The days are numbered for ‘gatekeeper’ journalism

Journalism is the rightful guardian of disclosure of news and information, and what should be disclosed and what shouldn’t, and has a duty and a right to maintain that position.

That’s my interpretation of a very interesting discussion point in John Humphreys’ opening address at the Communication Directors Forum conference on Wednesday evening. The conference is taking place on the P&O Oriana cruise liner from 8-11 June.

Humphreys anchors the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 and has a reputation as a controversial figure, the terror interviewer of politicians in particular.

His comments towards the end of an hour-long address were in response to a question from someone in the audience, who asked Humphreys for his opinion regarding an apparent attempt at suicide last year by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s daughter. The questioner wondered why, if it were true, that apparent event never made the news, let alone news headlines as it surely would have done if made public.

Humphreys said that, if the story were true, it would have been “utterly disgraceful” for any media to publish it as it is completely irrelevant to Tony Blair’s role as Prime Minister on the basis that it related to something highly personal to the Prime Minister and his family. He said there are lines you don’t cross as a journalist, who know lots of things about politicians that don’t get published. But if those things have an impact on their public life, he said, then they should be reported.

I agree, actually, with the view on relevance – just because you know something about somebody doesn’t mean you should just make it public. That applies in any situation, not only about politicians.

Yet whether this particular story is true or not – and the way Humphrey’s reacted to the question makes me think that it is – Humphreys’ unequivocal view is saying that a journalist can make a decision on withholding news or information based on a subjective judgement about that news or information and, in a sense, act as a censor.

To me, this highlights a yawning gap between how some people see the continuing traditional role of the journalist – as the guardian or gatekeeper of what the public should be told – and what is actually happening today. If anyone with a blog can be regarded as a journalist, and many people say precisely that especially in the USA, how long will it be before someone with a blog – and that someone could equally be a ‘real’ journalist – does publish information that will make big news headlines and who doesn’t subscribe to any view about codes of practice, journalistic ethics or any other commonly-held views on professional behaviour.

I think it’s just a matter of time before a truly mega news event makes massive headlines, either in one country or globally, because of a disclosure by a blogger. And that mega news item, by the way, will be just that, not about trivia such as journalists in the US getting the can. That blogger will just go ahead and publish the news simply because it is news. He or she won’t think twice about codes of practice, etc. Indeed, that blogger won’t even regard him or herself as a journalist, even if others might.

When that happens, the disappearing world of traditional news reporting and consumption as portrayed by EPIC gets one step closer.

[First published on 9 June 2005 at]