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I’ve spent a good part of the last few years basically communicating to my kids that journalism is not what you might call a career with prospects at the moment. Despite the fact that several of them are good writers and interested in the world around them, they are very aware that it doesn’t really pay to be a journalist these days and that the current journalistic ideal in some quarters is likely to be some piece of probably inaccurate trivia that combines sex, Game of Thrones and the Kardashians and “goes viral” on social media.
Don’t get me wrong. I love journalism. It provides an opportunity to meet and talk to a huge range of people and to find out a lot about the world. It has been endlessly interesting because people are endlessly interesting. And, of course, good journalism is a vital part of a functioning democracy. And there are definitely some very good journalists around.
But the referendum has shown British journalism’s ugly side. I’m not in fact sure that the daily headlines full of bile produced by a large number of the tabloids is actually journalism at all and I’m not entirely sure how people who work on those stories justify it to themselves. I guess they just see it as a game, a bit of harmless fun. The problem is that words do have an impact. Words do stir action and we live at a time where extremism is rising across the world.
I was recently interviewing a woman whose entire family was killed during the Rwandan massacre. She spoke about the role radio played in spreading hate before the genocide, of how the Tutsi were called “cockroaches” and the like, relentlessly. Some tabloid columnists would have been at home there.
Yet now that the referendum is over, it seems the focus is solely on the political maelstrom we find ourselves in. Yes, there have been reports about the huge rise in racist attacks since the referendum – the latest on Friday. But have those who stirred things up been held to account? As far as I can see there has been absolutely no accountability for the “journalists” who whipped up the toxic atmosphere that we find ourselves in, several of whose newspapers have been building that toxic atmosphere for years. Instead they are reporting on the very attacks that the poisonous atmosphere they helped create have spawned as if they didn’t play any role in it.
It’s hard to explain the nature of much of the British tabloid press to people abroad and how we tolerate them. Do we get the press we deserve? Are the reasons these newspapers are able to pour out this hatred because we are willing to buy it?
Yet many people don’t read these papers. The thing is you don’t have to read them to know that they are there. Their headlines assault you daily in the shops. They are in the air we breathe.
I doubt anyone will take any action as a result of the referendum coverage. The people they attack are just not powerful enough and they know it. In fact, they will probably prosper at the expense of struggling broadsheets and a BBC worried about its future. Aaron Banks’ new party will no doubt provide more headlines to fan the hatred.
The sad thing is that we probably need good journalism more than ever.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.