How “Great” is British journalism?

Kimmo Lundén writes:

Stein Ringen and John Lloyd debated at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism lunchtime seminar on how 'Great' is British Journalism.

Ringen is a professor of Sociology at Oxford and a fellow of Green Templeton College. His opponent, John Lloyd, works as a contributing editor for the Financial Times and he is also a Director of Journalism at the Reuters Institute.

A key question throughout the lively debate was the distinction between individuals' private and public life: Where should we draw the line? The two debaters gave examples how this crucial line has altered in the history, differentiated between countries, and how the private life is much more narrow for politicians, role models, and corporate managers.

The moderator, the Reuters Institute's director, David Levy, added some heat to the debate by pointing out the 'fundamental difference between public interest and what interests the public'.

Professor Ringen thinks that British journalism is in very good shape and produces high quality reporting. According to him, British press works well under self regulation. He supported his view by comparing the current situation of the British press and journalism with 20 or 40 years ago.

'Compared to other countries, British press is doing well', he added.

The country that professor Ringen had in mind was France. As an example of the French press' flaws, Stein reminded his audience of the case of President Mitterand’s private life. 'How was it possible that no-one was able to read anything about president Mitterrand's private life with his second wife and secret family before Mitterrand himself revealed it in his biography? The French press knew about it, but it did not reveal or write about it.'

By doing that Ringen saw the press as irresponsible, and it paid the price by being in coalition with the political elite.

There are mistakes made by British press, too. The Reuters Institute's John Lloyd pointed out that there are flaws in the British press and ways to handle some news better than they have been tackled.

According to John Lloyd, the justice courts have a major role to play, to decide whether something is private and not to be revealed in the press. He referred to the case of News of the World in which the newspaper was condemned, how it revealed Formula 1 manager Max Mosley's odd sex orgy, which the judges thought was part of his private life and not to be revealed by the press the way the paper did it.

Professor Ringen pointed out the recent banking crisis and how it has been handled in the press. He thinks it is scandalous how little investigation and questioning there had been in the British press on how Barclays Bank was partly sold to a Middle East bank few weeks ago apparently as top executives could keep their bonuses and high salaries – which may not have been the case if its shares had been sold to the UK government.