What is the truth?

Sunday 21 October, 3.15pm until 4.45pm, Pit Theatre

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

Humbert Wolfe’s ditty may have particular resonance today. But beyond cynicism about the untrustworthy meeja, the fourth estate is still expected to hold the powerful in check and enlighten the public on the realities behind appearances and spin. Whether in news, current affairs, documentary or investigative journalism, reporters have traditionally aimed at a degree of objectivity, apprising the facts and checking sources, while public service broadcasters have signed up to the notion of impartiality. But are such ideals illusory?

We were outraged by the plagiarism and fakery scandals that have dogged print and broadcast outlets of late. But while some journalists are condemned sarcastically for ‘never letting the facts get the way of a good story’, we have become accustomed to accepting less than the whole truth in other contexts. Docudramas, dramatic re-constructions of ‘true events’, even scripted ‘reality’ shows such as TOWIE and The Only Way is Chelsea are now treated with magnanimity. While the famous Guardian editor, CP Snow, once quipped ‘Comment is Free but facts are sacred’, many current affairs stories elide subjective views and opinion with news and dispassionate reporting. And we seem forgiving when crusading journalists claim the greater truth is more important than mere facts. Michael Moore readily admits his slippery journalistic standards, while winning awards and plaudits for his polemical films. Why make a fuss about errors in Al Gore’s BAFTA-winning film on the evils of global warming if it delivers a powerful truth that will help save the planet? When upwards of 40 million people watched Kony 2012, a film that has made the world aware of child soldiers in Africa, does it matter if it was littered with factual confusions?

Maybe the idea of a golden age of objective news is a naive myth, and it’s time to drop any pretence. Nigel Andrews asked in the FT, ‘Do we still buy, if we ever did, the notion that non-fiction on-screen is anything other than an artefact?’ Not only has the openly polemical Fox News challenged the status quo, but Channel 4’s opinionated reporting has many admirers on the opposite side of the political divide. The BBC is regularly accused of bias by all sides. Some make a virtue of ‘attached’ journalism and campaigning documentaries, arguing that at least audiences get closer to partial truths. Others fear impartiality distorts truth by an obligation to give equal weight to quacks and sceptics to balance up experts armed with factually proven evidence. Should we drop the old idea that journalism shouldn’t indulge in opinion, but simply equip people with the information to make up their own minds ? Is seeking the truth too grand an aim for the media? Is impartiality the enemy or ally of truthful journalism? Are today’s journalists trustworthy enough to deliver truth anyway?

Ruth Dudley Edwards
historian and journalist; author, The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic (forthcoming)

Nick Fraser
commissioning editor, Storyville, BBC; series editor, Why Democracy?; executive producer, Why Poverty?; author, Why Documentaries Matter

Peter Grimsdale
former Channel 4, Five and BBC commissioning editor; credits include Crimewatch, Big Brother and Dispatches; thriller writer, co-author, Battlefield 3 - The Russian (with Andy McNab)

Mick Hume
editor-at-large, online magazine spiked; author, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

John McAndrew
associate editor, Sky News

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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