18 November 2008

Donald Trelford on journalism's state of health

Fourteen years after his inaugural lecture at Sheffield University former Observer editor Donald Trelford returned to give his diagnosis on the health of British journalism.

Donald Trelford

Mr Trelford, now Emeritus Professor of Journalism, looked back on his speech delivered in 1994 to discover if the issues he raised then still had relevance today.

His view of the state of the profession since he became the first head of department at Journalism Studies was mixed – with some things improving while others have got decidedly worse.

In 1994 for example one of his main themes was freedom of information and in Tuesday’s lecture he mentioned the positive development of the Freedom of Information Act, although he pointed out that governments and officials still attempted to frustrate journalists in their quest for the truth.

However, he judged that the way information was given to journalists by the way of briefings had become worse, thanks to what he called the “sinister, mendacious and bullying” influence of government spin doctors such as Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.

“Unless a journalist presents the information in the right sort of light, they are shut off from the supply of news,” he said.

In terms of quality the picture was also mixed. Quantity has certainly improved he said, with newspapers having a lot more space for news. As a result coverage of foreign affairs was better than it was and there were many fine columnists.

But Mr Trelford lamented a decline in accuracy and suspected many of the old sub-editing skills were being lost.

Turning to Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s criticism of recent privacy rulings, Mr Trelford said he wasn’t convinced that we had a right to know about the sexual foibles of the rich and famous but added: “You either live in society where the press is controlled or where the press is tawdry. Given the choice then it has to be a tawdry press.”

He said the perception of journalists by the general public was just as poor today as it was 14 years ago, but there had been an interesting power shift.

“A man like Dacre and (Sun editor) Rebekah Wade have more power than any individual minister in the government and that is not a healthy thing in a democracy,” he said.

Mr Trelford was giving the latest in a series of guest lectures organised by the Department of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University.