The conflict of interest between advertiser power and journalism revealed last month by Peter Oborne, who walked out of Britain’s Daily Telegraph accusing the management of censoring stories about HSBC bank and tax evasion, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corruption inside the media.
A report published this week by a team of writers from 18 countries commissioned by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) reveals that financially-stricken news media are being overwhelmed by political and corporate interference. Even in the most democratic countries, ethical rules are being flouted to suit advertisers or unscrupulous politicians.
The report, Untold Stories: How Corruption and Conflicts of Interest Stalk the Newsroom, reveals how media managers are doing deals with advertisers to carry paid-for material disguised as honest news; some reporters and editors accept bribes and irregular payments; and there is a culture of dependence on political and corporate friends that makes it increasingly difficult to separate journalism from propaganda and public relations.
The Oborne case is a rare example of whistle-blowing inside journalism about this newsroom crisis, but anyone who has worked inside mainstream media will know what he’s talking about. However, few editors or individual journalists have the courage to speak openly about it.
The report shines a light on the self-inflicted wounds caused by destruction of the invisible wall between newsrooms and the commercial departments of media as well as the scandal of low pay and precarious working conditions of people working in journalism, but it also highlights how the major threats come from outside media, from political spin-doctors and corporate communicators who increasingly are taking advantage of newsrooms weakened by cuts to shape the news agenda.
The EJN hopes this will spark a debate inside the media on how best to defend ethical and public interest journalism, but that will not be easy. Its evidence confirms how journalism has become less important as an investment opportunity and many of today’s media owners buy into journalism not for commercial reasons, but mostly to promote their own business and political agenda.
The report highlights three main concerns:
- The widespread infection of paid-for journalism with political or commercial content disguised as genuine news reporting;
- A lack of transparency over allocation of advertising, both public and private, is leading to massive self-censorship. Crucially, government control often means only the ruling party’s political friends in media get access to lucrative state advertising;
- A continuing wave of editorial cuts – even in rich countries – is making journalism ever-more precarious, opening the door to petty corruption at every level within the news business.
Journalism is often compromised by too-cosy relations between politicians and media owners. That’s the case in countries such as Egypt and Turkey where media play a pivotal role in shaping public opinion on social and political issues.
In Ukraine, which is fighting a full-scale information war with Russia, the media aren’t manipulated by politicians to the extent they are in Moscow, but journalism still suffers because of widespread corruption and paid-for journalism disguised as real news. The same is true in India. In many countries it’s often impossible to distinguish what is honest reporting and what is paid-for propaganda.
Just as challenging is the situation in countries like Nigeria, Philippines, and Colombia where precarious working conditions and poverty pay rates provide fertile conditions for hand-outs and bribery.
So-called “brown envelopes” and under-the-table cash payments to reporters and editors are part of the routine exercise of journalism.
The struggles facing journalists in settled democracies, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark, are less stark, but no less challenging.