The Impartiality Ruse of the News

We all complain a lot these days about lack of impartiality in our televised news. Within any political hashtag timeline on Twitter, you can almost guarantee indignant tweets complaining of Left- and Right-wing bias. And indeed, there is justification in the outcry.

News, in print and on TV has become about keeping stenographers and town criers in work. These days, when it comes to news and current affairs reporting, I find myself wondering more about what is being omitted and how what is relayed is being delivered. It’s not objective and it’s not adequate. Half a report served through a framed lens does not a public information service make.

However, pure objectivity probably doesn’t exist – well, not for fallible, human minds anyway. Everyone has an agenda, whether they consciously act on it or not; whether it’s driven by greed, power, fear, optimism or whatever emotion you think I could have named. An agenda is not an evil in itself, being related as it is, to ego: neither then, can it be completely discarded or disregarded..

Over time, even the most noble mission statement may be lost in a large, powerful and perhaps slightly jaded organisation. They are rarely as independent as they claim or wish to be and, even when they are, they are obviously susceptible to compromise and complacency. Whether they start out with cynical or noble intentions; whether it’s to satisfy investors and Boards – they are either deciding for us what they think we need to know or they have become lazy and incapable of critical thinking. The information we get is increasingly presented through a corporate or prominent individual’s angle on the world which attempts to position the audience accordingly.

It’s the producer’s voice in the anchor’s ear; it’s the graphics, the studio face and the roving reporter: it’s the order of items and the time allocated to each. It’s the tone of voice and the body language; the lexical choice and syntax; it’s the calculated interruption and sudden cutting off – you know the style. Even the most independent heavyweight presenters, from whom we expect a degree of professional standard, too often put their own egos and petty grievances before the clarity and integrity of relevant information. It might be satisfying if you don’t like the injured party but it conveys us nowhere. Every now and then I listen to or watch a report or interview and think it really well done and, of course, there are a few terrific journalists and presenters here and there – conspicuous by their rarity – but frankly, given the dire state of things, this is relatively small comfort. Rubs salt, even.

I don’t think it’s possible for the BBC, Sky or any other mainstream news broadcaster to be completely objective or utterly impartial and it seems anathema or at least a major challenge for individual news journalists. Maybe we expect too much, but I think we expect too little: that we fell for an abstraction.

I think I’d prefer if the pretence at impartiality was dropped: it really insults our intelligence, don’t you think, when the interviewer swallows overt dissemblance or equivocation; when he lets the interviewee babble tripe or answer self-rephrased questions. I’m tired of such bespoke rhetoric: “If you’re asking me, blah, blah, blah…”. I don’t know if they seriously believe they’re doing a good job but I’m sick of being served mostly gruel when they have access to a Smörgåsbord of vital contexts and perspectives. Anyway, it makes the interviewer look like either a shady sympathiser or a sad sop. What I’d prefer to see is discipline:  the clean reporting of the facts by the presenter, followed by a clear and plain explanation when appropriate and then the analysis and discussion.

When it comes to interviews with politicians, journalists and other influencers to whom this medium gives a platform, I want the interviewer to ask intelligent questions and listen to the answers instead of thinking about the next banal cheap shot on a silly tabloid list. I don’t want populism and I don’t want personal, petty point scoring: stop wasting my time and take it outside. I want the interviewer to employ professional rigor to expose motive and challenge the claims of guests from an informed position. I want the interviewer to give these duplicitous narrators and makers of policy a bit more rope…

Under certain circumstances and conditions I must admit to enjoying a bit of spin and clumsy attempts at emotional blackmail, but when this happens it’s because I already have sufficient understanding to see through the crap. Then it’s entertaining, like watching Have I Got News For You…. (Or excruciating, depending on my sympathies for the victim)

But satire, though splendid at exposing gaps and providing astute and timely ridicule is likely to make us all insane if the news broadcasters don’t tone it down. For too long, opinion and wishes and what ifs have been carelessly, even deliberately blended with the actual and the relevant. This is a terrible disservice to public information: a real and cynical dumbing down and a general contempt for the audience. It’s little wonder we have grown so suspicious that we view the mainstream with our own shades of contempt. This two-way cynicism is tragic and very dangerous: this is the way we stop thinking; this is the way we come to believe everything and nothing; this is the way we become ignorant, reactionary and paranoid.

