Journalistic standards – a comparison

<a href="">Boris Johnson</a> – the editor of the <a href="">Spectator</a> and <a href="">Conservative</a> MP for <a href="">Henley</a> – provides an interesting example of how media ethics vary in the US and the UK.

Exhibit A: Mr Johnson's<a href=",7558,1313243,00.html">article</a> in the Guardian's media section yesterday. In it, he mounts a defence of Andrew Gilligan (the journalist whose report on the <a href="">Today Programme</a> set off the chain of events that led to the <a href="">Hutton enquiry</a>). Following the principle that the best form of defence is attack, the article attacks any journalist who has had the temerity to criticise Mr Gilligan – who was strongly criticised by Lord Hutton and later sacked. Mr Johnson's argument is a fairly common one in the print media, and goes something like this:

<blockquote>Sure, Gilligan's story wasn't true in exactly the way it was expressed, but the concerns in it were true in a general sense. After all, there <i>were</i> some people who were concerned about the Iraq intelligence although Mr Gilligan didn't know the extent or level of those doubts. The intelligence has since turned out to be wrong. And that Tony Blair, he just seems a bit dodgy, doesn't he? He's a politician, he must have been knowingly deceitful.</blockquote>

For me, as I have said before, this argument just doesn't wash. Mr Gilligan's report was wrong, and accused the Government of bad faith on no evidence. That Mr Gilligan's report was somewhere close to something like true, and that the Government's deceitfulness is now generally assumed, does not change the fundamental fact that Mr Gilligan's report was inaccurate. Journalists are not there to reveal essential verities – we can leave that to the novelists – they are there to reveal true facts.

Exhibit B: The controversy around CBS's report of the falsified memos concerning President Bush's service in the Texas National Guard. Here, <a href="">Dan Rather</a> made a report based around memos which were later revealed to be forgeries. Outside the political parties and their proxies, the details of Mr Bush's service in the Guard, along with its deficiencies, are not seriously disputed. And yet Mr Rather – a highly respected journalist – is facing a career-marring disgrace on the basis of his story, and a <a href="">high-level investigation</a> has been launched.

The standards applied to Mr Rather, which Mr Johnson is unwilling to apply to Mr Gilligan, are high. Perhaps, for such a long-serving journalist, they are harsh. But they are right. I would not want to fly on a plane with a pilot who would more or less hit the runway. I would not want to go to a surgeon who had a general idea of where the appendix is. Journalists have an important and privileged position in a democracy, and their accuracy matters too much to be shrugged away. Nearly right is not right, despite Mr Johnson's political or personal vendettas.

Incidentally, Mr Johnson is Mr Gilligan's new employer. I leave that revelation right to the end of the piece, just as Mr Johnson does.