Is your journalism open to manipulation?
By David Brewer
The relationship between the media and politicians can have a significant impact on the functioning of a fair and just society. Politicians make decisions and take action on behalf of the public, and the role of the journalist is to scrutinise those decisions and report the implications to the public. How that relationship plays out is crucial.
My experience of dealing with politicians comes from my time as a journalist and political editor, and, more recently, from my work as a media strategy consultant working in transition and post-conflict countries.
For this piece I will draw on both. However, mine is the perspective of a journalist and not a politician; a piece written by a politician will most likely be totally different in its focus and conclusions.
In order to try to understand the relationship between the media and politics it’s important to look at the various dynamics that can exist between a journalist and a politician. Here are a few that come to mind:
A complex ecosystem
The media/political ecosystem is one of checks and balances, truth and falsehood, deception and divulgence.
To complicate matters, human weaknesses creep in. These can range from a simple lack of journalistic professionalism on the one hand, to compromise, complicity, and politically-motivated manoeuvring on the other.
All these elements play out in a complex theatre of events that either leads to an increase in transparency and accountability, or results in manipulation and corruption. The co-existence of the media and politics is rarely simple or straightforward.
1: The hunter
Tracks politicians down relentlessly. Follows any trail. This journalist never gives up until they have their prey. They are driven and won’t believe the politician, even when the politician is telling the truth. The hunter journalist can often lack perspective and objectivity. Their contribution to enhancing the understanding of the audience is questionable.
2: The activist
Committed to a cause and will fight any politician who is against that cause while supporting any politician who backs the cause. This journalist can be blinkered and one-dimensional. They find it hard to achieve balance because they either can’t evaluate the other perspective or because they realise that offering balance may weaken the story line they wish to push. The activist journalist enjoys being seen as the martyr and often risks becoming the story rather than covering the story.
3: The buddy
Becomes a close friend to the politician and rarely questions their position, often taking the stance that the politician is right, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. This journalist will do the politician a favour, but will have limits – usually when they think they will be found out. However they will always be ready to lend a hand, when needed, if they feel that their coverage may benefit the politician and themselves. The buddy journalist tends to go where the wind blows and is easily manipulated.
4: The possession
Owned by the politician by dependencies established through compromise and over-familiarity. They probably lost their journalistic integrity at an early age. Likely to publish anything the politician wants with no questions asked. This journalist is little more than an unpaid member of the politician’s public relations team. They enjoy name dropping and being seen as connected to the influential.
5: The party member
Does his or her best to hide their allegiance but can’t help it showing through in their tone, story choice and their ability (or inability) to ask the searching question. The party member journalist will spend a lot of time rubbishing the political opinions of those with whom they disagree. They can be spotted by their enthusiasm for a story that other, less compromised, journalists fail to see. They will defend that story choice against all logical reasoning.
6: The comfortable
I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. Why fight when you can both have a profitable and easy life? Who will know? This journalist sees their job as a 9-5 chore that only serves the purpose of providing the means to exist. Usually enjoys fine wine and good food. Is available to all parties to woo. The comfortable journalist sees this as being fair, impartial and balanced.
7: The true journalist
Free from party ties, has integrity and can’t be bought, is passionate about informing the public debate, seeks the truth, reports objectively and fairly, and includes multiple perspectives even if they could weaken the story. Is prepared to investigate all they hold dear. Sees nobody beyond reproach and is realistic about human nature. The true journalist seeks the truth.
The role of the journalist
In democracies, the role of the journalist is supposed to be to inform the public debate so that the audience can make educated choices. The role of politicians is supposed to be to represent those who elected them and ensure that the concerns of that electorate are listened to, considered and, where appropriate, acted upon.
In such a political system, the journalist should act on behalf of the audience to ensure that politicians do their job. The journalist should be exploring and covering the issues that most concern their readers and listeners. In doing so they should include a diversity of voices and political opinions in order to offer the richest and most complete coverage possible. If they achieve that, they are more likely to offer journalism that enhances understanding and encourages dialogue and debate.
To some, that role, sometimes referred to as ‘once remarked, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter. – Thomas Jefferson
Perhaps Jefferson was right in suggesting that journalists are more important to society than politicians. Perhaps, in some societies, the politicians know and fear that. Perhaps that is where the complications and compromise originates from.
