Confusing words with facts

10Jul08

It is easier, and more concise, to report official comment as fact, and the BBC are at it again.

Baha Mousa, the Iraqi tortured and murdered by British soldiers in 2003, was killed as a result of established and recognised torture techniques used by British and American soldiers. These include forcing stress positions and inflicting sensory deprivation on victims.

However, on July 10, the BBC aired an MoD statement accompanied by a rules-of-conduct video, suggesting this was an isolated incident, the sort of which they were trying to “stamp out”.

By mysterious journalistic alchemy, this statement sublimed into fact, and it was then confidently asserted that the armed forces were, by principle and practice, against such abuses. 

Reporters are often in thrall and under the control of those in power

Reporters are often in thrall and under the control of those in power

No questions were asked about the history of torture under the British military, or its advocation, toleration and tuition, for which there are numerous precedents: try lifting the carpet of British military-occupation of Northern Island in the 1970s and you will find it filthy with  crimes against our own citizens. 

Other stories received similar treatment that day, such as the report about the £9.4m hike in road tax. Gordon Brown stated, in Parliament, that this was necessary for the fight to save the environment. 

If they had put the pieces of the puzzle together, they might have seen a darker picture: nothing is being done to make public transport cheaper and more attractive to “consumers”, an environmental holocaust is being wreaked on the middle East, and the construction of two multi-billion pound, oil glugging aircraft-carriers is nearing completion.

The BBC are fed gloopy nonsense by our government, and this most often comes out the other end as sweet-smelling guff. And journalists are not permitted to ask these questions in “hard news” (as if!) for these principle reasons:

Firstly, young journalists are not asked to reason why, and not in a competitive position to do so. This is partly because “critique” – any line which involves sub-surface inspection or is liable to provoke disagreement, but could still turn out in the course of an argument to be true –  is incorrectly conflated with “comment” or “opinion” by detractors, and often labelled non-objective by bullish government press departments.

How often, for the example, have the BBC been accused of being “irresponsible” by governments when its news-line does not match theirs?

Secondly, they are discouraged from writing assiduously, and taught that “it was claimed that”, or “he said” is not as pithy or direct as “it is the case that”. This what we call “style over content” and is unfortunately more a symptom of an historically pliant press than our increasingly trivial news-values.

In his 1998 book, Strange Places, Questionable People, ex-political editor for the BBC, John Simpson, is candid about the pliancy of reporters in the early 1980s:

The average [journalism in Parliament] was distinctly poor.

The journalists there sometimes seemed to be as defensive of the customs of the place as any sergeant-at-arms…Some of the reporters found it hard to distinguish between themselves and the MPs they were reported on; they would adopt their language and mannerisms, andwere as prickly about the rules of the place as the MPs themselves.

…their reporting tended to be [about] the politics of personality and debating-chamber performance, rather than those of the world inhabited by ordinary men and women…The outside world often scarcely seemed to exist there.

This was the way the people we came later to know as spin-doctors liked it… And once government or party policy had been established, the entire official machinery on all sides was geared to present it as fixed and certain; only mavericks or the insane could possibly question it.

[Many journalists]  were neither independent-minded, nor bold, nor well-connected. They were the greatest beneficiaries and the fiercest defenders of the client relationship which the lobby system inculcated: a relationship that kept them weak and at a disadvantage…The lobby system, secretive, consensual, a mystery into which you had to be inducted and in which it was necessary to believe implicitly, was a positive encouragement to the journalism of laziness.

And if you have ever worked in a newsroom, you might have experience of what bastards (yes, they are usually men), bullies and churls editors can be, and that you simply do not question the editorial line. You churn out, and then go home to whatever house £14K a year can get you.

Lastly, the best way to stay on the media gravy-train and to satisfy your news sources – to tickle their bollocks rather than kick them there. This should give you a ready-supply of the “news” your editor demands, ready to be consumed: just turn on the tap, and out comes the slurry.

But the very opposite should be  true: if we apply rigorous subjective criteria to news-gathering and presentation, realise that sources can be unreliable and the evidence we gather is confined by our very subjective limitations, reporting can be all-the-more robust and thruthful.

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