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Integrity of the source is key to veracity

The calamities engulfing major news organisations show the importance of checks and balances, says Bob Hughes

JOURNALISM is in crisis. The BBC, the ultimate symbol of broadcast integrity, has been plunged into disarray by the furore over Newsnight's handling of the Savile allegations.

Newsnight's editor Peter Rippon has stood aside pending inquiries into why the programme dropped its investigation into Savile's conduct.

The crisis follows the discrediting by the Leveson inquiry of some British tabloid newspapers which hacked into hundreds of private phones in search of a scoop. And here in Ireland, RTE made basic and fundamental errors in its Mission to Prey programme by failing to substantiate in any reasonable way allegations against Fr Kevin Reynolds. Allegations later shown to be false.

Furthermore, these catastrophes come at a time when the squeeze in advertising is putting immense strain on resources, a time when -- editorially -- there has been no greater need for the kinds of checks and balances that those resources often provide.

There is now a disturbing trend to believe that anyone with a pulse can be a journalist, and that training in standards and ethics is at best something to pay lip service to, and at worst an obstruction to the more ruthless methods of getting a story.

The calamities that have befallen major news organisations encourage this belief.

If all that training can still lead to shoddy journalism or editorial interference from above, then who needs it?

The fact of the matter is we need it more than ever. All journalists who have been properly trained or educated in journalism know that the pursuit of truth is the ultimate goal,

and that goal can only be achieved by a determined effort to ensure that nothing deflects us from that task.

The late Mary Raftery was a case in point. She was so assiduous in her interviewing protocols that she always sought to question her own motives and worked with others to ensure that what she believed she was being told was not just what she wanted to hear.

The Guardian newspaper, much reviled by some for what is often perceived to be a soft-left stance, has done more than any other media organisation to expose the practices that led to the Leveson inquiry.

The need to resist editorial interference is ingrained in all journalists at the beginning of their career. Anyone attempting to keep a story out of a newspaper ensures that the story must be printed. The young journalist is warned that public relations spin and corporate messages completely undermine the integrity of news organisations.

While PR can be extremely useful in providing information that may be newsworthy, each message needs to be questioned and assimilated to check its real value to the reader, the listener or the viewer. For that reason, the majority of PR finds its way on to the virtual spike.

A major trend in journalism is the proliferation of new media. There are now thousands of conversations on the internet that provide potential leads for important stories. There are also thousands of conversations that are untrue, misleading or completely unsubstantiated. In the same way, hours of potential news footage are being uploaded every minute to social networking platforms. Some of the footage is valid, much of it is false.

The opportunities created by social media -- and they are opportunities -- demand the vigilance of the highest journalistic standards.

New media organisations like storyful.com are fast earning a reputation for reliability thanks to the old-fashioned values of journalism that used to be called "standing up a story". Their buzzwords are verification, curation and aggregation and they require new methods, for example, in establishing the veracity of footage. However, whichever way a story is "stood up", it all comes down to the same issue -- the integrity of the source.

Right now, news organisations seem preoccupied with tearing each other apart as each one questions the integrity of the other. But in a pluralistic, democratic media, this is a good sign. We should all welcome the transparency of these investigations as we strive to improve our journalism.

The current crisis in journalism should be embraced as a way to better our news organisations and not an excuse for undermining them.

Bob Hughes is Deputy Director of News at TV3 and a former journalist with ITN, Reuters and Sky News

Sunday Independent