A defence of ethical journalism

14Jan08

It is a truism in journalism that reporters should stick to the facts, free from comment. The trouble is, so called “facts” are not always that clear-cut, and it sometimes requires a little comment and debate  to find out what they are. This is where John Pilger comes in, white suit, perma-tan and all.

The Ofcom Code demands that television news is impartial and objective, presumably so the public are not misled by erroneous speculation or innacuracies, or any kind of bias. Sounds fair…

But this is where “balance” comes in and this is a problem.

Our litigious outlook means that all parties in a story need to be seen to be represented fairly, especially so a reporter can avoid or defend against a defamation suit.

The appearance of fairness, in the eyes of the law and the media, is certainly not the same as “truth” or objectivity, for a number of reasons.

Two sides – too simple

Firstly, stories are often split between two sides, even if this does not accurately represent the complicated facts, as adversarialism tells and sells. It is also easiest to represent a “side” and thereby avoid the courts by going to an official source and asking for comment.

Because of this, offiicial comment is liable to acquire a special status and an almost mandatory place in stories about governments or large organisations. Unfortunately, such comment is often designed to deceive or obfuscate, and if the journalist is not careful, skew an article in favour of invidious arguments.

Pilger proved this in his 2004 film Stealing a Nation, when the Undersecretary of State for the Foreign Office lied to him that the British government had not overruled a High Court order to allow Chagossians to return to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia after being forcibly and illegally evacuated in the 1960s.

He also showed how recalcitrant our government could be when asked to reveal information priveleged under the Freedom of Inormation Act, by instead invoking the Data Protection Act frequently.

John Pilger

However, if a journalist is allowed to make comment on the reliability of a source or a document, the audience can better decide for themselves whether that evidence is reliable, based upon that detailed infomation. But this is expressly disallowed by Ofcom for television news stories, even though Pilger’s documentary would have been weaker and less “objective” for it.

It seems absurd that the opinions of those in power should deserve so much coverage even when their words are consistently and reliably untrustworthy.

Fallacy of mutual equivalence

John Pilger refers to this as the fallacy of mutual equivalence: that just because two opposing sides have expressed a view, they are both equally weighted.

 For this reason, he claims in his 2002 documentary, Palestine is Still the Issue, and his 2007 book of reportage, Freedom Next Time, the Israeli-Palestine issue is usually portrayed by BBC news as just a conflict between two irreconcilable cultures, not what it is – an illegal, United States-funded occupation.

From the Israeli suicide bombers of the 1950s, to the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians in 1982 and the destructive and petty blockade of the West Bank, Pilger establishes the facts and scale of the injustice. Many thousands more Palestinians have died and suffered as a result of the occupation than Israelis because of Palestinian suicide bombers.

This is a far cry from the BBC‘s tone on Palestine and Israel. Perhaps they are scared: Pilger was himself threatened with legal action by the Israeli government. And when, in 2005, the BBC‘s Andrew Gilligan dared to question the government’s unfounded claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities, he was hauled before a phony, hand-picked select committee who were expressly prohibited from cross-examining the Prime Minister, Tony Blair

Chilled-out but churning out

Events like these have a chilling effect on all media, who self-sensor for fear of being sacked or sued, or going up before a committee who have reinterpreted “objectivity” to reach a foregone conclusion.

Combining these fears with the non-stop demands of “churnalism” in a new-media age, all reporters will be hard-pressed to sniff-out challenging stories.  Television news, despite its bells and whistles, is not far off becoming impotent and sterile.

Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why so many stories, such as Richard Branson’s recent £24m wage packet from Virgin Trains, to name but one, escape mass-media scrutiny.

Undoubtedly, too, all journalists need to brown-nose their editors, who increasingly want more and more, faster and faster, 24-hours a day.

From this, it is difficult not to be reminded of Chis Morris‘ satirical Channel 4 show Brass Eye, which made startlingly prescient observations about the growing trend for style-over-content in evening news, and about how Paxman or Trevor McDonald tended to shout louder than the facts in their stories.

A rich tapestry

Journalism, remember, is not a science. The reporter is led to the story by his nose, and should be led thus to the facts, not restrained so unfairly by Ofcom, who are accountable to a government which is always ripe for scrutiny and opprobrium.

Though Pilger is sometimes justifiably accused of sensationalism (most notably by Evelyn Waugh in the 1960s) his combined powers of comment and instinct make his books and documentaries particularly powerful.

Heroes, for example, combines the fastidiousness of a history scholar with the sensitivity and detail of a novelist. At the expense of immediacy, the book chronicles the effects on ordinary people of Thatcher’s monetarist reforms and how the press were misinformed about Arthur Scargill’s labour movement.

Journalism can be reflective as well as topical, if only we are allowed to cast a critical eye.

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