Why does lack of trust not equal lack of sales?
Historically, it's true that while newspapers may have been founded with the best of intentions, their owners were far less principled. The barons, for the most part, only had making money as a side interest; their first concern was propaganda and the status that owning a newspaper brought. This only changed when the barons gave way to the grocers, and now, in the form of Richard Desmond, and arguably before him Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black, the asset-strippers. Others might add the Barclay brothers, considering their current cuts at the Telegraph, to that list. Rupert Murdoch combines both making money with propaganda, the losses on the Times more than subsidised by the other sections of his empire and by the profits made by the Sun and News of the World. Murdoch's own contempt for accuracy in contrast to money-making could not be more exemplified than by his order that the presses should keep rolling when the Sunday Times printed the Hitler diaries, despite their exposure as a hoax.
It's also true that throughout their history newspapers have been criticised both for their intrusions into privacy, their salacious content and their downright lies. Only once though has a scandal and the complete contempt for accuracy directly resulted in a huge drop in circulation, when the Sun more or less lost 200,000 sales overnight after splashing, ironically, with "THE TRUTH" on its front page. Those 200,000 sales lost in Liverpool after their coverage of the Hillsborough disaster have also never returned.
It's with that in mind that we ought to be careful in suggesting that things now are worse than they have ever been, as few can honestly live up to the excesses of Kelvin MacKenzie's reign whilst editor of the Sun. Likewise, on the political front, it's also true that campaigns now are nowhere near as distorted as they once were, when popular papers of both left and right seemed to do battle to outdo themselves in their respective smears on Conservative and Labour alike. 1992 was the last real time that such partisanship potentially had an impact on the result itself, although the Sun's own claims that it "won it" for the Tories are highly dubious. Newspapers have always exaggerated their ability to influence their readers to vote a certain way; most, after all, read a newspaper that plays to their own prejudices or at least shares their own politics.
One of the explanations for the continuing sharp fall in trust is that trust across the board is declining. The British Journalism Review's collection of polls actually showed that last year trust in red-top journalists went up from 7% to 15%, a completely inexplicable rise, while trust as a whole only went up in leading Conservative politicians and people who run large companies, also inexplicable. That survey, which distinguished between journalists on the red-tops, middle-market, and the up-market papers, found trust of 20% in the former and 43% of the former. All were behind BBC, ITV and Channel 4 journalists.
Why then, when so many don't apparently trust a word of what they're reading, do they continue for the most part, even when we take into consideration falling sales, mainly explained for reasons quite different to falling trust, to buy the likes of the Mail and the Sun? Is it because they completely ignore most of the news coverage and especially the political reporting, and only focus on the sport and the features, is it macohism, or is that they don't really care about whether the newspaper they read tells the truth or not? Some of it might well be down to most newspapers' complete refusal to be self-critical or so much as suggest that they might get it wrong, except when they're forced to: after all, both Paul Dacre and Rebekah Wade recently gave defiant speeches in which they directly attacked those critical or cynical of where the newspaper industry is going, while Dacre unleashed an assault directly on Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, even if not naming it, one of the most critical books in years on the press, with the added sting that it was written by an industry insider, even if from the Guardian, probably the most critical and cynical newspaper on the wider press.
Fundamentally, the main issue is not trust in the press, but accountability. The same press which widely has taken to assailing the BBC for every slight misdemeanour is far less accountable than the publicly-funded broadcaster, yet this never enters into the discussion when the BBC so openly self-flagellates. As today's report by the Media Standard Trust points out, the Press Complaints Commission is more or less a direct cabal of the press itself, something which on almost any other industry regulator would be completely unacceptable. Its powers when it comes to imposing sanctions on those that breach its code are little more than a joke: often corrections and apologies are featured in derisory positions in the paper, far back from where the original ran. For every complaint which goes to adjudication, hundreds of others are either completely rejected or "resolved", which often means that nothing more than a note on the PCC website is posted to suggest there was ever an issue. Reading it is another of my incredibly boring pastimes: often there are potential scandals, especially those regarding intrusion into grief, in my mind amongst the most serious of the abuses which the press routinely involves itself in, which are never so much as mentioned again. Both the Mail and Mirror recently removed articles from their sites, wrote letters of apology and made donations to charity after their intrusive coverage of the death of a Preston teenager, but no one would have known that such serious action was taken to make amends unless they too perused the PCC site regularly. Surely the most serious omission which would go some way to reassuring the public would be if, like Ofcom, the PCC could impose financial penalties or full, front page apologies in the cases of the most serious breaches of the code; this though would defeat the whole purpose of the PCC, which was never meant to be an independent regulator with teeth but to be one which could prevent the government from having to introduce either a privacy law or another quango of dubious independence, to give the veneer of there being some sort of body which could provide redress.
The Media Standards Trust report concludes that without reform of the PCC there will be an even further decline in standards and that the freedom of the press itself is likely to further suffer. As we have seen however, it takes an error on the level of the Sun's Hillsbrough coverage for there to be anything resembling a public outcry; the coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, probably the most recent example we have of a significant and extended period of libellous and indefensible journalism with its consequences being well-known, didn't have anything like a similar effect. It takes something on the scale of the Mirror publishing fake photographs of alleged mistreatment for its editor to be sacked, while Andy Coulson eventually left his position after the Clive Goodman affair. Notably, in both examples both have since gone on to greater things: Morgan becoming a celebrity in his own right while Coulson is now David Cameron's chief spin-doctor. The inference is obvious: only in banking can you both get away with more while there being a higher public desire for reform. The only difference is the rewards available.