When we debate journalistic objectivity in America, we tend to talk about the truth of the claim, the self-delusion, the lack of transparency. I am among those who also talk about its obsolescence, now that media channels are no longer scarce. In the UK, when they talk about their synonym, impartiality, the discussion has turned to new judgments and adjectives. The New Statesman calls impartiality cowardice, the Guardian boredom.
The issue that’s raising this age-old J-school seminar topic is the BBC’s dropping of Comic-Relief-like day of programming around global warming.
Asked whether the BBC should campaign on issues such as climate change, [BBC head of TV News Peter] Horrocks told a session at the TV festival: “I absolutely don’t think we should do that because it’s not impartial. It’s not our job to lead people and proselytise about it.” [BBC Newsnight editor Peter] Barron added: “It is absolutely not the BBC’s job to save the planet. I think there are a lot of people who think that, but it must be stopped.”
Acting as if there were no agenda in journalism is itself a deception. Why does an editor decide to pursue and publicize a story about, say, public corruption? Because he thinks corruption is bad — otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story — and he wants to do something about it. He has an agenda. Of course, he has. To act as if he doesn’t is a lie of omission.
Mark Lynnas at the New Stateman pokes a hole in the BBC editors’ hot-air.
If Barron is really suggesting that the BBC should be “neutral” on the question of planetary survival, his absurd stance surely sets a new low for political cowardice in the media. It is also completely inconsistent. On easy moral questions, such as poverty in Africa, the BBC is quite happy to campaign explicitly (as with Comic Relief or Live Aid), despite the claim by the corporation’s head of television news, Peter Horrocks, that its role is “giving people information, not leading them or prophesying”. By analogy, the BBC would have been neutral on the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, and should be giving full voice today to the likes of the British National Party – all in the interests of balance and fairness.
And Peter Preston in the Guardian attacks the BBC’s government-degreed doctrine of impartiality from another angle: He says it’s boring.
When Whitehall handed the corporation its revised charter and system of trust governance, it made accuracy and impartiality bounden duties. . .
The question that matters isn’t yea or nay with alleged fairness and balance, it is where the hell we go next. . . .
But Peter Barron of Newsnight – “It isn’t the BBC’s job to save the planet” – and those top executives who took his side, exalting impartiality, couldn’t see where the issue had got to; they had to frame it once more, through ignorance or timidity, in its original yea or nay state, as somehow politically dubious and therefore untouchable. Yet nothing, in practice, starts there. And the grinding brakes, the clunking change into reverse gear, is not just depressing but deeply tedious. Which is probably the worst thing about impartiality stretched across 12 commandments: boredom comes guaranteed. . . .
Human existence means making choices. Choosing where you start dictates how you finish.
In his blog, Peter Barron argues that it shouldn’t be the mission of the BBC to make us act differently: “[I]s it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don’t think so.” That makes sense; I’m not looking for propaganda or coercion from journalism. Then he adds: “There’s currently huge interest among the public in leading more sustainable lifestyles and we should reflect and explore that.” I agree with that, too, as I do with Preston: The real story here is what do we do next. Then Barron concludes: “But I don’t think it’s the BBC’s job to try to save the planet. Do you?”
There I think we see the corner into which the impartial journalist paints himself. He is looking for cover for the judgments he makes. He says there is interest in the story and so that’s why they cover it. But there are plenty of stories for which there is little interest — such as suffering in various poor corners of the world — yet journalists cover them because they believe these events and issues are important. They made a judgment and that is itself not impartial. Indeed, what I want is more information about what goes into that judgment — more transparency. At the same time, when they give the public what they want about Paris Hilton, it’s called pandering. Is ecological coverage pandering? Now it’s reasonable for Barron to say that it’s not his role to proselytize. But is it reasonable for him to say that he wouldn’t, given the chance, save the planet — and that we wouldn’t want him to? Don’t we want him to expose a terrorist plot against us or a crime against the public trust or a theft from public shareholders? Doesn’t he want to? Is that agendaless only because there’s a law and a bad guy involved? Can they, again, hide behind someone else’s judgment?
The irony for Barron is that he ends up quoting the “Ethical Man,” a journalist who spent a year counting his carbon on Barron’s own show. The name of the segment is thick with judgment: Green is ethical, thus using energy is not. Yet in this blog post from Ethical Man, we see a way to cover the story with both agenda and transparency: He clearly has a viewpoint (and is proselytizing by example, I’d say) but he still seeks to report the facts on the carbon creation (if not impact) of flying (an activity that is being vilified in the more radically green quarters of Europe). So Ethical Man has a perspective and is fairly transparent about it. Given that, he tries to get the facts. And the facts he tries to get are those that the editors believe the public wants to know.
Note, too, that if anybody thinks that Ethical Man is wrong or unfair (for demonizing first-class passengers, for example, and for giving airlines cause to cram more seats onto planes), they can say so. And they do. At last count, there are 230 comments on his post plus some outside blogs pointing in.
And there (finally) is the point: The new architecture of media makes obsolete the reasoning behind the BBC’s (and American newspapers’) futile — and ultimately misleading — claims of objectivity and impartiality. Balance will not come from a reporter or editor thinking he can shut off his bias (and brain) to be impartial. It will not come from a TV news producer filling two chairs on any one issue to be objective.
Balance comes from the link. Balance is the product of the conversation.
Oh, this balance is not as neat and tidy as a carefully packaged story manufactured under a label of objectivity. Life and the conversation are messier than that. But in the long run, it will be more honest and productive than one person controlling a once-powerful pipeline arguing that he was the best proprietor of it simply because he claimed impartiality.
Impartiality/objectivity is not merely cowardly or boring. It is obsolete.
SEE ALSO: Steve Outing on News Corp and green goals.
I still find it odd that news organizations mostly refuse to go beyond their role of strictly reporting on and analyzing climate change news. Helping to avert planetary environmental disaster, I’d think, is a cause worth championing. (To reiterate, I am NOT talking about abandoning objective coverage of climate change; some critics seemed to think that’s what I have suggested.)