Through a glass objectively By William Bowles

25 June 2003

The idea that there is some kind of ‘objective’ ground from which to view events, particularly of the political variety, is a long-held fantasy, especially of British journalism. It’s still taught in British universities would you believe, that out there, somewhere, there’s a space that the journalist can occupy, which sits perfectly in the middle, between one view and another (pre-supposing of course, that there are only two sides to an issue).

This illusion of course, is based on the idea that all political situations have a left and right hand. The journalist, armed with the ‘facts’ first presents one view and then the other and the reader (or listener) draws their own conclusions based upon, what exactly? It first assumes that the reader, has no views until presented with the ‘facts’. If not, then the reader already has a view that either the ‘facts’ will reinforce or per se, will be rejected. The journalist, having executed his role of go-between can then sleep comfortably in bed safe in the belief that he (or she) has done the ‘right thing.’ But there is a more insidious and pervasive sub-text to the notion of journalist as impartial reporter.

Here’s an example of what I mean from today’s (23/06/03) London Independent Review section. It’s a piece on the journalist John Simpson, an apparently much respected international journalist for the BBC who prides himself on not revealing any kind of ‘bias’ in his stories. It concerns the young Iraqi translator he’d hired and who got blown to pieces by ‘friendly fire’. Simpson visits the mother of the young man and Simpson writes:

‘Was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein worth all the violence and chaos in Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad?… Was it worth the death of my 25-year-old translator, the only support of his widowed mother? She doesn’t think so.’

He then adds a final sentence”

‘At the moment I am finding it hard not to agree with her.’

The writer of the story on Simpson, Vincent Graf comments:

‘Now he [Simpson] fears that he has compromised, to some extent at least, his outward lack of bias. It is a decision he regrets profoundly.'[my emph. WB]

So it’s okay to have an inward bias and hope that it doesn’t show? Simpson goes on to say that the comment was:

‘a real betrayal of what my function is supposed to be. Because people who think that this war was absolutely right have got the perfect right to feel that I am not slanting my reporting against them, any more than I would slant it against people who think it’s wrong.’

The first thing that’s missing from this analysis is the context within which the journalist operates. It assumes that each and every story or report exists in splendid isolation. So for example, the fact that Simpson was one of the several hundred ‘embedded’ journalists, whose every report was vetted (read censored) by the USUK military media/PR machine is not mentioned at all in the Graf piece. That Simpson momentarily let his emotions (guilt?) get the better of him, is neither here nor there. Later in the piece, Simpson tells us that,

‘[T]he old BBC’s reputation for impartiality was terribly hard to create and is terribly hard to maintain – and idiots like me who carelessly say these things can damage it.’

How convenient of Simpson to feel bad about revealing his feelings and feeling guilty about it, but apparently his feelings of guilt don’t extend to his being fundamentally compromised by being ‘in bed’ with the military. And to compound his already compromised ‘objectivity and impartiality’, he adds:

‘I don’t like wars for a start. I don’t like people who provoke wars.’

That sounds suspiciously like an opinion to me. Provoke wars? Is this code for an illegal invasion? It seems so because finally he tells us that:

‘I just feel that the better time to have got rid of him [sic] was in 1991, when his own people would have done it.’

Whoops! Is that another opinion popping up there? It assumes that ‘his [Saddam’s] own people’ would have been successful in getting rid of him and if not, what then? Do we assume that their failure would have been a reason for our success (in getting rid of Saddam)? Absolutely! Because Simpson tells us, ‘Saddam…was the nastiest dictator in modern times.’ So in the end, Simpson’s ‘bias’ is there all along, as he believes it’s quite right to get rid of Saddam, by one means or another, he just feels bad about the fact that ‘his translator’ got blown away in the process. So is Simpson’s so-called objectivity just a cover for his guilt? And of course, it’s convenient that ‘Saddam was the nastiest dictator in modern times’ but what if he wasn’t? And does this mean that all the other nasty dictators are excused from this index of nastiness? Where does Simpson’s objectivity end and his being human begin?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for journalists(or to be more accurate, the editors of the publication) letting me know where they stand on an issue, in fact I prefer it that way, then I can truly use my own judgement to make a decision on whether or not the journalist is selling me a load of rubbish or not. The arrogant assumption which is built into Simpson’s and all other corporate/state journalists, is that somehow, they have a monopoly not only on the ‘truth’ whatever that is, but that the rest of us don’t have the sense to figure it out for ourselves.

Ultimately, we’re not talking about facts here, we’re talking about values, right and wrong, justice and injustice. If it was just about objective facts, reporting on events would be a piece of cake: ‘X died when he was blown to pieces by a missile in Iraq. I was standing right next to him when it happened. The missile was fired by our side.’ End of story.

Regardless of whatever Saddam is (or was), what’s missing in its entirety from the ‘Simpson school of journalism’ (Duh), is any questioning of the notion that we in the West have a monopoly over an inherent truth masquerading as objectivity, where truth really means values, that is, ‘our’ values, Western values. What is more important in Simpson’s coverage of the translator’s death? Being ‘objective’ or the fact that the translator’s mother definitely didn’t think his death was worth it? If the impossibility of being ‘objective’ didn’t raise fundamental issues about truth then why does it occupy Simpson’s mind so much? Moreover, why did he feel it necessary to add his critical rider? The insult is two-fold; firstly to the mother of the dead man and secondly to us, the reader for apologising for adding it. To those who feel that the comment undermines Simpson’s so-called objectivity, all I can say is, tough, let them whinge, it neither adds nor takes away from the inherent rightness or wrongness of the invasion. Had he not added it, then I’m more than capable of coming to my own conclusions about the poor mother’s feelings and the invasion, as I’m sure those who supported the invasion could as well.

The assumption that a lack of bias in reporting can exist, is a bias all on its own, that prejudices any attempt at interpreting events in a way that allows us to make our own judgements. Even the selection of stories reveals a bias as it informs us as to what the newspaper or news programme thinks is news that is worthy of our attention. And the position and emphasis given to a story is also part of the process of assigning value to something that we call news.

What is so insidious is the idea that a journalist is someone standing on Mount Olympus, imbued with insights that the rest of us don’t possess and with the ability to divorce themselves from events, when the very assumption that such a position exists, is itself false. Whether Simpson works for the BBC or for a corporately owned newspaper, he and the organisation he works for is the product of a particular world view. Hiding behind a veil of ‘objectivity’ obscures the essential role of the press in maintaining the status quo, a view that is supported by the fact that regardless of the ‘facts’ used in covering the invasion, the essential questions were never asked.”

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