On impartiality in broadcast journalism – follow-up to Spiked piece


I had a short piece published for Spiked a few days ago about the erosion of impartiality in broadcast journalism.

In this piece I only had the space to relay a few thoughts I’d been having in response to various journalists’ tweets. Quoting them in full meant there was little space to develop thoughts and put them in proper context. So I thought I’d write a follow-up piece here on my blog.

Clearly, the erosion of standards is a much wider phenomenon than what broadcast journalists (who are meant to be impartial according to OFCOM rules) say on Twitter. What they say there is important, for it shows us how they think, how this thinking informs their broadcasting and other things like how they tend to act as a pack, enthusiastically running with some stories but not others.

However the real proof is what they do in their broadcasting – and this leaves a lot to be desired. For my part, I have now largely given up on mainstream news, bored by the subjects it focuses on and annoyed by the angles it takes to address them, which are normally those of the mainstream progressive liberal-left plus the broadly neoliberal consensus (for ‘openness’) when it comes to economics and business.

From my experience as a journalist I sometimes reflect on how there are roughly three categories of reporter, whether written or broadcast (probably worth emphasising that the reporter is a type of journalist, distinct from those who provide comment):

1.      Those who develop close relations with their sources and become a first port of call for any stories those sources might want to appear in the public sphere;
2.      Those who seek to remain neutral and report what’s going on without favour to any one side – something never completely achieved; and
3.      Those who are weak, lazy and not very good, for whom the obvious temptation is to become a bastardised version of the first category, to simply repeat people saying what everyone else is saying.

The first category has an important place in the media firmament, but obviously they (and the third type who fall in behind them) can easily end up being de facto mouthpieces for their sources. Indeed that is part of the quid pro quo of their relationships with their sources. Since most sources in and around British politics and organised civil society are pro-Remain, that means pretty much all of these journalists in our current media have become mouthpieces for pro-Remain politics and campaigning – and that’s a very large chunk.

In that sense the way so many of our broadcast journalists appear in the same way as pro-Remain and progressive liberal-left merely reflects the biases of most of the people they are speaking to. It would take considerable effort for someone to stay neutral when they are continually talking to important people who have very strong opinions, almost all in the same direction, and attacking the other side relentlessly.

In the Spiked article I concluded by talking about the role of progressive identity politics in this, in how its power,

“lies largely in how it has become established in our major institutions, like the media. Advocates have succeeded in presenting it as a moral necessity, as above politics, as apparently independent and beyond contest.
 In this way, progressive identity politics has become a main route for advocacy to enter our broadcast media. And progressive identity politics is almost completely aligned against Brexit, waging that culture war with Boris Johnson as its primary target.”

By appearing to be promoting a sort of impartial justice rather than politics, progressive identity politics provides protection and justification for journalists introducing politics into their reporting, for becoming advocates. In his parting shot to the BBC, the long-standing Radio 4 Today programme presenter John Humphrys referred to how the corporation had created,

 “the new post of LGBT correspondent — and the man appointed said: ‘I’m looking forward to being the mouthpiece for some marginalised groups . . .’ . . . Obviously, the BBC must give a voice to minorities, but it must not act as anyone’s mouthpiece. That’s what lobbyists and public relations people do. To confuse the two is to undermine the job of a journalist.”

To me, it appears that the problems with this approach haven’t been fully thought-through by the bosses.

For a start, it would appear that this introduction of identity politics advocacy into our major media organisations is having a major effect on output – not least in seemingly making it acceptable for journalists who are not meant to be mouthpieces to show their allegiance to the same causes and any politics which is aligned to them (notably anti-Brexit politics).

Moreover, if your purpose becomes more to promote people who correctly ‘represent’ certain identity groups like the BBC and other media organisations are doing, of promoting them to appear in the right way as victims to be favoured, other purposes must necessarily decline in importance. It is surely inevitable that quality is going to suffer. So, by definition, is any commitment to impartiality.

Also, what about those who don’t feel themselves correctly or sufficiently represented, or represented at all? The commitment to representation seems destined to promote more and more grievance lobbying, out of which the strongest, most organised interest groups (the ‘representatives’, not those apparently represented) will no doubt prevail, i.e. those linked into the progressive identity politics scene. No one is ever going to be satisfied  - or at least claim to be satisfied. It is a recipe for rancour and dissatisfaction.

By taking this path, I think that the BBC in particular, as the state national broadcaster, has set itself up for a major crisis of legitimacy. I also think the same crisis is going to envelop most of our major institutions, since almost without exception they have been embracing identity group representation as a core goal.

So this is a much wider issue than about Twitter, broadcast journalism and the media. It is about our organised society as a whole. In their drive to, often unwittingly, embrace progressive identity politics through via the rubric of diversity and inclusion, our major institutions have committed to a certain brand of politics – a highly ideological form which does not leave much space for doubt, thought or notions of impartiality (except when presented as a form of partiality, something which progressive activists and journalists have cottoned on to).

Pretty much our whole institutional life is going down the same road - and gradually downgrading its other core purposes as a by-product. By embracing progressive identity politics – and with it, strong anti-Brexit sentiment – the media is a part of something much bigger going on at the elite levels of society.

We are seeing a version of institutional capture by a form of politics that has succeeded in being received as beyond politics - as morally-correct, rational, on the right side of history, and therefore to be adopted without question even by those who present themselves as apolitical.

Comments

  1. Regarding the capture process with regard to mass media organizations.
    I could not agree more fervently; this capture process is ongoing & nefarious.
    Like you, I've been researching recently the tactics social-justice elites have been using to acquire & maintain power. [Which is why I practically cried with joy when I discovered your awesome "The Tribe"].

    I've discovered some useful research documenting the SJ elite's power acquisition processes and analyzing the effects in mass media in the US. The US SJ elites started their mass media capture efforts 30 or so years ago. Thus, examining how they operated and what the effects were might illuminate the later launching efforts in the UK.

    Many of their efforts can be lumped together under the label "diversity journalism". It got started in the late 1980s with implementation picking up speed in the early 1990s. NYU sociologist Rodney Benson examined this process in print and broadcast news outlets during the period - and he identified a link between diversity journalism changes and the declining serious and critical coverage of growing economic inequalities. And, with regard to immigration coverage specifically, he linked the growth in diversity journalism to reduced mentions of negative frames (e.g. effect on job market for natives).

    His excellent analysis is in this paper:
    Benson, R. (2005). American journalism and the politics of diversity. Media, Culture & Society, 27(1), 5-20. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rodney_Benson/publication/258170733_American_Journalism_and_the_Politics_of_Diversity/links/55a016ea08aed84bedf45189.pdf

    Benson's 2013 comparative analysis of French and American news media evolution during this period is also interesting - because French political culture does not enable social justice elites to deploy the diversity-promoting power acquisition tactics that work so well in the US.

    Benson, R. (2013). Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison: Cambridge University Press.

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