A few weeks ago, journalism lost one of its finest. Tributes poured in from across the globe at the news that former Sunday Times editor, Sir Harold Evans, had died.
Countless people and organisations were quick to pay homage to a man who, according to multinational media company, Thomson Reuters, “set the world’s gold standard for journalism”, with many believing that he embodied the essence of what a true journalist should be: unafraid to take on the rich and powerful in the unstinted pursuit of the truth.
Once quoted as saying “Things are not what they seem on the surface. Dig deeper, dig deeper, dig deeper”, it’s clear that Evans lived and worked by his own adage.
It was Evans’s campaigns which ultimately led to a national screening programme for cervical cancer, and which helped secure a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans, wrongly hanged for murder in the fifties.
But, perhaps most famously, it was Evans who campaigned tirelessly for more than eight years for justice and increased compensation for the 10,000 babies who were born with deformities after their mothers were prescribed the morning sickness drug, thalidomide. And this was despite the fact that the UK manufacturer of the drug – Distillers Company – was the Sunday Times’s biggest advertiser at the time.
The high court had banned reporting on the case. But Evans broke the law, determined to share the stories of families whose lives had been blighted by the drug. It is therefore unsurprising that many of those queuing up to pay tribute to Evans’s “journalistic genius, social empathy and determination to see justice done” are thalidomide survivors themselves, one of whom asked: “How is the world going to cope without a man like Harold Evans in it?”
As Evans epitomised, journalism can play a crucial role in our society. At its best, high-quality journalism provides the public with accurate, honest information, holding authority to account and speaking truth to power.
And there are countless examples where journalism has not only uncovered an uncomfortable truth but also ended political careers or even governments themselves when they have abused their position or broken the law. Think Watergate in the US, or the MP expenses scandal or ‘cash for questions’ closer to home in the UK.
With this vital function in mind, it is increasingly troubling to read of the swathes of job cuts that are currently sweeping newsrooms up and down the country. The pandemic has certainly made the situation worse and, over the course of this year alone, we’ve seen the BBC shed 520 jobs; the Guardian cull 180 jobs – 70 of which came from editorial – and the Evening Standard axe 115 jobs, 69 of which were located in the newsroom.
Even Reach – the group that owns the Western Mail – is not immune, announcing that it would cut 12% of its workforce across its titles, with about 550 people losing their jobs.
The long-term impact this will have remains to be seen, but the newspaper industry has not helped itself in recent years by becoming more partisan, hacking phones and refusing to support an independent complaints procedure.
The glory days of Sir Harold’s era are a far cry from the loss of public confidence in newspapers as a source of information on Covid-19. In a poll conducted by Survation in April, far fewer respondents gave newspapers high scores for trust than either broadcast media or public bodies.
This situation is complicated by the growth of social media. The latest 2020 Ofcom report into news consumption in the UK showed that 45 per cent of adults turned to social media for news. However, those who do use it for news rated it less favourably in terms of trust, accuracy and impartiality than they did in 2019.
Journalists following in Evans’ footsteps are therefore crucial in the battle for higher standards in all forms of media and to ensure the public has access to reliable news whichever channel they use to consume it.
At the same time, both social and conventional media owners have a responsibility to ensure that the information shared on their platforms is credible.
Twitter is now putting warnings on tweets containing misinformation about Covid-19 to “limit the spread of potentially harmful and misleading content”, while Facebook has launched a campaign to help people spot fake news after advertisers threatened to boycott the platform for its lack of action.
Yet newspapers often fail to set an example – and sometimes sink to the level of being harmful and misleading.
Sir Harold’s life highlights an era when standards were higher, and it’s vital that we learn from it and value high-quality journalism. We lose it at our peril.
This article was written by our Chief Executive, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 12 October 2020.