Rigour mortis

WHATEVER happened to rigour? How did rigorous thought and debate, proper serious challenging of ideas, assumptions, politicians, scientists or academics become redundant?

When did woolly thinking replace rational argument, cliche replace questioning, piecemeal regurgitating of press releases, spurious, commercial or downright bogus medical claims, political posturing and advertorial puffery replace investigative journalism?

I’m not merely talking about fake news, because that has always existed. Go back to the 18th century and you will find all manner of fakery going on, claims so preposterous they make the National Enquirer or the News Of The World in its pomp read like Plato.

Even the BBC – and yes, it is still the best broadcaster in the world (and not just because of programmes like Blue Planet 2) – is not immune, reporting as “news” facts that are self-evident. But it maintains its credibility for objectivity and in-depth investigations in such programmes as Panorama. And there are the occasional one-off well-researched news stories (the recent international “Paradise papers” report is a good example, as were the Telegraph’s revelations of the MPs’ expenses some years ago).

The Daily Mail and the Telegraph are both guilty of parroting press releases about this, that and the other “miracle” cure – you know the sort of thing, drink a glass of red wine a day and you will live another 36 hours, eat butter/don’t eat butter, take vitamin supplements/don’t take vitamin supplements, eat five-a-day, no make that ten-a-day, eat more meat/less meat … and so it goes. Much of it reads like the hokum used by snake oil salesmen to sell their “remedies,” claiming to cure anything from gallstones to galloping goitres.

You long for a news editor who would tell the  lazy reporter to go back and dig a little deeper, check the facts, ask questions, find someone (ideally more than one person) who is an objective expert in the field.

It’s not difficult – you only have to look at the acknowledgement or credit at the end of a press release to see that the source of the “facts”is a public relations or marketing company. This is particularly invidious in the case of medical and scientific stories, when the “information” may be traced back to one of the multi-national pharmaceutical corporations that fund academic research or even university chairs (usually under a subsidiary company’s unfamiliar name).

It takes time to follow these disguised paths, and in these days of cuts and media managements who think journalists are an expensive luxury and that “fact checking” just means getting names or websites right, it doesn’t happen.

Alongside the shoddy reporting, the majority of newspapers – local as well as national – are crammed with features (often known as “promoted” articles) by well-known columnists, that at first sight are well-illustrated and informative. It’s only when you look carefully, perhaps spot a slightly different typeface or layout, that you realise the content has been paid for. It may be a holiday company, a food manufacturer or retailer, a fashion house or luxury brand. Instantly, your bullshit detectors start beeping – you feel at the very least let down, if not actually angry that you have wasted the time to read this stuff.

Not content with padding out the pages with paid content, newspapers are also stuffed with celebrity gossip, columnists recording their often chaotic private lives (who cares?) or promoting their own or their newspapers’ political prejudices. And then there are the endless fashion and beauty pages which have obviously been put together by assistants wading through oceans of freebies and press releases. Even in review or arts sections the majority of interviews have been organised by publicity agents to promote the star’s latest film, the author’s latest book or the director’s new television or feature film.

If you want rigour in journalism these days you can still find it in some of the longer, in-depth pieces in the Observer or Financial Times, and in news magazines such as the Spectator. It is no accident that sales of magazines including Country Life, the Spectator, The Oldie and Private Eye have held up or are even increasing, while traditional newspapers are seeing dramatic falls.

What the magazines have in common, no matter what their constituency or political orientation, is good writing, serious thought, informed opinions and intellectual discipline. So rigour is not entirely dead, but there are worrying signs of rigor mortis in much of our once-vigorous and admirable “free” press.

Fanny Charles