The responsibility of the harlot

John Lloyd
18 September 2005

The media are actors, active elements, which transform the confusions of reality into a narrative. They are like the play within a play in Hamlet, put on to show the usurping King of Denmark the sin he had committed in killing Hamlet’s father.

The media use facts and events and rumours – Hamlet got his information from a ghost, which may or may not be a good source but which he certainly didn’t check with a second. What they make of these sources is their own creation, with a point (Hamlet certainly wanted to make a point) and with a logic and effects of their own. We in the media are players, major players – the more since, in our contemporary societies, older institutions to which people gave their allegiance, such as organised religion, political parties, trade unions, patriotic associations even the family itself have all weakened, leaving an ever-clearer field for the engines of the media to work.

We are thus not, cannot be, mirrors for our societies, even though some publications, as in Britain (the Daily Mirror) or in Germany (Der Spiegel), make an oblique and no doubt formulaic claim (both are vigorously biased) through their names to be so. We are active: hyperactive. We are among the greatest powers of contemporary democratic societies, using our indispensability to the democratic process to lever ourselves into an ever more dominating position within it – even over it.

This article forms part of the “Peer Power: Reinventing Accountability” debate. AccountAbility, openDemocracy’s partner in this debate, will hold a major event, “Accountability 21: Reinventing Accountability for the 21st Century” on 3-5 October in London.

Also in this debate

Bill Thompson, “The Democratic Republic of Cyberspace?”

Simon Zadek, “Reinventing Accountability for the 21st Century”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

How are we active? How do we express our power? One way is to promote opinions: an opinion of the moment, as for which party to vote in an election; more strategic positions, as a particular view of how the world, or part of it, should develop. In doing so, journalism has the advantage of claiming principle. It takes a position – leftist, liberal, conservative – and stands on it, come what may.

That is a valuable and necessary part to play in a free society. But it has a price. If the newspaper or broadcast channel extends the promotion of its worldview from the opinion to the news columns, either explicitly or implicitly, then the rendering of the news must be suspect. The news ceases to be seen as attempting a version of the truth, but as attempting to fit events to a view. Fox News does this, so does the UK’s Independent. The shift of the Independent from “news-” to “views-paper” is perhaps the most significant move of a major title, not just in Britain, but elsewhere: it gives the sign that a left-wing newspaper, like a right-wing broadcasting channel, has dispensed with a claim to be objective in favour of playing a polemical role in politics.

Fox and the Independent are both overt about their intentions. But the temptations of the worldview are also covert, not recognised sometimes even by those who succumb to them. An example presented itself recently, at a gathering of journalists in Potsdam during a colloquium to discuss Europe. There, some of the participants – especially the Germans, Austrians and Italians – said that they felt a re-evaluation of their role vis-à-vis the European Union, and the European project as a whole, was called for. Why? Because in most of Europe – Britain was admitted to be an exception – journalists are part of an intellectual and political elite which had accepted and believed in the European project and which assumed that their readers and viewers did too.

And thus, they said, the withdrawal of public trust for the European project, painfully visible after the French and Dutch referenda in the spring, is one which affects the media, too – because they suddenly find themselves on the side of the political elite. That elite has been blind to a popular movement which, long underground, burst into flood. In the case of the Netherlands, an elite which included the journalists built a polity which was consensual, balanced, complex and for a long time successful. Then, under diverse pressure, including that of large-scale immigration, that polity came under sustained attack and has, if not broken down, shown huge strain.

The same is true in different ways throughout the continent. In this case, fealty to an ideal and a process tended to distance journalism from popular movements and disaffection: the populist-cum-patriotic-cum-reactionary movements of the right and the left grew and flourished not because of any major media support – indeed, they did so in spite of media opposition. Thus a worldview hinders understanding.

We in the news media have two responsibilities: one is to be a conduit of diverse opinion, the other is to offer a version of the truth. The former is tending to swamp the latter – not only through shifts like Fox’s and the Independent’s but through the growing “citizen journalism” that the mainstream media are coming to rely upon in moments of catastrophe. That’s one of the facts of contemporary journalism, and it’s one which contains some dangers.

The danger is that the “swamping” is being done in a particular way. The lines between what constitutes opinion and what constitutes truth are almost extravagantly blurred: and they are so, because, in nearly every major state, there is no agreed practice of truth-telling.

Where there has been a sustained attempt, for a century, of establishing such a practice – in the United States – the perceived debacle of reporting on evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has rendered the media, especially that which can reasonably be called the liberal media, insecure and defensive. I’d like to read a good account of how and why the newspapers, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, did get it so wrong.

Getting it wrong because the secret services and others got it wrong is not failing in the duty of journalism – unless it’s assumed that media organisations should or could have their own inspection teams in Iraq. The consensus that they did, one which they have helped to build, seems suspiciously unexamined, with some of the marks of a mea culpa promoted for circulation rather than genuine reasons. But I too could be wrong.

It’s time to see what can be revived in the second of the news media’s responsibilities: that of truth-telling. To the view that truth-telling, or objectivity (the two are of course different) are impossible, there is an easy riposte: if we believe that, there is little point in reporting, and we should drop any claim to do so. Reporting – as against opinion – assumes that facts can be related in a way credible to people of differing views.

All reporting is, of course, severely curtailed: the real complexity of reality is infinite, and any event of any duration would take volumes to catalogue exhaustively. But it’s possible, I think, to provide an account – whether of the newswire sort, or the extended reportage in a magazine or book – which is robust as to verifiability. The key, in part, is in checking and cross checking. Whether such checking will be achieved by the “new news media” – where blogs weave a web between one perspective and another, through endless cross-referencing and trackbacks – is highly dubious.

The other indispensable is transparency. Transparency is of two kinds. First, you have to be clear about how attached your journalism is to a particular point of view; and second, you have to be transparent as to the quality of the information provided. Here the networked age presents a challenge to news media not just to reference its sources but to point to them.

Reportage which doesn’t declare its interest is tainted; and reportage which doesn’t declare which parts of its narrative are weak, based on second- or third-hand sources or unchecked assumptions, is also tainted. This isn’t to say such reportage is necessarily false in all respects: indeed, it might be more right than journalism which follows the rules – a fact which shows not the superiority of the inspired assumption over the plodding fact, but the extreme difficulty journalism which is done on the day of, or a few days after, the event, has of being fully right. Journalism generally doesn’t know the outcomes of actions it describes: it is that which must enjoin a permanent modesty on its conclusions.

There is, I think, a way of seeking to tell the truth which fulfils these criteria, and which doesn’t end in a kind of dull, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other kind of journalism. A recent book by the former wire service reporter and present academic, Stephen Ward, gives one version the name of “pragmatic objectivity”: a mixture of discovery of facts with a recognition that the intellectual and polemical constructs into which these facts are fitted should be clear. Journalists, writes Ward in his Invention of Journalism Ethics (McGill-Queens University Press, 2005) must:

“…base reports on limited data, imperfect methods, conflicting values and changing conditions. Self interested rhetoric assails him or her from all sides. Therefore a theory of journalistic objectivity should talk about imperfect procedures and about standards that point in the direction of truth.”

That responsibility remains a large one: and one which I've suggested, is being shirked. Those organisations – broadcasters and newspapers – who claim explicitly or implicitly to tell the truth need a renovation of what that means, before fashionable faith in the subjective drowns them out entirely.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData