Issue: July/Sept 2010


He who pays the piper...

...doesn’t call the tune. In the media industry, there’s plenty of precedent and an abundance of practice. The TT/ASISA Academy relationship is seen in this context.

Independence is a state of mind, for retirement-fund trustees as much as company directors, that’s tested and proven over time. Editorial independence is no different, its special characteristics notwithstanding.

Trite amongst them is journalistic responsibility. The term isn’t an oxymoron, much as it might be scoffed as such, and neither is it a fluffy sentiment, much as it might be abused in defence of lackadaisical standards. Bluntly, it means exposing and contextualising relevant sides of a story in reports that are readily distinguishable from comment freed of constraint.

The point is made because of TT sponsorship by the ASISA Academy (TT April-June ’10). In the specifics of this arrangement, the parties come together exclusively to promote their mutual objective of trustee education and awareness. Any surreptitious agenda is in the interests of neither. The payer of the piper won’t call the tune, for reasons that are pretty obvious in this instance and which also have general application in the media industry.

Were TT to degenerate into an ASISA mouthpiece, its purpose would be lost. To compromise independence and simultaneously to retain credibility is impossible. There’s frequently a need to comment on issues where ASISA has not taken a position, where its respective members might not be in agreement with one another, or where they could be unsettled by viewpoints with which they’d rather be dissociated.

Many are the past examples. May there be many in the future too. No structure, formal or informal, is in place for pre-publication approval or post-publication appraisal. Neither party would have it another way.

Whether the publication relies for revenue on advertising by individual ASISA members, as previously, or on ASISA members via the Academy, as now, is irrelevant. The more general point is that all media must, in whatever way, have funders. They can be advertisers or they can be shareholders.

Most often, they’re both. Media that pander to either, in democracies where readership choice is vast, ultimately dig their own graves. The world has come a long way since the era when the Beaverbooks and Hearsts owned newspapers to extend their influence over public opinion.

Even the media leopard, Rupert Murdoch, has changed his spots. It’s illustrated by a little story, probably apocryphal but certainly believable.

When he bought the London Times some years ago, he reputedly told the editor that he wouldn’t interfere except when the newspaper made errors of fact. Soon after, a Times editorial argued that Maggie Thatcher was a bad prime minister. Murdoch immediately called the editor. “The fact is,” he said, “she’s a good prime minister”.

More recently, on buying the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch committed himself in a letter to the Bancroft family selling it: “Any interference – or even hint of interference – would break the trust that exists between the newspaper and its readers, something I am unwilling to countenance. Apart from breaching the public’s trust, it would simply be bad business.”

It’s an expression, at its finest, of the relationship between a publication and its funder. It’s also the articulation of what lesser publications and lesser funders might consider aspirational in the relationships of their own. Those most sceptical of Murdoch have yet to suggest that he has abrogated on his promise, which has its own reward in the buoyancy enjoyed by the WSJ.

That said, it cannot be contended that journalists’ independence is (or should be) absolute. They’re accountable to editors who’re appointed by, and in turn accountable to, boards of directors. The boards give editors broad mandates, and are entitled to fire them if those mandates are breached.

Unfortunately, on local experience, the impairment of independence can be more insidious and less frequent than an advertiser or shareholder who pushes his luck to break the Chinese wall between boardroom and newsroom. It happens when oversight and controls are weak, and nobody really cares or it’s assumed that nobody will notice.

It’s when journalists can become their own worst enemies: notably, when they’re inadequately trained and supervised; ominously, when they accept freebies (sometimes disclosed, sometimes not) which provoke more favourable coverage than would ordinarily happen, and by getting too close to contacts, for ease of content generation, with the same result.

These are exceptions that undermine the rule. They are corruptions whose policing adds to the burden of veteran editors. Like trustees -- for whom independence is equally critical, levels of competence similarly patchy, and requirements of responsibility correspondingly onerous -- temptations for journalists to take short cuts are ubiquitous. As the old adage has it:

You cannot hope to bribe of twist (thank G-d) the British journalist; But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

If that provides comfort, so be it. If TT ever falls into this category, good-bye.