As I’ll be arguing in the upcoming Breaking the Silence podcast for SilenceBreaker Media, information is the oxygen of democracy: in order to make decisions on our own destiny, the public must be well-informed, and this depends on the information presented to us, its accuracy, its independence, and its trustworthiness.
Popular British newspaper the Daily Mail supported fascists in the build-up to the Second World War, and its owners – the Rothermere family – have maintained control of it to this day. It can be argued that they have certainly not shifted their ideology a great deal as it shapes its editorial guidelines, and opinion pieces (and even readership).
What isn’t up for debate, however, is its poor journalistic standards, not least due to its high level of sanctions from the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). IPSO is the main industry regulator of the press in the UK. Even Wikipedia has grappled with the acceptance of the Daily Mail as a reliable source of information. However, the state-of-the-art web browser extension, NewsGuard, rejected the Daily Mail as a trustworthy platform, only to reverse its decision after a Daily Mail executive met with NewsGuard representatives, who suddenly accepted that they “should not be over-relying on IPSO’s process for our judgement on this criterion.” So after meeting with the Daily Mail, NewsGuard suddenly decided the standards of the largest press regulation body in the UK was beneath them; not to be “over-relied” upon.
Yes, there are issues with NewsGuard as it positions itself over and above official independent regulators as arbiters of news, while developing relationships with corporate interests in the private sector. Gaining interest and support from the advertising industry whose clients are cautious about being associated with ‘fake news’ stories, NewsGuard is officially funded by the Knight Foundation, but its biggest corporate backer is public relations company Publicis, whose subsidiary Qorvis has provided propaganda for Saudi Arabia.
Award-winning propaganda critics MediaLens had their own valid concerns:
‘NewsGuard is run by news industry veterans and says it is trying to establish industry-standard benchmarks for which news websites should be trusted.’— Media Lens (@medialens) January 23, 2019
Just look at that word: ‘industry’. Veterans of a profit-maximising, ad-dependent, corporate industry are judging ‘standards’. https://t.co/YKFuYTyzYs
So how are we to judge news? Obviously, an important part of news is not what is covered, but what is omitted. For example, it’s fairly easy to invoke fear of a neighbourhood to be simply dismissed as a sinister ‘no-go area’ when covering increasing crime statistics, while not, at the same time (or instead) examining increased poverty due to, say, jobs shipped abroad for cheaper labour, a failing welfare system, or government cuts – the latter coverage would invoke sympathy for the deprived community, and anger towards the rich and powerful, which would, after all, fit the original role of the news: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” said writer Finley Peter Dunne.
This vision has developed from the days of Dunne’s ‘Mr Dooley’ into a consensus among journalists. For example, the American Press Association cites nine principles of journalism, which are available for further scrutiny but which I’ll paraphrase here, for brevity’s sake:
1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth; regardless of the outcome of the pursuit of truth, journalism has a responsibility to dig for facts and present them to a public informed so they may make democratic decisions.
2. Its first loyalty is to citizens; news organisations are only credible if they maintain a commitment to the public interest regardless of vested interests involved in that organisation, be they advertisers, shareholders, or owners.
3. Its essence is discipline of verification; while journalists themselves are not expected to be free from bias (in favour of, say, oppressed communities), they are however expected to be able to verify their information and maintain as much transparency as possible in their research methods, and these can overcome and keep in check such bias.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover; so, they are to be unaffiliated with the parties they report on.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power; journalism essentially serves as a watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise; steering away from influences and prejudices, news media has a duty to present accurate facts fit for provocation of public discussion.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant; media is about more than building an audience or even reporting on what are seen as important events – it’s about more than giving the audience what they want, it’s about giving them what they need.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional; truthfulness is heavily reliant on keeping news in proportion and not omitting important details.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience; journalists are still expected to have a moral compass and a sense of ethics.
