media attempts to break free from the legacy of war, censorship and political control during decades of communist rule.

The story everywhere is much the same: a continuing battle against corruption and cynicism inside media; crumbling levels of commitment to ethics; a lowering of the status of journalistic work; and a pervasive lack of transparency over advertising, ownership and corporate and political affiliations.

What now?

Is it possible to turn the tide? Speaking at the Brussels launch of the report, the EJN Chair, Dorothy Byrne, who is also head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 said that journalists and media people can act to stop the rot. “Journalism requires new rules on transparency, conflicts of interest and ethical governance,” she said. “Many media pay lip service to these principles often because of financial challenges, but we can’t go on like this if we want to maintain public trust in journalism.”

The EJN report sets out an eight-point agenda for action designed to help beleaguered journalists and editors. This includes calls on governments and media to:

  • - Make a fresh commitment to transparency by revealing information on the political and financial interests of owners, managers, editors and all leading journalists and presenters
  • - Set up internal systems for dealing with conflicts of interest at all levels – whether in the boardroom or in the newsroom – including structures for dealing with complaints
  • - Agree standards on the allocation of all forms of public and political advertising with regular public disclosure of payments made by government for services to journalists and media
  • - Create genuinely independent and transparent systems for assessing circulation and ratings of media
  • - Put in place contracts and employment conditions that meet international labour standards and which give journalists the right to refuse any form of work that infringes upon their professional codes or their conscience
  • - Impose clear rules to show what content is advertising, sponsored or otherwise paid for and that which is editorial and journalistic work.

  • This is hardly a radical agenda. Much of this is a simple restatement of good governance principles, but as Peter Oborne and the EJN are pointing out, these values have got lost in the whirlwind of change that has overtaken the industry in recent years and it’s time for media owners, editors and journalists to get their act together if they want to protect editorial independence.

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