‘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
How can we tell fact from spin? How do we know when we’re being lied to or misled; how can we establish what a contributor’s agenda is? (they invariably will have one, but knowing what it is will help us decide on the merits of an issue).
The Leveson Inquiry in is performing a fascinating role in investigating media ownership and behaviour in the public sphere. In looking at the relationships between Press Barons (principally Rupert Murdoch) and politicians, both Conservative and Labour, it’s letting in the light on a relationship usually only reflected on by the Media, Politicians and Media Studies professionals. It is asking profound questions about democracy and how news is filtered.
Impartial is defined by Websters as ‘not partial or biased’. It also defines ‘fair’ as ‘marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favouritism’. But, in the words of ‘Private Eye’, ‘as any fule know’, the opposite applies throughout print media, (and, both Left and Right would hold, in broadcasting too). A broadcaster should lose viewers and a newspaper should lose readers if they go against their customers beliefs but if Fox News audiences are to be any guide, many don’t see balance as an important issue (unless they really believe their media is ‘Fair and Balanced’, in which case, that’s another article entirely).
Leveson, if it doesn’t pull any significant punches, should be critical of the corrupting interdependency between politics and journalism. By exposing these connections to the greater public, it has given more of the electorate a view on who really runs Britain and this can only be a good thing. It will hopefully lead to a more questioning and sceptical citizen.
Should a contributor on a News Programme arguing for lower Tax Rates state that their organisation is funded by offshore corporations and tax-cutting ideologues? Of course they won’t, but they should.
What we want from a News Contributor – (that is a commentator, journalist or current affairs panellist) – is impartiality. Or failing that, a declaration of interest.
Imagine if every time a so-called independent Tobacco lobbyist were on TV, they were asked who funds their campaign? If the listener were informed that the Tobacco companies fund such groups, they could decide whether the lobbyist is impartial or not (a ‘no-brainer’ there, but the principle still stands).
Or when it comes to a referendum, wouldn’t it be preferable to know who funds a particular group, be it for or against, to be able to make a fully informed decision about which way to vote?
Changing power structures takes time but we can do some things that are incremental but radical in effect. We can insist that broadcasters automatically ask contributors on any programme to state their interests, both public and private, when proposing a particular policy stance. A presenter or editor could easily give a ‘health warning’ before the start of a discussion or at the foot or head of an ‘op-ed’ piece.
Or we can try to change the culture whereby commentators themselves start to declare commercial or political interests. One example of this is Guardian journalist George Monbiot; he has done something most of us would be reluctant to do, he has a set up a register of his commercial interests and payments which is there for all to view on his website. When he comments on any issue, anyone can inspect this register to see ‘where he is coming from’. It doesn’t mean the reader has to agree with everything or even anything he says; it does mean that his ‘bona fides’ are more upfront than 99% of all other media commentators (including this one).
It is up to us all, the citizen, to be vigilant; to always be conscious that news and opinion need to be de-coupled. Be critical not passive. The knock on effects of transparency for democracy and the individual are hugely beneficial for an open society The more transparent a discussion, the better for all.