There’s been a debate on whether it’s acceptable for young, ostensibily left wing journalists to write sensationalist hate-mongering articles for right-wing media as they rise up the career ladder, with many senior journalists showing support. However as Basit Mahmood writes, when you come from a community affected by dangerous rhetoric, it’s a different story.


Following a tweet from Guardian columnist Owen Jones directed at the former chief political correspondent of The Sun an interesting debate has reemerged about the role of journalists who write for newspapers whose editorial lines they don’t agree with, but with much agonising feel they have “no choice” but to work for.

The “I need to pay my bills” or “I’m using it to progress in my career to make positive change late”, is usually the get out clause used, after which we’re expected to express great deals of sympathy and understanding.

However I have no sympathy for such arguments that seek to undermine accountability for stories that whip up fears and hatred towards minority communities such as Muslims, immigrants, refugees, transgender people and others. If as far as we can go in our condemnation of such articles is to say “that’s appalling, but don’t worry we understand you need to move out of your parents’ house”, it’s hardly a sign of a healthy and accountable media.

screenshot 2019-01-15 11.59.31

How the debate started on Twitter

Irrespective of whether you yourself wrote that story, helping to prop up a system that at its heart relies on making a profit by whipping up moral panics against people from marginalised and underrepresented backgrounds, is a choice you make.

When you see firsthand the impact sensationalist and bigoted stories have on the community in which you’ve grown up in, the “I needed to pay my bills” excuse, is not one you’re willing to accept easily. When newspapers publish headlines about where you live being a “terror hotspot”, the discredited Muslim foster parent story (which The Times are still yet to apologise for)  or about how 1 in 5 of you supports ISIS, not forgetting the daily immigrant bashing and xenophobia constantly in the background on our TVs and radio, you find little comfort in a journalist telling you their role in all of this was “to make things batter in the future”.

“An emboldened far-right marching through your town as a result of what’s been published, your mother afraid to leave the house after being called a “P**i” or when you see the community you’ve grown up in constantly lied about just to get a few clicks… these are not prices worth paying just to get a foot on the career ladder” 

Whilst many of the 95% of white mainly middle class journalists working in mono-culture newsrooms may be in a position to choose what impact they will have later on, the impact on those communities on the receiving end of sensationalist and inaccurate reporting is not short term, it is long term and lasting. It corrodes trust, which is so vital to journalism where people open up and share their stories with you. To simply think that having broken that trust, after working for a paper that did so much harm, that it can then simply be rebuilt now that you’ve “progressed in your career” smacks of arrogance at best and delusion at worst.

A Sun headline, later described by IPSO as “significantly misleading”

An emboldened far-right marching through your town as a result of what’s been published, your mother afraid to leave the house after being called a “P**i” or a community you’ve grown up in constantly lied about just to get a few clicks and you’re made to feel unwelcome simply by virtue of who you are, are not prices worth us paying just so you can get a foot on the career ladder. Communities like my own should never be considered the price worth paying just so others can climb up the greasy pole.

Undoubtedly some will be screaming but what else can we do? Roles are hard to come by in a “cut throat” industry. My answer: if you wish to make a living out of journalism alone, look for additional sources of income, even if they aren’t related directly to the industry, without compromising on principles that made you go into the profession in the first place.

I quit my job a year ago and undertook a pay cut to go into journalism, a profession I had in the past had no interest in whatsoever because I saw the impact that sensationalist and inaccurate reporting was having. Entire communities switching off from the media and getting left behind by the news, which is so vital to our democracy and understanding the lives of others. Not to mention the emboldening impact it had on the far-right whilst portraying you as “the enemy within”.

While financial considerations and career progression may be the priority for some, for those in this debate on the receiving end of sensationalist reporting it’s about being able to be treated as an equal. Although the rewards of not sacrificing on your principles may not be obvious or immediate, they will certainly earn the trust and praise of those voices and communities whom you so often don’t get to hear from, but who matter nonetheless.

Basit Mahmood is a freelance journalist.

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