Journalism’s tradecraft

This tweet by the libertarian blogger Guido Fawkes (who is not under any circumstances to be taken seriously) got under my skin. It perfectly illustrates a common fallacy among political activists both left and right in most countries I’ve been to.

The fallacy goes something like this: if I can show a reporter to have a political point of view, his stance of neutrality is thereby nonsense. He is a partisan hack pretending to neutrality. A spectator columnist, making the same mistake, even straight out goes so far as to call BBC journalist Ed Ram, who tweeted the tweet above, a “hack”. 

Finding out that journalists have detectable opinions is like investigating to discover that journalists have brains, a heartbeat or are wearing clothes. Journalism is produced by well-informed humans and well-informed humans have opinions. Of course they do. And opinions congregate and create cultures. The BBC culture might very well be leftist or rightist or whatever, that’s not for me to say.  What matters is what goes on the air, what gets printed, what reaches the audience. (The data there seems to suggest a slight conservative bias in air time, but that’s not that important to me.)

What people like Guido Fawkes and the Spectator hack above seem to just fundamentally not get is that neutrality isn’t something journalists ever attain. It’s not a personal quality. It’s a professional technique. It’s something you learn. You create methods and organisational and editorial checks on reporters to ensure that you are pursuing and reporting news neutrally and without your own biases leading you.

The BBC tweet above (which appears to have since been taken down) can be interrogated about the extent to which it shows a culture of open hostility to a specific minister in the Tory government, but to be honest, I’d be surprised if the BBC did not have hostile attitudes to John Whittingdale, who wanted to shrink the Beeb to the size where he could drown it in his bathtub. (Though, to be fair, he did have some good ideas about inclusiveness.) The point is that it quite simply isn’t the journalist’s opinions you need to look at, it’s the output of the media they produce. If anything, I think the BBC is being too impartial.

You can have a news desk whoop and cheer and be perfectly neutral in output. My question will be: is that whoop apparent on the front page the next day? In the ledes? The angles? The stories? The pictures? That’s the question the critics need to answer. And they don’t want to, because it’s much harder and demands much more actual, you know, work and thinking. Easier to just have your prejudices confirmed, sling mud at some journalist and get on with your day.

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