Sunday, August 15, 2010

The journalism of fear and loathing

This is one of those times when I feel uncomfortable about being a journalist. Or, more specifically, about the kind of journalism which has become the most recent filler of column inches and their equivalent on electronic media over the past days and weeks.

This whole Larry Murphy thing has become a frenzy which feels not far off what happens when a piece of meat is thrown into a river inhabited by piranha fish. The water's relative calm is transformed into a roiling mass of ravening teeth, the owners of each set trying madly to get a share of the bloody action.

While it lasts, the area becomes a scary and dangerous place for anyone in a vulnerable position. As soon as the meat is consumed, all goes quiet and the shoal moves on in the hunt for another frantic meal. Leaving behind, amongst other things, fear and loathing.

The media organs which have been whipping up fear and loathing prior to and after the release of Murphy from jail have their job to do: sell papers, build radio listenership and TV viewing figures. And also, of course, to report the news.

Murphy's release is absolutely news. So too are public meetings at which people close to where Murphy came from express their concerns about his possible return. As also are the the tales about the stalking of the homes of his family, both close and more distant. Equally newsworthy are the publicly-uttered beliefs that the man who has served a jail term for rape and attempted murder may have been responsible for other crimes. And the stories that women in south Kildare and neighbouring Wicklow townlands and towns won't go out walking on their own any more, for fear of what a released Murphy might do, are the stuff of many words of reportage.

But it is probably correct to say that most of those stories are the result of a deliberate campaign by some media outlets to notch up substantially the fear factor. And doing so often on the basis of little or no evidence. The manufacturing of a world of 'might', 'could', and 'may' simply to build a campfire into a forest fire. The use of headline epithets like 'The Beast of Baltinglass' to further turn up the temperature on the afraid.

The story of Murphy's brother's house is a simple, but apt example. Because he has been building it for the last seven years, for his own family as and when he could afford work on it, was enough 'evidence' to allow one newspaper claim it was being built for the rapist's return. A photograph of the house was published without the brother even being asked about the matter.

That up to 60 members of my Fourth Estate camped outside Arbour Hill Prison, some of them up to two days before the scheduled release of Murphy, makes more of a celebrity of the man than anything else. That they then careened in convoy after his taxi, and have since been staking out various places he might or might not be, is downright predatory.

I hold no brief for the man. As far as I'm concerned, he should have been kept locked up until he was in his coffin for what he did and what he was foiled by fortune in what he was subsequently attempting to do. But the Garda are 'managing' his life now, and I'm of the opinion that it can be left to them. They are very aware of whatever potential he has for further nefarious deeds.

Eventually, and we can be sure it will be soon, the pack will move on to the next 'kill'. Leaving behind communities, families, and individuals who have been scared beyond sense; disturbed into unreason by hype, suspicion-mongering and innuendo; smeared with unevidenced allegations, and then discarded like yesterday's newspaper.

Good journalism is a very necessary thing. Especially in these times when the forces of big business and government conspire so often to exploit the rest of us. Without strong investigative journalism, many of the injustices which have been, and are still being perpetrated, by such entities would not have been brought to public scrutiny. Equally, thoughtful and thorough examination of wrongdoing by criminals, by good journalists, is a service to all of us.

But there are elements in today's journalism which are far too often themselves the perpetrators of injustice, for the sake of their own greed. They do shabby work. After more than three decades working as a journalist in my own small way, that's what makes me uncomfortable. They undermine a craft in which I and many of my colleagues strive to do our best. They dilute the credibility of what we do.

Worst of all, they are the equivalent of drug dealers feeding our basest instincts, and each time we accept the latest half-baked factoid or downright lie as 'true because it was in the newspaper', it makes us that little bit less able to think for ourselves.

That's the really scary part.