Oborne and the fetish for old school journalism

Like many in the media industry I’ve been confronted with a wall of coverage around Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph. I read his piece when it came out but have sat on my thoughts. That’s mainly because I can trust to those better qualified than me to debate the meat of his criticism – the undue influence of advertisers, which others have developed to also include the influence of proprietors.

But the bit that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days was the first part of Oborne’s resignation piece – the bit I’ll call the ‘don’t forget the print edition bit’

When I first wrote that par it was the ‘ I don’t like digital bit’, but I realize that’s not fair. He’s pro-paper. Clearly the “country solicitors, struggling small businessmen, harassed second secretaries in foreign embassies, schoolteachers, military folk, farmers—decent people” don’t do digital either. If I apply a microscope to the piece there’s recognition of digital. Oborne isn’t “saying that online traffic is unimportant”.

No. He’s saying that the Telegraph has turned it’s back on good journalism and digital is part of that.

So I still bristle a little when I read the piece. Not because of the apparent lack of journalistic integrity  in the British press – who knew! It’s not even because I might think that the Telegraph’s digital strategy is right or wrong.  I bristle because, by design (and I credit Oborne with enough editorial skill that everything  is considered in that piece) he’s conflates digital content with editorial decline and an inherent editorial weakness. Somehow there is a direct line between digital and bowing to pressure from above. Both responsible for the death of ‘quality journalism’.

The fetishising of editorial value.

Like many others who rhetorically define quality journalism at the expense of digital, Oborne takes the freakshow approach and parades a three breasted lady as evidence of the base nature of digital whilst at the same deftly stepping off the stage to point out where the extra tit is stuck on.  All the while avoiding the fact that he always remains a member of the circus.

This ability to be in journalism but not of parts of it is a common trope – the idea of what you do as quality journalism vs well, anything we don’t think is quality. It often comes with a generalized view of what constitutes journalistic values. It’s common across the generations – some young journalists covet the halcyon days of old-school-journalism as much as some of the older generation love to recall them. These were the days of long lunches and masters of a craft not process. The days of country solicitorsschoolteachers, military folk, farmers—decent people with decent values.

And whilst there may have been a golden age of journalism – at least for those who enjoyed them – some of the reaction to and in part some of Obourne’s complaints, show just what a fetish that’s become.

Oborne himself invokes one of the most fetishised parts:

It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart

Desired, yes. Axiomatic? Really! Self-evident? Unquestionable? I think you’d have to be quite selective about your journalism to stand by that statement.

Of course this is an issue of degrees. Yes, I do think there’s a difference in taking a holiday companies junket vs. not running a story about HSBC.   But how long is it going to stand up to scrutiny beyond a single journalists own view of their integrity.

So I’m 100% behind anyone that stands up for a point of principle, Oborne included. He’s as mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. And good on him for stepping away when the Telegraph failed to stand up to his values – his values.

I’m less happy to see digital so lazily used to paint a broad stroke picture of bad journalism. In Oborne’s case, especially when the second half of his resignation letter offers a much more compelling and, from a UK press perspective, fundamental example of the problems with journalism.

The bottom line is, more than anything else I dislike about this story,  I’ve now got to wade through a mass of people (and I might add an alarming number of them journalists) going “look a SERIOUS journalist has resigned because of digital. He thinks it’s crap”. To borrow from Oborne’s experiences, as a digital advocate I’ll have to put up with people telling me “You don’t know what you are fucking talking about.”. Thanks.

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