I've been kicking around the idea for this post for some time, it's all to do with (and I hope you'll forgive the cringe-worthy jargon) 'Citizen journalism'. The purpose of the post is to throw out the general ideas that I've been thinking about this, and more specifically, how I and this blog fits into this role. I'm not the only person thinking about this.
It was the raid on a house in Forest Gate that got me thinking about my role in bringing people news. For those that don't know, Forest Gate is a place within my 'patch'. Acting on anti-terrorist intelligence that would later turn out to be faulty, the police raided a residential house there. One man would be shot and wounded by the police. Some people considered this a blow against the Islamic faith.
The rights and wrongs of this raid have been discussed in other more learned places than here. My own point of view is simply this – how embarrassed would the police have been if the intelligence had turned out to be correct and there had indeed been a cyanide bomb attack that they could have stopped.
During the search of the house following the raid the police had an ambulance on standby a little way down the road, apparently it was a nice little bit of quiet overtime. When the ambulance service works this closely with the police there is a fair swap of gossip.
For about a week before the news was made public I knew that the police had found £32,000 in cash in the house. At least that is what one of the crews on scene had told me. The money was apparently kept in black bin bags.
So what was I supposed to do with this information? If I were the true 'citizen journalist' then I should surely publish this information. With the amount of national media that the story was getting if I did disclose this 'insider' information then I would be assured of getting a large leap in page-hits. If I published I would probably be the centre of attention for a while. All good publicity if one is trying to sell a book in the near future.
On the other hand – If I did publish it could wreck any potential legal case against the householders. It may well get an ambulance crew and a loose-lipped policeman into trouble. It was also an unconfirmed rumour and if it turned out to be false then my reputation would possibly take a hit and I could leave myself open for a libel case.
So what should I do? 'Publish and be damned', poorly protected by my 'amateur' status? Or should I keep the information to myself – supposedly betraying the whole reasoning behind citizen journalism?
I decided that it would be best all round if I kept the information to myself – the risks to myself, the police, the ambulance crew and to the householders themselves (who could have a completely reasonable explanation for the money) could not be balanced out by the benefits of a 'scoop', no matter how much this author craves attention.
So here is the thought that is rattling around in my head – is 'citizen journalism' just a way for disposable people to release damaging information? The BBC wouldn't want to publish something that was incorrect. Yet if Joe Smith's blog publishes it and he gets sued then it isn't the big media company that is damaged.
Quite possibly it is this specific lack of knowing the rights and wrongs of publishing that makes 'citizen journalism' both exciting and dangerous – and would anyone care if another blogger gets taken down?
Bloggers are already being sued, and I think that there will be more legal action in the future.
I have no idea about the ethics of journalism, which is perhaps why this blog doesn't touch too often on the news or on digging out a story. I'm not a journalist, I'm not trained to be a journalist and to be fair I don't think I'm smart enough to be a journalist. But if it were my desire to become a 'citizen journalist' there would be nothing stopping me from going out looking for stories and those stories could get me into a lot of legal trouble.
So – to all those bloggers who consider themselves 'citizen journalists', be careful it's not as simple as stringing sentences together on a website.
In saying this the much nicer phrase 'Participatory media' is much more fitting. Thought up by people much smarter than I, it describes how more citizens may assist the regular news outlets by providing pieces that can be checked and edited by professionals.
But does this damage the 'truth' of citizen media?
I don't know – which is why I'm putting these half-formed thoughts out here – please feel free to tell me I'm being an idiot.