Commentary

Is your journalism open to manipulation?PII

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….Dangers in the political system

My former editor, Bob Eggington, then head of the BBC’s Political Unit, highlighted the challenge faced by journalists living in a country where freedom of speech is protected by the rule of law.

Eggington takes the view that there are dangers in the Western political system where “political journalists are closely integrated into the machinery of briefings, news conferences, press releases and scheduled events set up by the executive.” Eggington says “power corrupts, and proximity to power can be heady and exhilarating.” In this atmosphere, he says, “the journalist must avoid being seduced by the system.”

And that was true in my experience. After some time covering parliament and politics as a TV and radio reporter and correspondent, I was given a lobby pass. This small credit card size identity document gave me access to many areas of the British political scene not available to other journalists.

I became a member of a small group of journalists who were allowed to walk through the corridors where MPs mingle in the Palace of Westminster. I was able to get the occasional ‘off the record’ comments from people who would only be known from then on as ‘sources close to …’. It also gave me access to the regular government press briefings at the Prime Minister’s office at number 10 Downing Street.

For a young political journalist, the day you are ushered through the doors of the Prime Minister’s London residence and into the Press Secretary’s office is an intoxicating moment. At first being able to listen in to conversations off the record was an amazing adrenaline buzz. As Bob Eggington says, the power can be “heady and exhilarating” and it would be easy to be “seduced by the system”.

With this introduction to the corridors of power came another pressure – the fear of stepping out of line, and there were enough people around who used that to their advantage. This sinister undertone of control first raised its head early on in my career as a political lobby correspondent when we were being briefed in number 10 Downing Street on a particular government decision. I raised my hand to ask a question. It was a question I wanted clarification on so that I could better inform my audience.

The censorship came not from the government press spokesperson (although his gruff look said a lot), but from an older member of the media lobby who looked at me, shook his head, coughed and moved the questioning on. After the meeting he gently pointed out that it was ‘not appropriate’ to ask such a question, “not the done thing”.

Perhaps it was a stupid question – I can’t remember now – or perhaps I was simply being pulled in line so that from then on I would observe the rules and standards of behaviour that had been previously agreed by both sides. My guess is that it was about the latter. I was certainly left under no illusion that I had slightly offended the rules of the club to which I now belonged. The question was how much I valued being part of that club. For some this could be a limiting factor.

From my perspective it was as if I was gradually being sucked into an accepted way of behaving that had the potential to weaken my effectiveness as a journalist through developing a familiarity and understanding with those I was supposed to be reporting about objectively.

It is hard to be tough on a politician with whom you have shared a drink or a meal and who has, in the past, given you valuable information. Familiarity between a journalist and a politician can lead to impotency.

The measure of robust, reliable journalism

When it comes to covering politics, journalists often unearth information that the politicians don’t want them to know. Publishing only the information the politician wants made public is little more than being a press officer or a peddler in propaganda.

The real journalist is prepared to risk all in order to print uncomfortable truths, is able to back up their stories with undeniable facts and is committed to exposing incompetence, venality, lies and corruption. This, I think, is exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant when he placed such a high value on the role of newspapers (the media) in society.

In doing so, it is crucial that journalists understand themselves, and their own motives, and that they subscribe to and apply a set of editorial ethics that ensure that all they do is done with integrity.

But journalists and politicians are human beings. They all have their own agendas which could be set by ambition, the craving for status and recognition, obtaining wealth, exercising influence and a whole host of other issues.

The public interest test

For example, in a democracy a journalist has the vote. He or she will probably vote for one party or other. They may have personal experiences that influence that choice. They may have an environmental or social concern that they want to see changed, and they may feel that only one party is committed to achieving that change. This is normal, what is important is that the journalist doesn’t let that influence their work.

All they do must be in the public interest and must satisfy the public interest test. They must always ask themselves whether the story they plan to cover corrects a significant wrong, brings to light information affecting public well-being and safety, improves the public’s understanding of the big issue of the day, and leads to greater accountability and transparency in public life.

Only by ensuring that the stories covered pass the public interest test can a journalist start to try to fulfil most important role of journalism – to inform the public debate so that the audience can make educated choices. This test also helps the journalist see their own motivation more clearly.

