Defence of journalists

27 Nov

Dozens of journalists are killed every year (photo Knight Foundation)

A few years ago, my boyfriend’s aunt ended the conversation we were having by saying: “You know how the journalists are..”, expecting me to nod in agreement on her assumption that journalists are dishonest manipulators of information in favour of whoever pays them.

I kept politely quiet, but inside I was screaming: “No, I don’t agree! The journalists I know are being killed or are languishing in prisons because they want to report the truth!”

The conversation has often come back to my mind, and again now, when the BBC is facing the consequences of mishandling of two stories by its investigative program Newsnight.

Many people have surely said: “What do you expect from journalists…”

Much has been written on the subject. Newsnight editor Peter Rippon explained convincingly in a BBC blog the reasons behind his decision not to run a story into allegations of sex abuse by the former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. Former Newsnight producer Kavita Reddi detailed the usual rigour that guides Newsnight’s investigations.

I admit editorial standards vary greatly from an organisation to an organisation. But in some places the rules are so strict that journalists can hardly breathe to stay within limits.

Just last week, I attended a course organised by the BBC, called Safeguarding trust. They say the course has nothing to do with the current crises as it was designed before the Newsnight’s mishaps. Interestingly, the last time the BBC organized similar course was after it had broadcasted footage that misrepresented the Queen.

Here are some of the rules the BBC requires its journalist to follow in order to maintain independence:

–          A product or service must never be featured in return for cash, service or any consideration in kind

–          Any reference to a branded product must be clearly editorially justifiable and prominence should not be undue

–          Independence must be both real and apparent

No doubt, much of these are reasonable expectations, taking into account the BBC is a public-funded organisation free of advertisement.

But imagine a situation when a reporter would have a grandstand view of events from a window of a hotel room. The hotel owner lets him use the room free of charge in exchange of nothing at all, just a story he will have to tell over the dinner table.

Nevertheless, the BBC rules say: “No, no, pay for the room!” In my view, a waste of licence fee payers’ money.

In Czech Republic, the press card practically means free ticket to exhibitions, opening parties, theatre performances, etc. There is something in it. For example, a freelancer, who has to pay £10 to visit the UNESCO-listed Villa Tugethat in the Czech city of Brno to earn £50 for an article would struggle to make living.

Impartiality is another of the values the BBC requires its journalists to preserve.

This merits all the praise, when if comes to news. Who would trust biased reports? However, the BBC extends this requirement to out-of-work activities. With the emergence of the social media phenomenon, it warns the staff:

–          Don’t write or say anything that could lead a member of the audience to believe that you may be prejudiced.

Doesn’t this in fact mean stripping journalists of the right to be a private person with opinions?

For the BBC, a perception is as important as reality. Strong character of a journalist who would adhere to the principle “the fact that you bring me here, doesn’t mean you are going to like what I write” is just not good enough.

It is an audience who decides whether a report has been uninfluenced by considerations other then editorial values. Whenever reporting, journalists have to imagine, predict: What would listeners/ readers/ viewers think?

Journalists have certainly considerable power as influencers, with which come responsibility and the potential for abuse. Even with the utmost care, mistakes happen. But deliberate manipulation of information is not inherent in the profession.


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