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Journalists need to lift their game before they’re regulated into oblivion

Journalists must be open to change. Camera image from

Big day tomorrow. The Leveson Inquiry report in the United Kingdom is being released overnight, and no doubt media inquiry watchers like me will be up all night downloading and clicking through it.

But three apparently unrelated statements on media regulation both in the UK and in Australia have caused me the most concern about what Leveson might report tomorrow.

Last year, British journalist Nick Davies told the Leveson Inquiry that newspapers can no longer be trusted to regulate themselves.

On The Conversation earlier this month Brian McNair suggested that the role of editor-in-chief at the BBC would be akin to the role of “editorial policeman over his or her journalists”.

And last week, Crikey reported British lawyer Charlotte Harris as saying “media companies can’t be trusted to objectively balance the public interest and individuals’ right to privacy”.

This public acquiescence – apparently unchallenged – to the proposition that journalists and their employers cannot be trusted and somehow need policing is damaging.

It’s damaging if it’s right, and it’s even more damaging if it’s wrong. What’s worse overall is that each of these statements and plenty more like them seems to presume that journalism itself will not, and cannot, change and improve.

That’s what people are really looking for: change and improvement in how journalists work and what journalists do.

This assumption that journalism cannot change, is the ultimate black eye for working journalists, for the thousands of journalism students at universities around the world, and for journalism researchers like me whose main professional aim is to improve journalism from within.

It assumes that journalists are Luddite traditionalists who are “unwilling to change” at any cost, and I know from more than 30 years in the business that this certainly does not apply to all journalists around the world.

But clearly it does apply to some in our professional community who really do seem to think that journalism cannot, and should not change, let alone improve.

This is the key point which I think has been missed in the current round of hand-wringing about journalism, its foundational theories, its practices, and its workforce. Somewhere along the line a conflict has been set up between tradition and innovation in journalism which doesn’t exist, but which has become the main battleground.

Superficially, tradition is the opposite of innovation. If you suggest change, you’re suggesting rejection of decades or even centuries of rusted-on practices.

But this is a logical fallacy because those same rusted-on practices started out, in their own day, as revolutionary innovations. An original idea winds up being used as a weapon against another later innovation, and against change in general.

If this happens and innovation is rejected from journalism, it’s goodnight to our profession, and any benefits which we might have once brought to society will die too.

We have to start on the long trek towards figuring out how journalism can be changed and improved from within. This will involve unpacking and putting under intense scrutiny all those allegedly unchangeable things about journalism which have resisted innovation for so long: how we interview people, how we compose our reports, the ways we approach our work, and even the tools we use.

We must cast our net as wide as possible to look for something new: not just what the community hates about journalism and wants to forbid it from doing; but a shared understanding of what journalism can contribute to our society and how it can be an engine for improvement, not just a watchdog for tradition.

It’s obvious to me that if journalists - not just publishers - don’t take a firm hand and show the community that we can change and improve what we do and that we can make a positive and productive contribution to society, then we will be regulated out of effective existence because people will have given up trusting us. Some already have.

There may soon be so many laws surrounding journalism, and editorial police wandering around, that even the good that journalism does will be covered in yellow legal paperwork.

At the moment, governments, inquiries and some commentators seem caught in the headlights of spelling out what journalists shouldn’t do, and I can understand that. It’s been a difficult and painful road to Leveson and Finkelstein.

But before the story is finally written and new policies and regulations are written, let’s hear from more ordinary working journalists who are prepared to show that it’s possible for journalism to change and to measurably improve itself, just as it daily requires other people in the community to do the same.

The annual Walkley Awards for quality in journalism are to be announced tomorrow night. Perhaps that would be an appropriate time for an announcement from journalism that change is in the air.

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