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Monday, June 27, 2022

On partiality in journalism

Alex Oscroft calls for freedom of independent journalistic expression within the mainstream media

The ‘mainstream media’ has come under a lot of fire in the last couple of years. From the Daily Mail to the Guardian to humble Cherwell you’re reading now, this fuzzy grouping has simultaneously been accused of leftist, rightist, unionist and generally untruthful leanings by dozens of different groups. “Journalists are meant to be independent!” cry those who believe “independent” means in complete agreement with them. Not only is this – amazingly – not the definition of independence, but it also fails to understand what it is a journalist does and why they do it.

Partiality is a central trait of journalism. Only those willing to upset people across the entire spectrum of politics are fulfilling their role. Holding those in power, and near to power, to account is what journalism is for and it remains a central part of democracy. It would be a betrayal to submit to those who would have it silenced.

Submit is exactly what the Scottish broadcaster STV did earlier this summer. In July its Digital Comment Editor Stephen Daisley stopped getting his articles published on their website, allegedly due to pressure from SNP ministers. John Nicolson, one of the accused MPs, then confirmed he had met STV executives and (“fleetingly”) discussed Daisley’s conduct on Twitter. STV deny this entirely, saying that his role has “evolved”, a bad euphemism for what is little more than censorship. But fundamentally, many believe that this can be boiled down to one fact: that Daisley was very anti-SNP.

Partisanship is not a particularly desirable trait in any journalist, nor is it a new one. Even if you ignore the fact that Daisley has spoken favourably of Nicola Sturgeon in the past, there are clearly better ways to deal with negative coverage than exercising the authority of the state. Every public figure in a non-totalitarian society has had to deal with a hostile press at some point. The line between interaction with the press and censorship is a hazy one at times, but in this instance it appears to have been stepped over with enthusiasm.

This isn’t the first time the SNP have levelled charges at the press, either. Alex Salmond was increasingly fond of accusing the BBC of bias and seemed to actively enjoy leading marches against them during the campaign for Scottish independence in 2014.

Anti-media practices aren’t limited to those in power. Those as far away from it as is humanly possible are still trying to clamp down on any opinion that strays from the party line. This has been seen in Donald Trump denying accreditation to the Washington Post for “inaccurate reporting” (i.e. printing what he said word for word) and in Len McCluskey appearing on the Andrew Marr Show to present an invented theory with no basis in fact, from a website – The Canary – whose funding model actively rewards clickbait, as a serious argument. Clearly, there has been a growing trend of attempting to delegitimise the press as an institution.

What all of these instances have in common is a reluctance to confront criticism head on, or to mount any serious defence of their own positions. It’s easy to say that those who expose uncomfortable truths have ulterior motives or political bias, but that doesn’t make their reporting any less valid. Rather, it reinforces the value of good journalism, as a market flooded with bad sycophants quickly shows up real quality and, indeed, ‘independence’.

Bluntly, journalists have no requirement to be independent, if independent is defined as remaining politically neutral. If anything, it’s better that they aren’t – obsessives are much more likely to persevere and dig out the stories that really need to be aired. It is when they take everything from their affiliated party as gospel that trust starts to break down and independence is undermined.

The media isn’t a monolithic bloc of singular opinion, and never has been. There are always voices calling both for and against anything and everything that happens in politics. So while some journalists clearly have their own leanings and opinions, there will be another dozen arguing the exact opposite. Engaging with this discourse is what keeps public discussion healthy and constructive. When someone tries to make it into a monolith – whether by leaning on broadcasters, or dismissing any criticism as a ‘smear’ and wilfully ignoring its content – is when the independence of the media needs to be protected.

The ability to hold our elected representatives to account is undermined by supporting those outlets that clearly aren’t interested in that. Whether it’s politicians or sycophantic media, attacking the ‘mainstream media’ shuts down any debate about actual policy and instead turns political discourse into an endless and pointless shouting match with no discernible outcome. When a group used to using such language comes to power, as Stephen Daisley learnt, the consequences can be sinister. The independence of journalists needs to be protected at all costs, and with that comes their right to be biased in any way they see fit.

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