1. Journalism Attracts the Worst

Monday January 9, 2023

Well, I hope you all had a lovely Christmas. I was down with stomach flu but needed to write a presentation on ethics in journalism; so, delirious with discomfort and permanently online, seasonally depressed and unable to keep a drink down for the purposes of self-medication, I’ve been reflecting on that old ethical dilemma of whether journalists actually have any.

Ethics, that is.

I think I’m supposed to be saying things like, I don’t believe utilitarianism is particularly moral, per se, because who defines happiness? And if the common good, define common and, indeed, good.

I have an old friend who used to rob banks. He likes to say we’re judged by the consequences of our actions, rather than the intentions behind them, but then I guess that comes from his experience of not being a very successful bank robber. I’m inclined to agree with him, over Kant’s categorical imperative that posits the opposite is the case.

But I can already smell your boredom from here so let’s pick the lesser of two evils and try not to be so lofty. I have no pretentions of academia; being proof positive that with great age doesn’t necessarily come great wisdom. I remain naïve, idealistic and stubborn to the point of self-sabotage – further proof that we don’t necessarily become more conservative as we age.

Besides: Bentham, Mill, Kant, Hobbes, Rawls, Hume, Ross – Just a bunch of white Western men, right? I mean, c’mon – it’s 2023. See, that’s an example of cynically jumping on a cultural bandwagon to further my own ends. There might be a journalist in me yet.

Talking high minded and lofty about ethics in journalism, I’d be insulting the intelligence of even those who don’t just buy the Sun for the crosswords. Journalists are among the least trusted in the land. Down there with – probably now, thanks to rags like the Sun – nurses, strikers and climate protesters. But I digress.

Ethics in Journalism? Well, we might as well talk about the bathroom etiquette of dogs. Sure, you can train them not to poop where they sleep but they’re never going to respect the neighbour’s lawn. And is that what we’re here for? To ‘learn’ ethics in order to become better people – or just to understand the law enough to stay out of court?

Even people with psychopathic brains can be raised well and not end up presenting anti-social personality disorders. Maybe I’ve gone off on a tangent already, but stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

At the start of University, I – along with, one would hope, the other freshmen – received a number of texts from Student Services, requesting us to take a couple of online courses. The first was regarding consent, and, once completed, entered us into a prize drawer to win £100 of Amazon vouchers. The second dealt with anti-bullying and we received a Greggs sausage roll for that (meat or veg).

You see, that’s the stage we are at in higher education now. It’s the twenty-first century and these instant communication miniature monoliths in our pockets, able to beam the sum knowledge of humanity out of the air and into our heads, while recording our every utterance and movement, still are required to instruct the lowest common denominator of we hairless apes how to treat one another with a modicum of respect.

I mean, this really is the bare minimum of any grown-up living in a functioning, just society, isn’t it? There’s not even a debate to be had. Treat one another as you’d like to be treated – did we even really need Jesus for that? Maybe we did, I don’t know. Although I am very naïve – I still think a Star Trek future could be possible; but then even that version of Earth had a Third World War before utopia became possible and the Vulcans bothered to speak to us.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, trying to teach ‘old’ dogs new tricks.

Ethics, in Journalism really is the bare minimum – no more than the dog minimum of not crapping in the house. We don’t have the time here to discuss where our morals come from, be it the sacred texts of a manic god to quell our savagery or inalienable traits closer to biological imperative than anything spiritual that binds.

I’d argue that the very fundamental ethos backing up civilisation since we moved from hunter gathering to agriculture is that of an innate empathy, a tribal empathy of sorts. Why else would we bring wolves into our homes, only to selectively breed out anything that doesn’t fit in a handbag? I wonder if it’s because I’m a mature student, but then I didn’t get fed treats to modify my behaviour. Like with Pavlov’s bell, is lining our communities with Greggs the only way to keep women and girls safe?

As I said earlier about our Law classes, I do wonder if it’s just to keep us out of court and to save our future employers huge fines, rather than actual right or wrong. I just find it bizarre that on one hand we are being taught these grand philosophical ideas, standing on the shoulders of giants almost, while at the same time being bribed to complete quizzes which presume to teach us the very basics of positive human interaction. Attitudes that should’ve been drummed into everyone it not already nascent in since birth – proclivities and desires so vile that they should’ve been cut from the vine like rot at puberty and fired into the Sun.

If feels like you’re still picking up their shit but now you’re expecting them to wipe their arse. Are we insulting intelligence here? My brain is absolute mush at this point.

Bad people have always done and will continue to do bad things despite knowing that the things are bad. Hurt people hurt people. Free will is a myth and we are slaves to the thing that struggles to make sense of what our eyes send it.

Maybe we should roll out the guillotines.

Classical utilitarianism is all about hedonism for the masses, and I’m all for that, on paper, but that would have us guillotining monsters in every square for the common good. That didn’t work out too well for the Aztecs when no one was there to stand with them against the conquistadors, so let’s maybe not start sacrificing people. That’s a good rule to live by, right?

Forget I said anything.                                                              

Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis said in a 2014 interview that, “We don’t read newspapers because the journalism is so boring,” and maybe too many hacks read that and ran with it, because the past decade really has been a doozy for sensationalism, culture war, othering, fake news; you name it.

And, to quote the good book, “A house divided upon itself cannot stand.”

I see these past ten years as a dirty brush being cleaned, I see the union red, white and blue getting cut by white spirit, circling the drain. Or maybe that’s the codeine kicking in. Just as common sense isn’t common, to quote Tom Waits, “If there’s one thing you can say about mankind, there’s nothing kind about man.”

I see more humanity in animal TikToks than the human ones.

To quote Ripley in Aliens, speaking of the xenomorphs, “I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

I’m certain that one day our transhumanist overlords will splice themselves with animal DNA and add machine parts but until then let’s try to train into our journalists what we do in our dogs: Agreeableness, loyalty to the pack, and the instinct not to bite the hand that picks up its crap.

Yes, until then, young people in Britain, who have yet to become as jaded as this crazed idiot here, are borrowing 20k a year from the government so academics can teach them how to be hated by the country as much as unwanted stepchildren during a caravanning holiday.

My fellow students offer quite the rainbow of opinion; some all for the gulag, others poo-pooing critique of Qatar during the World Cup because, “Politics should stay out of sport.” Well, when working slaves to death is merely political, I’d say that maybe the university needs to hand out a few more sausage roll vouchers.

Maybe us feral dogs of journalism deserve to be taught new tricks, and to do so with any animal, of course, requires the positive affirmation of rewards. Or maybe when we show you who we are, you should believe us the first time.

Well, I’d intended this presentation to serve as a companion piece, a rebuttal, if you will, to my latest essay which seeks out the best in journalistic intent and outcome. Instead, I fear, it’s a cautionary tale of codeine misuse in the incontinent elderly.


Nb. It should come as no surprise to anyone that this university presentation, along with its academically barren slides, received a failing grade. In my companion piece to it, which I wrote when my tummy was a wee bit less poorly and I wasn’t off my head on painkillers, I attempted to be more positive about the profession.

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