Journalists need information and they often have to obtain some of it, from politicians. So the journalist is either put in the position of supplicant to obtain that information, is able to negotiate for it, or has to go undercover to prise it out. The politician can decide whether to give or withhold the information. When it’s a case of investigative journalism it is far more difficult for the politician to plug every possible leak and cover over every past trail.
The politician has the upper hand in some situations – the release of information they think they control – but not in the case of the release of information that is out of their control. And the line between the two categories is increasingly blurred as we have seen with the recent stories surrounding the Wikileaks cables.
The dangers of compromise
The temptation will always be there to court, to woo and to befriend the politician. Some journalists may think that by adopting that strategy they are likely to be privy to more information and achieve an advantage over their competition (selling newspapers or winning the air time ratings is also a massive media motivation). But closeness has its dangers.
If a politician is your friend, you may find it difficult to expose them or criticise and write about them in an honest way. So one key question, for political journalists, is about the distance they keep from the politicians they’re writing about, and this distance will vary, depending on the state of the political system.
If you are living in a rotten polity, your duty as a journalist is to expose its rottenness to the public gaze. The difficulty about keeping your distance from the politicians is a practical one. How far can you go in your reporting? Can you remain free? Can your newspaper or TV station stay in business? Are you in danger?
Starting off with high ideals
As a young newspaper journalist, my head was full of the finest editorial mission statements that, to me, justified my existence. I felt I had a responsibility to ‘scrutinise the executive’, ‘hold the powerful to account’ and ‘give voice to the voiceless’. Each day I would set off with my notebook in my hand seeking out the story that rectified a wrong – in truth, I wanted a cracking front page lead that would result in my name being printed on the cover of my local newspaper.
Of course I had no right to do this. I was not elected. I was only appointed by my editor to do a job. Often that job was fairly mundane. Trips to the newspaper’s front desk to talk to a woman about a lost dog, attending the opening night of a variety show at the local theatre, or walking along to the local police station to see if there were any crimes left unreported.
However, I was also asked to attend local council meetings where locally-elected politicians were discussing day-to-day issues that had an impact on the lives of those who read my newspaper and my stories. This involved a large amount of preparation. I had to read through council agendas and reports to try to understand the complex language used and figure out what was actually being decided, by whom, for the benefit of whom, and why.
I would try to talk to all sides involved in the issue – those defending the policies and those opposing them. In my conversations and dealings with each group I had to remain fair and objective. It was a small town. Everyone knew each other and where they lived. It had its own peculiar dynamic between the local media and the local politicians – familiarity and accountability – because you would be rubbing shoulders with the same people the following day after the newspaper had hit the news stands.
Realising the importance of the role
Journalists are in a privileged and important position. And it is a position that some will have failed to honour. We can knock on the doors of the powerful and we can pick up the phone and request an interview. Our job has always been to do this as part of our responsibility in society: a free and independent media, digging where others don’t, investigating corruption and wrong doing.
During this career journey I got to know many politicians who became my contacts. They would brief me and would often be available, sometimes at short notice, to help me investigate a story where I felt there may have been wrongdoing. Sometimes they would phone me late at night with a story lead in the hope that I would follow it up.
I was using them for information gathering in order to find good stories for my newspaper, and they were using me to ensure that issues they wanted aired were not missed, or were at least considered.
With this came a strange, never discussed, obligation. If they helped me as I researched a story which I felt was important to cover, did I, in return, owe them an obligation to cover those stories that the politician may view as important – even if I didn’t feel the story they were pushing had any merit?
And, of course, if I then gave undue prominence to an issue that I felt was not really in the public interest, was I being used by the politician?
Clearly the answer is yes.
A balancing act
Working out the fine balancing act that defines the relationship between the media and politics became more complex when I moved to TV and radio and, finally, down to Westminster to cover national and international politics. At that time I had a parliamentary patch to look after and my job was to get to know the politicians in the area about which I was reporting.
I soon began to understand how the system worked.
Journalists would meet members of parliament (MPs) for a drink or a meal to talk over ‘background’ information. This was justified as being essential information gathering to enable the journalist to do those insightful (or not so insightful) comment pieces or broadcasting spots where they appear able to offer a depth of understanding about the issue of the day that is not normally available to the man or woman in the street.
However, gradually, the journalist becomes part of ‘the system’ where contacts with politicians are essential for survival. It is a system that is not readily available to the young journalist starting off. It has to be earned. And here in lies a problem.