30 March 2004
If nothing else, the farce surrounding Andrew Gilligan’s/Dr David Kelly inadvertent revelations concerning British government’s dissembling and lying over the invasion of Iraq has revealed the true nature of what the British establishment likes to foist on an unsuspecting public as ‘objective’ journalism. But what is objective journalism and is there such an animal?
Traditionally, (with the emphasis on tradition), objective journalism means presenting the ‘facts’ and/or all sides of the issue, the theory being no doubt, that once presented with all the ‘facts’, an informed public will be able to make up its own mind. British journalism schools still teach (preach?) this approach to journalism with suitable descriptors such as ‘fairness’, ‘objectivity’, ‘unbiased’ and ‘impartial’ used with gay abandon.
Journalists are meant to keep their own opinions to themselves and operate in an ‘impartial’ manner and indeed, the BBC myth, carefully inculcated down the ages, is one of scrupulously accurate news gathering and dissemination that is supposed not to reveal a ‘bias’, one way or the other over anything more important than say, a traffic accident (unless of course, it’s Princess Di).
Traditionally, stories particularly ‘politically sensitive’ stories are meant to have three independent sources for any external content before being considered for use, the theory being that the more sources you have, the better the chance of the story being an accurate representation of ‘reality’. But whose ‘reality’ is being represented?
The problem with this approach to journalism is that it assumes that there is some kind of ‘middle ground’ that is firstly only occupied by ‘disinterested’ journalists and secondly, that this ‘middle ground’ is some kind of holding area where ‘facts’ swill around waiting to be picked up by journalists and ‘consumed’ by a public that is to all intents and purposes, devoid of an opinion until one forms (spontaneously?) based on the facts it has been presented with. The ‘facts’ are, it is assumed devoid of context, history and of course, the larger objectives of the society within which they exist.
The Gilligan/Kelly fiasco revealed the problem that confronts a supposedly objective media, for on the one hand, at the time of the interview it was clear that an overwhelming majority of British society was opposed to the invasion. On the other, the BBC, that is to all intents and purposes a ‘civil’ branch of government, is supposedly one step removed from parliament. But it operates like the civil service, it even has its own special union for its employees. And an analysis of the higher reaches of the BBC, for example its Board of Governors, shows that its members are drawn from only the most ‘reliable’ strata of society including a former head of MI5. None of them can be considered to represent Joe and Jane Public (God forbid!).
When we look at the senior editorial staff, they are cut from the same mould, university-educated, professional, middle-class, mostly male and all white as the driven snow. Moreover, should they have ever expressed an opinion that fell outside the ‘holding area’ for ‘facts’, either too much to the left or too much to the right, the chances of them being employed by the BBC in any capacity, even in the staff canteen, are as close to zero as possible.
So the ‘contested terrain’ for ‘journalistic truth’ only exists within the parameters determined by that slice of reality that is neither too left nor too right of some mythical middle. But who decides where the ‘middle’ lies? Once more, the catchall, ‘objective’ comes into play, for objective in this context means no overt expression of an opinion, unless it conforms to the dominant culture’s view of reality.
So on the one hand, the BBC is supposed to inform a public that was wholeheartedly against the invasion but without supporting that opinion in its reportage and on the other, in theory it was meant to present the arguments that support an invasion. The first problem with this approach is that the two sides of the ‘equation’ are not equal. Reportage of the run-up to the war was by no means equally divided between pro and anti. Indeed, according to studies, only 2% of BBC coverage was what we would consider as ‘anti-war’.
But just as important is the source of the ‘facts’ that the BBC uses. On the one hand we have a pro-war government, clearly intent on going to war regardless of what the public felt about it. Hence all information originating with the government is already ‘biased’ in favour of war. After all that’s the point of the government issuing press releases and statements that put out its opinion. But the BBC starts from the assumption that this information is honest (if possibly ‘mistaken’), and that the only objective of the government is in presenting the ‘truth’. And proof of this approach was the lengths to which the BBC went to avoid even the slightest suggestion that the government could actually lie to us. But is this based upon historical fact?
Even the most cursory study of the past reveals that the government lies to the public as a matter of course and it lies for all kinds of reasons: whether to cover up its mistakes, protect its turf (read employees) or simply to mislead and convince the public to support policies that are either unpopular or just plain wrong. Moreover, most people know this (all except those who work for the BBC apparently).
Based upon this reality, does the BBC report government-sourced information as inherently biased and to be treated with the same caution that other sources of information are? Clearly it doesn’t and one confirmation of this approach was the degree to which the media coverage of various government mouthpieces focused on the danger of the ‘loss of confidence’ in the state; like the public was in danger of catching like some virulent, communicable disease, the disease of disbelief. Restoring ‘trust’ and ‘confidence’ in the government during the war crisis was considered even more important than the public’s opinion on the war itself (after all, that could simply be ignored as indeed it was).
And what was the BBC’s reaction to this following the Gilligan debacle? It’s biased reporting got even more biased as it attempted to restore trust in a government that had lost its hold over the public. It did this by shifting the focus entirely from investigating the rationale behind the invasion to that of the objectives of the invasion – restoring democracy, rebuilding the country “after 30 years of neglect under Saddam’s rule” (BBC Radio 4). It was after all, a ‘done deal’. This echoed the government’s line in its entirety (‘it’s time to move on’ etc).
It should be obvious that the BBC has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo simply on the basis of maintaining confidence in the state and hence all coverage of the state’s actions are conditioned by this reality. It does this for a number of reasons. Firstly, the editorial position reflects the dominant culture (the opinions and ideas of both the media and those in government are essentially the same if ‘spread’ within that mythical middle). Second, the BBC is totally dependent on government support in order to continue being ‘independent’. It should also be obvious that this is an inherent paradox.
And finally, this is before we begin to consider the kinds of language the BBC uses when describing events, language that whilst on one level not consisting of overt lies, nevertheless conditions the viewer/listener to accept certain assumptions about the ways things are. So for example, when describing trade union leaders who are left of the current government, it habitually uses terms like ‘hard left’ to describe them, conjuring up a picture of people who are rigid and unbending in their views (thus not open to compromise or even to discussion). Having made sure that none of the BBC’s journalists are themselves ‘hard lefties’, then it stands to reason that any reportage done of the ‘hard left’ is not likely to be sympathetic to their views. The BBC ‘balances’ this position through its treatment of the ‘hard right’ such as the neo-fascist British National Party but this assumes that these two positions are opposites ‘poles’ within which the BBC sits ‘piggy-in-the-middle’, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider the tradition of left/socialist politics both within and without the trade union movement going back some 150 years and compare this to the neo-fascist politics of the BNP, always on the fringe of thought even during its apogee in the 1930s. But the effect of treating them as opposites is not only to marginalize the ‘hard left’ but to put them in the same camp as the neo-fascists (if on the opposite side). That this is a complete distortion of history and the central role of socialist thought in the creation of modern Britain seems to have escaped the managers of the BBC for it figures not at all in their coverage of events. So much for the protestations of the Beeb about objective journalism.