7 thoughts on “The Impartiality Ruse of the News

  1. I certainly share much of your frustration here, especially at PMQs when it is reduced to a simple point scoring match by much of the media. I detest the absurdity of election night and its silly graphs and nonsense ‘swing statistics’. Indeed bias in the media is neither left nor right but rather pro establishment. There is a bias by exclusion – the exclusion of radical voices . The press is more likely to ask a glamour model or football player about their views on austerity economics than Paul Krugman or Slavoj Zizek! There is both bias and dumbing down – both serve certain interests, I would add.

    When it comes to satire even this is banal. I stopped watching HIGNFY years ago as it too has a very status-quo; establishment based bias which comes from being part of mainstream media – WHERE ARE YOU CHRIS MORRIS?? – Bring back Brasseye/ The Day Today – that was killer satire which really exposed the idiocy of media and politicians, made you think and made me (at least) laugh hysterically!

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    • Great additional comments! “The exclusion of radical voices” has always been a problem for the establishment – and has existed since community because, not only must a variety of “certain interests” be served but people tend to fear and feel threatened by the unknown and change.
      There’s still “killer satire” out there: it’s just more subtle now and not necessarily to be found on mainstream TV. Chris Morris was a genius in the days of the Day Today and Brass Eye. I loved both shows. (Lost it rather with Jam, I thought) Really nice touch that you’ve supplied such a pertinent clip. Thank you. 🙂

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  2. Good post Juli. There is a case for putting the ‘political compass’ of the journalist on the page/screen along with their piece. Then we’d have a way of evaluating their frame of reference. My suspicion is that it would show a tight bunching. As Chomsky maintains, it is not that any of them are told what to ask. It is that they wouldn’t have got the job, if they even thought to ask the questions.

    Researching BBC news journalists, 80% were privately educated. Most have an arts degree, mainly a language. The only science degree was a zoology degree held by Sarah Montague on the Today programme. Others like Stephanie Flanders, were Oxbridge educated along with the leading politicians (she went out with both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband .. and that is bound to have an effect. Though why a good Tory like Steph was slumming it with the Eds…?)

    My point is that our journalists are part of the power elite and unsurprisingly they report/interview through that prism of understanding that we find so frustrating/stultifying/irrelevant/biased. None of the above applies to Paul Mason.. and I have a respect nowadays for Andrew Neil who does challenge Osborne’s economic lies, even if he is no keynesian.

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    • Fascinating info on the the BBC, Sue. The backgrounds and networking within the media and political industries (and others)- the cosy relationships and the bitter feuds would certainly affect bias. They don’t have names such as ‘Westminster Bubble’ for nothing! IOf course, this is about relationships and, to that extent, no one is immune from baggage. Yes, I agree that Andrew Neil has definitely upped his game recently. I had him in mind and some Newsnight editions I’ve seen recently when I say there is good input ‘here and there’ – especially those with Eddie Mair and Paul Mason.
      Personally, I don’t think I have a too big a problem with the political compass – if the discipline is there and some method is applied, such as I’ve generalised on.

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  3. Twas ever thus – was reading recently about the bbc who were too terrified of affecting the outcome of the 1950 elections that they more or less ignored it. I agree (naturally) about what we need, but I think the chances of getting it are extremely slim, without a crazed benefactor.
    Tv co’s in particular are incredibly scared of changing the formulae, but it would in the end boil down to the viewers – a weekly Max Keiser show opposite Newsnight on a mainstream channel might do well. But Max is good precisely because he has a relatively long time to rant & monologue, only the sports analysts get that time on mainstream tv!

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    • “A crazed benefactor” – brilliant! Probably…
      I’d love to see a regular Max Keiser show on the BBC but I would still want a BBC-style daily news roundup – just vastly improved. I love his work and have learnt a lot through him but he is not above a bit of spin either. 🙂

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