Need for real journalism has never been greater

YESTERDAY morning, while the world's attention was focused on far more important matters, News International announced that the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, had been suspended, pending an investigation of charges made against him by the Metropolitan Police.

It would be unwise, though, for the News of the World's competitors in British popular journalism to spend too much time enjoying the paper's discomfiture; for the News of the World only represents the most extreme case of a crisis which is beginning to affect all of our conventional media, in a communications landscape transformed by a decade of technological revolution. Across the newspaper industry and terrestrial television, average sales and viewing figures are drifting downwards; and according to a major Ofcom survey released this week, readers, viewers and listeners aged 16-24 are increasingly abandoning conventional print and broadcast media for internet and mobile phone services.

What's more, the commercial and cost-cutting pressure created by this declining market increasingly seems to threaten the product - high-quality edited news and comment - that is the only stock-in-trade of the conventional media, or of professional journalism in general. All across this year's Edinburgh Fringe - from the National Theatre of Scotland's mighty show about the Black Watch regiment to dozens of smaller-scale productions about subjects from war in Iraq to prostitution in Liverpool - the theatres are full of shows based on verbatim reports from the front line of contemporary reality.

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And the reason seems to lie in a widespread sense that our new sexed-up forms of broadcast news are not telling us the whole story; and that most newspapers cannot be relied on to correct the balance.

Now it has to be said that some of these public perceptions of decline in the quality of the media are exaggerated. The News of the World, for example, has been a byword for filthy and intrusive stories about bishops, actresses and divorces for 150 years; and even the BBC in its heyday always had its areas of bias and of officially encouraged silence. What has changed, though, is the growing unwillingness of ordinary people to believe what they are told; and in that atmosphere the growing desperation of papers like the News of the World, combined with the increasing scarcity of real front-line reportage in the rest of the media, only helps to undermine further a relationship between citizens and the media which already seems seriously damaged, and which - as it deteriorates into chronic mistrust - is playing a role in promoting the crazy conspiracy theories that are rampant around the globe.

So what can be done to begin to restore that damaged relationship, essential as it is to the future of any civil society? First, society as a whole should end its foolish flirtation with the idea that professional journalism is somehow dead, now that every citizen can generate his or her own news stories and images, and write them up in his or her own blog. No-one on the planet has a hope in hell of understanding what is going on, in this chaotic universe of digitised disinformation, unless someone, somewhere, continues to undertake the job of information-gathering, agenda-setting, contextualising, editing and analysis that has been the role of serious journalists down the ages, regardless of the medium through which their work is presented. Secondly, those of us who work in the news media need to think hard about how we can preserve and develop that core function of our profession under 21st century conditions. Patterns of ownership in the media, competition and commercial pressure, powerful cultural assumptions about what the public "really want" - all of these affect the conditions in which journalists work; and although journalists typically pride themselves on their hard-headed cynicism, we have to know - as the royal editor of the News of the World allegedly did not - where to draw the line, and to call time on unprofessional practices that bring the trade into disrepute and undermine its prospects of survival.

And finally, there is the role of the public, which can always halt the advance of trashy products by organising to demand something better. In that respect, the analogy between real food and real journalism is precise; news that nourishes the mind costs more, often comes from local sources, demands more effort from the consumer and is beneficial to the health of society.

The only difference is that people have to eat and will consume junk food if nothing else is available. Whereas - as some major media companies are discovering - when it comes to news, people are capable of switching off altogether; of turning on the iPod, retreating into the headphones, watching a DVD; and simply opting out of a world that has been presented to them for too long in ways that make no sense, generate no understanding, and therefore offer no hope for the future.