Most of all, a journalist, particularly one dealing with politicians, needs to owe nobody and seek no favours or favourites. They must be totally free of any influences that could be used against them or cause them to compromise their integrity. However while there remains a danger of ‘understandings’ weakening the power of journalists in so-called democracies, the challenge is far greater in transition and post-conflict societies.

Maintaining integrity under pressure

In those countries where there the media is still developing there is a danger of moving too fast. Antagonising politicians and the rich and powerful could result in the journalist disappearing. I have trained journalists who have been told that if they don’t write what their newspaper owner demands they will be out of a job.

These are tough choices. In fact, for some, there is no choice. What is more, there is not always the protection that exists in the West where journalists have the backing of trades unions to support their case if they are victims of unfair dismissal or pressure.

Another difference in the West is that journalists are often taken out and wined and dined by the powerful and influential – in other territories journalists are often taken out by the powerful and the influential with bullets and bombs.

In the West journalists are taken out and wined and dined by the powerful and influential – in other territories journalists are often taken out by the powerful and the influential with bullets and bombs.

In such a developing media landscape, systems may not have been put in place for the media to operate without hindrance. Old ways of working, often tied into cultural norms, can have a bearing on what happens day to day.

To try to combat this, media training in transition and post-conflict countries often focuses on investigative journalism. This, in my view, is a massive mistake. Of course, all journalism is investigative, but to fill the heads of journalists who are still in transition with ideas about investigative journalism sends out all the wrong signals.

What this approach is in danger of delivering is a group of journalists – some who in recent years may have been political activists – fired up to believe that they have a right to investigate former political enemies. With this will come the temptation to seek revenge on those who they perceive as the bad guys from the previous regime who may well now be involved in big business and, almost certainly, politics.

And this is a recipe for disaster. A fledgling media scene with impressionable journalists – many of whom have still to learn the basics of journalism – focused on delivering investigative journalism without first establishing the ground rules for engagement.

This will never help a country or its people develop – and it will certainly do nothing for political/media relations.

Confusing journalism with public relations

The smart politician, in any society, will engage in heavy public relations (PR) offensives to win over and tame certain journalists. And they only do that because they know it often works. Those who are not won over, and who do not belong, can get left out in the cold. The fear of being ostracised is powerful and debilitating; the culture of compliance can be comfortable and extremely rewarding, but not in the terms that define true journalism.

According to Premesh Chandran the CEO of the online news site Malaysiakini (down at time of writing due to a DOS – denial of service attack) which was set up during the rule of Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, politicians love the media when the media organisation in their control, or ideologically within the same camp.

In such cases, Chandran says the media organisation can often serve “to validate political positions” by setting out “facts” which support “political objectives.” Chandran says the result is that journalists trade their objectivity for privileged access to power and politicians.

To break the cycle he says there is a need for “journalists with integrity” and media companies that are “motivated more by principals than profits.” As for the politicians, he says society needs “politicians that are able to put accountability before their egos.”

Shahidul Alam, the Director of the Drik Network in Bangladesh, and a prominent journalist, says there is a clear difference in the relationship between journalists and politicians once a politician enters government. Alam says that when that relationship goes sour the impact on journalism is profound.

The general procedure, he says, is that the opposition politicians consider the media to be their friends, while the government see them as enemies. “This is largely because the media, in playing the role of a nation’s critical conscience, has generally critiqued unjust and unreasonable government policies.”

Alam says exceptions do occur, and both government and opposition “have taken it upon themselves to intimidate journalists, when reports have gone against them.” He cites cases where he says “ministers in Bangladesh have been known to publicly announce that journalists are easy prey.”

This has resulted in “instructions being sent to party followers” to “break the bones of journalists”. Alam says that while several have been attacked, “no action has been taken either against the police or against the party activists involved in the attacks.”

The importance of journalistic integrity

Journalists have to realise that, whatever territory they are living and working in, they have a duty to remain removed from those who wield the power.

Their job is to scrutinise the executive and hold the powerful to account – and they can only do this if they have integrity. They need to be as accountable to the audience as the politician is supposed to be to those who voted for them. If they are not, the so-called journalist who is compromised by politics and politicians ends up being nothing more than a deliverer of propaganda or a public relations officer for the politician.

The result is that the public is denied access to the information society requires in order to function in a healthy and fair manner.

 The author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs this site, Media Helping Media. He delivers media strategy training and consultancy services worldwide and his business details are at Media Ideas International Ltd. He tweets @helpingmedia.

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