Thursday, 2 June 2016

British Journalism, The State Of

I'm sure we've all witnessed that moment before: a bully who's been needling and generally beating up on someone for a long time finally gets a reaction, much milder than their own stuff, for the person they've been hounding: a punch or getting called a twat or something. The reaction of the bully is generally speaking always the same - a shocked, wounded outrage and what's been done to them, as if they couldn't imagine how someone could possible do something so mean to another human being.

Yes, this is an introduction to a post on the state of British journalism.

At a Labour In event for the EU referendum Laura Kuenssberg, when asking a question, got a set of pantomime hissing from the crowd. This has prompted outrage across all journalistic sectors about suppression of free speech and Corbyn supporters being hostile to journalists. Everyone is astounded that they could possibly be hostile to them for just doing their jobs.

That this was stupid behaviour from the Labour supporters goes without saying. When people are already pummeling you with bullet rounds the last thing you should do is give them more ammunition. It doesn't really matter if the hissing was just a pantomime joke; the Corbynites are complaining that the press don't treat them fairly (true) so it's really idiotic to think that the press would give a fair or charitable interpretation of this, rather than the most uncharitable interpretation possible (which has duly happened).

On the other hand the faux outrage from the journalists is very disingenuous. Yes, they shouldn't get hissed at for asking questions at an event they were invited to. But this wouldn't be happening if they had done their jobs before hand. The job of a journalist, distinct from an opinion writer [1], is: 1) to decide what is and what is not a story; 2) decide what are the salient elements of that story; 3) present those elements in the fairest light possible. This is how people get informed. Yes everyone has biases, ideological beliefs and so on that are going to colour what they think is a story and what are the salient elements of it but this is why having a diversity of papers with different views is, nominally, a good thing. And a good journalist should be able to recognize what their own biases are likely to be and work them out - or at the very least a competent editor should be able to catch it.

With that in mind is there any journalist out there who is, without embarrassment, going to defend the integrity, fairness and necessity of stories such as "Corbyn Didn't Sing the National Anthem Snubbing Queen"; or "Corbyn Didn't Bow Low Enough at the Cenotaph Displaying Hatred to Dead Soldiers"; or "Corbyn Thinks It Fine if ISIS Shot People on British Streets"? All of these were and are patently nonsense - and more to the point I think the people who wrote them knew they were nonsense when they wrote them. These are not fair stories, they're not informative and they're clearly not important. Yet they got published. And that's in the Guardian I'm talking about (actual front of the website stuff); with that in mind is it really so ridiculous that Corbyn, and his supporters, think the entirety of the press are out to get him? I don't think so.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is certainly right when she says that Corbyn and his supporters need to engage with the media if they want to win. But, as I grow tired of point out, compromise and engagement is a two-way street. If the PLP want to get more influence in the party then they need to respond to Corbyn's olive branches (and there have been many) and respond in kind - not just keep hurling their temper tantrum. Likewise if journalists want Corbyn to engage more with them and open up to them, they should engage more with him; cease being dismissive and uncharitable at every turn, treating 'anonymous briefings' from the PLP as being representative and authoritative opinion about the Labour party (looking at you George Eaton) and start reporting in a fairer light.

Nobody, bar a few lunatics at the fringe, is suggesting that criticisms can't be made. But what is being said is that criticism should be on matters of substance, not silly crap. Indeed criticizing on matters of substance would be a form of engagement and would be helpful for all involved. This applies to all parties mind. Again, to pick recent examples, when David Cameron can head a fundamentally racist campaign against Sadiq Khan and yet get away with only the mildest of mild taps, but Jeremy Corbyn can actually suspend people for antisemitism and get a bollocking for not having done it at the speed-of-light, it cultivates an image.

Or, to put it another way: if the journos don't want to get booed at Labour party gatherings maybe they should try doing their damn jobs.

[1] This is an important distinction: journalists work needs to be factually based, they can't make things up. Opinion writers however can advance whatever they like regardless of whether or not its connected to an actual reality that we're living in (see Nick Cohen on Iraq for an example of this).

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