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How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies - A Review

An article by Elizabeth Redfern that appeared in the 4th July 2014 edition of the Friend.

Press corruption is sadly a subject we’re now familiar with, from the press’s own coverage of the Leveson Inquiry and more recently the trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, who – in what might become the longest criminal trial in English history - are charged with phone hacking at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid. It would be nice to think that this is an unfortunate blip in an otherwise sparkling British press history. Certainly I hadn’t taken much notice of the inquiry or court case until I’d started to read Patrick’s book, when some familiar words started to nag at me.

'Don't believe all you read in the papers' is a common enough phrase, but how much do we really understand about the accuracy of what we are told - and not told - in the press, whether in newspapers, on the radio and television, or more recently on news websites. Certainly I was happy to dismiss much of what I read in the tabloid press, but I didn't over question what the major television channels said, and as a TV licence payer I was by and large happy with the non-commercial BBC.

Patrick’s book has pulled me up with a start: In some ways making me feel a fool for being so gullible, and yet also confirmed with explanation what I’ve always guessed was probably the case; that we’re told a version of the truth that suits the media’s paymasters. In reality has it ever been anything different?

Blowing the whistle on a skewed press would be a good subject in itself for a book. Patrick’s skill in this case is weaving that awakening with another, that of showing how fundamentally flawed are the so called democracies we live in, and how the mainstream press has no motivation in highlighting to us their biased and manipulative nature. I'm ready to read, watch and listen with new eyes and ears.

I first came across Patrick through his Fox Report articles in the Friend last year; he 'spoke to my condition'. His main interest is democracy, social justice, and political governance at both local and global levels, and then how - by being well and accurately informed - we can influence the way our world is run. Patrick's book follows his journey from naive enthusiasm as a novice journalist to, after 25 years, the sad realisation that news organisations are not really interested in accurate political reporting. The book 'summarises contemporary governance failures and how journalists must do – and can do - a far better job in bringing them to public light'.

Based on his globetrotting life story - which includes an episode of sleeping on bare floors in abandoned offices to ‘get the story’ - Patrick gives us his path to political consciousness, and encourages us to follow our own paths to awareness. Starting as an engineering graduate, Patrick tried on repeated occasions to get his dream job at the British news agency Reuters, and succeeded on his fourth attempt, as he believed that they would give him the opportunity to travel, meet interesting people and cover politics. He certainly had the travel, being based in Brussels, London and Malaysia, and met and challenged, amongst others Fidel Castro, Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton; but had very little opportunity to cover politics in the way he had hoped. Instead he covered transport, environment, commodities trading (metals) and local affairs in the Far East. Even here, Patrick points out, foreign journalists know so little about the area that they mainly cover what the local influential people tell them, and rarely anything that criticizes the Western nations: We’re good at throwing mud at others, but not much is allowed to be thrown at us.

Patrick points out that we all more aware than previous generations were. We know about climate change, conflicts in places like Iraq, and the financial crisis; but how much of what we think we know is accurate?

And then there is the recent phone-hacking scandal involving the journalists themselves. Our role as press consumers needs to evolve, and Patrick's book helps us with that evolution. He prompts us to ask the obvious question 'who do journalists answer too?' Clearly like most employees, to their employers not their consumers, and their employers or those influencing their employers are often 'industry-beholden politicians with little political legitimacy'. Or, in the case of the large news agencies, their employers’ customers are large corporations, especially for financial journalism, who only need high-level up-to-date news to understand and work in their markets. As Patrick says, we the general public need detailed journalism that helps us ‘join the dots linking banks, financial systems and their regulators to the wider economy’.

The larger the political party the larger the purse to pay for journalistic influence, and rarely here are policies analysed in detail to see their potential positive and negative effects on society: Far easier to focus on the politician talking. Patrick also points the finger at large, and often at arm’s length, political institutions such as the EU. Its civil servants, who have a heavy deregulation agenda, run roughshod over national elected ministers, with support bought by the same large corporations, and where criticism is branded as racist. After the EU elections it will be interesting to see what reforms, if any, happen, and how the press covers them.

Are we as press consumers an economic threat to these corporations if we are well informed? I rather think that it would be a good thing if we were. Too often the mantra of ‘job creation and job protection’ is used to cover ‘shareholder pocket protection’. So why don't we become grass-roots journalists, examining and exploring, and truly 'speak truth to power'. Using Patrick's book as a guide we can make our own contribution to a revolution in journalism, focused on people and their needs, and not politicians and institutions. And through this grass-roots work we can influence our environment and aim towards true democracies where we are not ruled over but take an active part in our governance, perhaps through citizens’ assemblies.

And now is the time to do this, as it is now easier to ‘publish’ than ever before, and we are further away from those that govern us than ever before. This could include videos shot on smart phones. ‘Cutting edge technology allied with public interest content’. We already have groups like ‘Wikileaks’, and the Occupy movement, and we’ve seen how they have touched a nerve with governments and business. As long as we develop a ‘structure and focus for our work, check our facts, and make sure we provide a fair and accurate account of events’, we can contribute and work with others locally, nationally and internationally to raise awareness. We can be ‘social and political justice activists’: Investigating, understanding and discussing, and as we know most people like to be asked about how things affect them. Patrick has certainly encouraged me that we can all be amateur and yet effective journalists, especially with modern technology, without a great deal of investment in time and money. And I plan to investigate how I can learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’, and start writing more on the subjects that interest me which deal mainly with small business development and employment generation.

And I gather others within the Quaker community are keen to learn some basic modern journalistic skills. Patrick is helping Northumbria Area Meeting set up public Interest journalism training during a half-day event in Newcastle on the 2nd August 2014. Meanwhile, the Quakers and Business Group plan to demonstrate the possibilities of Quaker journalism at their annual conference on the 5th November 2014 and to dedicate their Spring Gathering on the 18th April 2015 to a day's training in the whys and hows of public interest journalism.

So, Patrick’s book helps you understand how we can get ‘outside our private bubbles to meet and engage with real people on real life projects’: Now is the time for ‘public interest journalism’.