Journalistic integrity, anyone?

// 9 February 2008

As someone pursuing a career as a journalist I’ve been the recipient of some pretty hefty criticism. “Do you know,” remarked one man, “that journalism is the least respected profession along with politics? When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry we were briefed on how to handle journalists because they can twist what is said.” What interested me more was that this man had contacted me out of choice. I had posted a request on a public forum, and he had such contempt for us lowly hacks that he conscientiously sat at his desk and bashed out his distaste. He went on to suggest that I should reconsider my professional endeavours which, at 24-years-old, was a bit of a blow, especially as this individual had not met me, had no grasp of my intentions or motivations, and very likely had never read anything I have written. He claimed that journalism was nothing more than a “collection of anecdotes” that are essentially worthless. He was clearly venting his frustrations having been sadly singed by a sloppy journo several years previously who had failed to research adequately, and in response to his daughter’s disability provided him with a questionnaire asking him how he handled the bereavement. It’s an unfortunate case, and that journalist should have a slap on the wrist, but let’s not cast aspersions on the abilities of every reporter thereafter, eh? Several people have refused to speak with me owing to the fact that past encounters with would-be hacks have resulted in their dialogue being completely massacred, hacked to death and then reassembled in such a way as to render it almost unrecognisable. In the presence of some, muttering the word journalist is likely to get you relegated to the corner for the evening, surrounded by people talking in hushed tones with downward eyes, scared that the most trivial of comments may be inflated and exacerbated to such an extent that it makes Harold Shipman look like he was just having a laugh.

It’s reached the stage where whenever I’m asked what I do my speech begins to slur and my mouth seems to fill up with grit and dust, until I can do nothing but force out a few spit bubbles between nonsensical syllables. As idealistic, and possibly na├»ve, as it may seem, the reason I have always wanted to be a journalist is to expose the truth (whatever it may be) and present it in a simple and easily readable way. This is something I continue to work on. I am at the beginning of my career, but I hope that there will come a time when I will be able to harness the power that is inherent in the media to help those who need it and to highlight injustices in the world. This is my ultimate ambition, and whether or not I achieve this, this is what I believe should be the primary motivation of anyone wanting to enter the industry; this is what journalism should be about. It’s unquestionable that journalistic intent has been denigrated by the proliferation in celebrity gossip magazines, filled with dirty pap shots and nasty lacklustre critiques. It’s no longer about the nuances of language and rhetoric for a lot of people, but more a competition to see whose life will turn to shit the fastest; who will create a stench so pungent that swarms of sharking photographers will follow the waft to the money shot. Sadly, the more unscrupulous an ambitious young hack may be, the more deceitful, the more ruthless, the more they are likely to earn. There appears to be an inverse correlation between a lack of morality and success, with salary increasing as one becomes more and more reptilian. So it’s hardly surprising that more and more aspiring purveyors of the news are acting deplorably to make a name for themselves in what is a highly competitive industry, loosing a true sense of what quality journalism is, and should be, all about. And, when this behaviour is commended, why is anyone likely to change? It’s a sad state of affairs.

This week Anna Mikhailova, the woman who unmercifully stripped Zoe Margolis (a.k.a Abby Lee) of her anonymity, has been employed as a reporter by the Sunday Times. She broke the story in August 2006, casting aspersions on Margolis’s morality, sadly forcing Abby Lee to take a slightly more reserved approach to discussions of her sex life and changing her blog forever. Margolis began writing her blog as a personal means of expression, and surely the premise and essence of her work – what she highlighted about gender relations – was far more important than the name printed on her birth certificate? What had been a blog about her sexual experiences, spoken about frankly and honestly so that men and women could both benefit and enjoy Lee’s work, has obviously had to change, something that was unfairly taken out of Margolis’s hands. Surely she should not have been stripped of her anonymity? Or forced into hiding following her immediate exposure? Something Margolis herself draws on in her most recent blog post. Mikhailova did not change the world by revealing the real identity behind “the girl” persona, but Margolis’s world was changed forever. She had to flee her home, face family and friends who were to become aware of the most intimate details of her sex life. How could anyone possible think this would be acceptable? But this did not matter to Mikhailova. She was an Oxford undergraduate, spending the summer completing a stint of work experience at the Sunday Times, and of course, when the story came in, and she was asked to write it up, she took the task by the bit all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Why was a work experience student given such a sensitive, high profile story? Probably because owing to the popularity of the blog more experienced reporters, and indeed acting news editor Nicholas Hellen himself, realised that once this story hit the stands the proverbial shit was going to hit the fan. It’s likely that nobody else wanted to touch it with a barge pole (at least those in possession of an ounce of compassion) and so they thought ‘give it to the student, she’ll do it, they always do’ (work experience student Claire Newell risked imprisonment by smuggling papers out of the Cabinet Office to form the basis of stories for the Sunday Times back in 2004. She was taken on as an investigative reporter for her efforts.)

That’s not to say Mikhailova was taken advantage of as a work experience student – she clearly relished her part in Lee’s exposure owing to her use of language when dealing with the story. Mikhailova has been rightly criticised throughout the blogsphere, and there was even a spoof blog established insinuating that she was nothing more than a foolish puppet to the glittery higher echelons at the Sunday Times. When given the story she didn’t have to take it, but knowing the opportunities shitting on someone else would bring, she went for it. She wanted success and was not afraid to step on Margolis to make sure she stood out from the crowd of wannabe hacks flying around the Times’ offices that summer, and her lack of conscience paid off. It’s not common for a recent graduate to step straight out of university and into a job on a national newspaper – Mikhailova clearly rode the wave of Margolis’s success and her own infamy straight into a seat on the Gray’s Inn Road. But what’s more significant about this is that it showed the distinct lack of female solidarity that can proliferate in the work place, with one woman prepared to oppress and sacrifice another in order to make her mark in the world. Margolis, a former assistant director in the film industry, had been given a book deal, and her blog had been making waves throughout cyber space. Mikhailova was an unknown student, and yet she utilised her knowledge of the latter to elevate her own position, although whether or not she realises that she will forever be known as the unscrupulous young hack at the Sunday Times is yet to be seen. We all want to be successful, but who wants success when it comes at the expense of someone else’s happiness, especially when that person had built up a reputation and made a pretty lucrative living for themselves using their own initiative, life experience and writing ability. Instead of criticising Abby Lee, Mikhailova, whether she agreed with the premise of Lee’s work or not, should have praised her for her openness of expression, and respected her as a fellow woman, not berating her in the same way you’d expect an old man in the pub to refer to a young woman for wearing a short skirt. Mikhailova had no grasp of female solidarity, or maybe she thought this just didn’t matter, something Hellen not only took advantage of, but also capitalised on. In demonstrating the fact that we live in a world that continues to be very much dog-eat-dog Mikhailova has been rewarded, whereas in reality someone showing such poor lack of judgement shouldn’t be placed in a position of informing the masses. Had she not written the story she wouldn’t have a job on a national now, so it’s doubtful she’s reflecting on her actions.

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