Friday 30 April 2021
Harvey Proctor, Grenfell Tower, Shukri Abdi. Over this week and next, Tortoise is covering stories that suggest new challenges for 21st-century newsrooms
Over the course of this week, we have broadcast Pariah – the pursuit of Harvey Proctor. On Monday, we’ll air the latest episode in the series of ThinkIns with James Harding, this one on Grenfell Tower. And next week’s Slow Newscast examines the death of Shukri Abdi.
On the face of it, three such very different stories. The hounding by the press and the police of an extreme right-wing MP. The public inquiry into a fire that claimed 72 lives in central London. And the campaign for justice for a 12-year-old refugee from Somalia who drowned in the River Irwell in England.
But there’s a thread that runs through them. Each of them examines the line between activism and journalism; what happens when a case is seized upon by a cause; the tension between two inviolable principles, justice and truth, between two honourable endeavours, the battle for fairness and the struggle to get to the facts.
My name is James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and this week’s Editor’s Voicemail may come across as something of a confessional, a muddled reckoning with two competing impulses in journalism, reporting and campaigning. It’s about the problem of what Ben Smith, the New York Times’ media writer, describes as “resistance journalism”; what you might call “factivism”.
Without telling or retelling the stories of each of the three podcasts – Harvey Proctor, Grenfell Tower and Shukri Abdi – each of them have been tragedies set against a scandal in plain sight. Child sex abuse; urban inequality; racist bullying – and, in all cases, met with institutional indifference and neglect. The knotty business of reporting the truth and campaigning for justice have inevitably become intertwined.
The defunct website Exaro’s credulous reporting of the false accusations of a VIP paedophile ring made by Carl Beech, aka “Nick”, was itself an accusation against society’s neglect of survivors of child sex abuse for so long; the police’s willingness to give Beech the benefit of the doubt was, likewise, an expression of institutional guilt. The Jimmy Savile case was on the conscience of the press and the police – that was the context, some might even say the cause, of the devastating harassment of a group of old, innocent men named in the “VIP paedophile ring” story and investigated by Operation Midland. And, as a result, “some facts are too good to check” went from being an old joke to a reasonable indictment of the press and police when they – we – start investigations, having already taken sides.
Tortoise’s Grenfell Tower podcast started out as an attempt to understand the role of the public inquiry in the age of social media. In the old days, the people struggled for years to get their version of events past the official account stitched together by the establishment – the police, the government and Fleet Street – until, finally, a public inquiry got to an agreed version of the truth. These days, social media has stitched together a patchwork narrative within seconds. And, in the online telling of it, the reporters and campaigners are often indistinguishable in saying what happened and what it meant. Against the backdrop of housing problems, racial discrimination and the widening gap between rich and poor in the city, the task of the public inquiry is to untangle the context from the cause of the fire, without denying either. That’s not easy. In the process of recording the Grenfell podcast, I was reminded that truth and justice are different and, if not in conflict, don’t always help each other out.
The death of Shukri Abdi, a 12-year-old girl who drowned, is unbearably sad. Whatever you say is inadequate to the loss. But the family’s grief was compounded by frustration at the police’s handling of the investigation, the delays to the coroner’s inquest and the anecdotal evidence of racist bullying at her school, all of which drew both reporters and campaigners to see her case as a cause. Does the racism that still exists in British society and institutions explain the circumstances of her death and the conduct of the investigation? Or was it the context of her death, but not the cause? The difference matters – to her family, those accused and implicated, to those people serving in the organisations that serve the community.
These are not academic problems for a newsroom. They’re heartfelt. They’re fiercely fought internally: these are real arguments we have about who you listen to, about whose version of events counts the most, even counts at all; they’re challenges to our unchecked good intentions, to question the instincts that want the story to fit the arc of history; they’re a reminder of the difficult and sometimes unpopular journalistic discipline of gathering testimony and checking one account against another and ultimately coming to a judgment. The result is a compound, sifted account that may undermine the point of view of a witness, the lived experience of a campaigner. And what follows from that can be nasty and frightening: when reporting challenges the narrative of justice campaigners, it can result in the character assassination of the reporter, whose motive, interests and integrity are then all questioned.
We set up Tortoise, among other things, to campaign: a new newsroom founded in the belief that journalists can and should take an interest in what happens next, motivated by frustration at the power gap and the establishment groupthink that has allowed it to widen and an ambition to grow a body of journalism that does its bit to mend the world we live in.
But there is no ducking this argument. Truth and justice both matter, but as these three stories show, the cases don’t always fit the causes. And a newsroom that both wants to campaign and to report has to know its priorities. We work in the belief that there is such a thing as the truth. We may struggle to get there. We may have to admit that we don’t know enough of it to tell the story. We may get things wrong and have to apologise. But the choice for a newsroom is clear: truth comes first.