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)
commissioning editor, Storyville, BBC; series editor, Why Democracy?; executive producer, Why Poverty?; author, Why Documentaries Matter
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)
editor-at-large, online magazine spiked; author, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?
associate editor, Sky News
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Following the publication of the damning report on the Hillsborough disaster, there have been paroxysms of handwringing in the political and media classes.Brendan O'Neill, Huffington Post, 13 September 2012
Inadvertently, a high-ranking conservative Republican has captured the political zeitgeist. During budget debates earlier this month about reproductive healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, Arizona senator Jon Kyle was caught falsely insisting on the Senate floor that providing abortions is ‘well over 90 per cent of what Planned Parenthood does’Wendy Kaminer, spiked, 27 April 2012
Excerpt fromBill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Nieman Reports, 2001