In My Opinion: Derek Masterton: Can you trust the tabloid Press?

FRIEND or foe – can you trust the tabloid Press? Discuss.

It’s hardly a new topic but it’s the one that’s up for debate on Wednesday during a session at ‘The Gathering’ – the annual get-together and showcase for Third Sector organisations in Scotland, at Glasgow’s SECC.

Sponsored by Third Force News – an excellent ‘trade’ publication which covers all things charitable and voluntary – the debate will no doubt produce the usual polarised points of view.

But what I want to know is: why pick on the tabloid Press? Are journalists from the broadsheets or TV or radio (or online, even) somehow more trustworthy? Now, that’s a question for debate.

Before I go any further, I must declare an interest. I was a tabloid journalist for 30 years. I am now media relations officer for the British Red Cross in Scotland. I have a foot in both camps, so to speak.

Thirty years is a big chunk out of anyone’s life and I still get hacked off – pun intended – by the constant vilification of tabloids.

I was proud to be a tabloid journalist, working for a paper that defended the ‘wee man’ against the bullies of business and bureaucracy. I was proud to be part of a paper that fought hard for Scotland and its people; a paper that stood up for their values and welfare.

Tabloids have always been given a hard time. The ‘gutter press’ tag has been around since Caxton. It was traditionally – and predictably – employed by ‘pillars of society’ whose embarrassing idiosyncrasies had been exposed to the nation. And/or plain snobs.

The ordinary people – the working class, if you like – gave the tabloids their (once) mass circulations. Why? Because they identified with the stories and the language they were told in – straightforward and unpretentious. And yes, because they loved to see the ‘upper classes’ brought down to earth with a clatter by newspaper reports of whatever scandal they had been caught perpetrating. The sports and telly pages were usually better, too.

But phone hacking changed all that. A handful of unprincipled chancers smeared all tabloid journalists – and their good work – with a particularly foul-smelling and almost indelible tar.

Other sections of the media were quick to jump on ‘the bus headed for the moral high ground’. They didn’t just distance themselves from the guilty party – now deceased – they laid into tabloids generally.

But let he or she among us who is without sin cast the first ‘chuckie’, as they say. Scandalous wrongs, sloppy reporting, inaccuracies, misquotes and careless spellings can – and do – appear anywhere in the media. We’ve all seen them. Most of us have been guilty of one or more of them at some stage in our career. Format has nothing to do with it.

To suggest that tabloid journalists are less professional or trustworthy than others elsewhere or that they pay less attention to good journalistic practice and the code of conduct is, frankly, insulting and untrue.

Perhaps Wednesday’s topic for debate should be: ‘Can the Third Sector trust the Fourth Estate?’ Personally, I believe the answer is Yes.

But let’s be clear about what we trust them to do – to report fairly and accurately on matters that concern us and the people we help.

The media does not exist to print – or broadcast – what we tell them to.

If we do our jobs properly, journalists will do theirs and we’ll all gain from that.

Trust me, I was a tabloid journalist…

Derek Masterton is the media relations officer for the British Red Cross in Scotland. He is a former assistant news editor with the Daily Record, where he was a news journalist for 30 years. He is writing in a personal capacity.