Is there too much of the "herd instinct" in the news industry? Six months after leaving BBC News, Roger Mosey reflects on the risks of too much conformity.
I have been a free man for six months. It was in the middle of last year that I left BBC News for the bracing climate of BBC Sport, and I am now a viewer of news and not an editor of it. I enjoy Newsnight without wondering how we're going to answer the letters of complaint.
But becoming a member of the human race again - in the sense that I can go a day without seeing a news bulletin and have no guilt in reading the back pages before the front - does give a perspective on the way that journalism as a whole has its failures amid many successes.
My admiration for my former colleagues has, if anything, grown; but worries about aspects of the news industry have grown too. It is, at its sharpest, a fear of the herd instinct - and the sense that the deluge of material these days risks producing greater conformity of thought. If you search for it, the diversity is there in the digital media; but the mass-market outlets huddle ever closer together.
It's individual cases that get your hands reaching for the brick to chuck at the television.
An ITV News political specialist produced a piece of such witlessness on the school paedophile issue that I thought he must be auditioning for Fox News. Right-thinking people are against dangerous paedophiles being employed as teachers, but as the story broke there was little attempt to unpick the issues about the scale of risk or the right to fair process.
Was there an assumption that the Education Secretary was wrong?
Tom Utley wrote a provocative but necessary piece in the Daily Telegraph which challenged what he called "an outbreak of mass hysteria"; and it was striking how a lot of the reporting started from the viewpoint that the education secretary Ruth Kelly was useless and stupid.
Now, I hold no brief for Ms Kelly - and I also have no time for the thesis, propounded by John Lloyd of the Financial Times, that the media give politicians too hard a time. But vigorous debate needs to be based on evidence, and it's not good enough to start from the assumption that Ms Kelly is wrong.
Some reporting never bothered to explain what the actual policy was of the Department for Education and Skills and came close to implying that ministers were putting ads in the papers saying "teacher vacancies - child molesters preferred". In other words, Ms Kelly should be nailed for any failures; but it would be nice to have an exposition of the facts alongside that.
That need for perspective in reporting applies to all aspects of our daily lives.
You may have noticed this week that it has been a rather balmy January in the United Kingdom with temperatures reaching 13 degrees. You may also remember reading items towards the end of last year which predicted a harder winter than usual - prompting headlines about "The Big Freeze" and accompanied by features about the Arctic chill of 1963 and speculation about whether the Thames would once more turn to ice.
The source here was a decent one. The Meteorological Office did say it might be a colder winter than recent averages, but it also had the rather important qualification that there was a 2 in 3 chance of this happening - which left a 1 in 3 chance that it wouldn't. It also never mentioned 1963, and instead spoke of a comparison with the mild winters since 1996.
But conditioned by this prediction, the first snowfall in December got many journalists into a frenzy. I heard reporter after reporter use the phrase "the big freeze" for what was the meteorological equivalent of bears performing natural functions in woods. It sometimes snows in December. Hills in Yorkshire are then difficult for traffic.
Whatever happened to "The Big Freeze"?
As someone who has undoubtedly committed sins along these lines in the past, I realise how "the small, normal freeze" is an unalluring headline and pictures of Hastings in the snow are pretty. However, the serious point here is that the audience sometimes expect a higher level of sophistication than they get.
I spoke to someone who had driven from Cornwall to Lincolnshire with the incessant accompaniment of radio coverage urging people not to travel for fear of being trapped in the wintry hell - and he made it to Grantham without seeing a single snowflake. He was spitting tacks about the uselessness of the information the media supplied.
Black and white
So it was with screaming headlines claiming "Bird Flu Strikes Britain" which turned out to be about one unlucky, quarantined parrot.
The issue here is that modern media can feed upon itself, and the same facts - or worse inaccuracies - are recycled hour upon hour. The herd feels more comfortable with a black and white consensus than it does with shades of grey: better to have a hero or a villain for the columnists to write about than someone who got some things right and others wrong.
And that is why we should cherish the people and the outlets who stand aside from the herd. Most of Newsnight, most of Channel 4 News, much of BBC Radio and the correspondents who add insight to the Ten O'Clock News. Writers like Simon Jenkins, Rod Liddle and Jason Burke. We should celebrate intelligence and analysis - and, at times, a bloody-minded refusal to conform.
This is adapted from a piece in "The Business".