SilenceBreaker Media is a non-profit initiative run by the charitable organisation, Libre Digital, which is operated and controlled by a Board of Directors who are from the community and who receive no monies through the company. SilenceBreaker Media is essentially a grassroots group of largely unpaid volunteers, often without an office (I’m writing this in a coffee shop), and while it has procured grant funding and overseen the production of documentaries, the delivery of workshops, and the development of a news aggregator app, it is still a small initiative with much work to be done and much room for improvement of journalistic scale and standards.
As part of a guerrilla documentary I made for SilenceBreaker Media when it was in its infancy, I looked at the reasons for a country’s citizens moving abroad. One popular destination for British people, for example, was Mallorca, Spain: there, I interviewed people who wanted a better life – some simply sought warmer weather, for others it was a chance to get away from ‘Blair’s Britain.’ Whatever the reason, each felt their rationale was simply exercising their right to freedom of movement to make a personal choice to live somewhere far away from where they were born and raised.
As I pointed out in the documentary, like many others from Britain, these people were not seeking refuge in the same way as Sudanese, Afghans, or Syrians were seeking refuge, of course – and yet, understandably, they felt they had every right to choose to visit, stay, or even indefinitely move overseas. Meanwhile, however, as I demonstrated in the documentary, the British press has had an unhealthy obsession with migration into the UK; its coverage has been disproportionate to the issue. These double standards suggest such views are a result of Britain’s colonial legacy and its associated racism, reflected in a media predominantly owned and operated by rich, right-wing interests who seek to help divide-and-rule. But it’s not just the Daily Mail and Daily Express that have been constantly covering the topic and demonising these people seeking a better like in the UK.
One week ago, alongside headlines of Brexit, U.S. President Donald Trump’s government shutdown reversal, BBC News saw fit to feature a special report on ‘illegal migrants.’ Roving reporter Colin Campbell visited various European ports to follow people desperately seeking refuge in Britain (a sensible move, since British colonialism also happened to spread the English language around the world, making it the leading language of international discourse, the third most-spoken language in the world, and the most widely learned second language).
Two things were particularly striking about this perhaps otherwise seemingly innocuous news report.
First, even though the causes of such displacement include such typically newsworthy topics as war and conflict, natural disasters, disease and climate change – and examination of causes provokes empathy in the viewer – no such causes were mentioned here; it was editorially decided that this piece was instead to be entirely focused on the high levels of asylum seekers arriving on British shores, and the bureaucratic challenges this creates for the UK system put in place by the powers-that-be (who are, ironically, often making decisions that contribute to such unrest in other countries).
Second, in a segment that seems to be missing from some of the clips available online, Colin Campbell actually called over to inform a truck driver that his cargo contained “four migrants.” It was an incredible moment: a journalist was not only getting involved in the incident he was reporting on – he was also exposing not the oppressors, but in this case the oppressed. We never had chance to see what happened to these poor desperate people, or ‘migrants.’ (Perhaps knowing that their constant categorisation of these ordinary people as non-British ‘migrants’ was controversial, the BBC’s web page on the report attempted a rather defensive explanation of their use of the term.)
Roger Simpson, PhD, a professor of communication at the University of Washington, has further examined the rules of engagement for journalists, citing the sentiment of journalist Maxwell McCombs (regarded as a founding father of empirical research) that, in fact, the dominant stance of modern journalism is one of professional detachment (which has actually been found to have a traumatic effect on the reporter when they have tried to refrain from helping people in oppressive situations – conversely, helping such people in moments of crisis has been found to possibly “contribute to the resilience and mental health of news workers”).
So, figuratively speaking, news reporters are expected to maintain a distance from a situation, and indeed a rule of thumb often used is, “Do not intervene in situations in which you might endanger a life.” What I found astonishing was that in their report, the BBC’s journalist in this case chose to intervene, but not on behalf of people in crisis. No intervention was even needed.
More than that, here the BBC could actually be found to be in opposition to not just one but almost all of the above-cited nine principles of journalism: They did not remain removed or independent from the situation, and they did not speak truth to power, instead reporting on the challenges faced by those in power from a bureaucratic standpoint as more people seek asylum in the UK, rather than monitoring those in power who either a) contributed to the displacement of these people in the first place, or b) set up a bureaucratic system that cannot easily accept or accommodate those within their rights to seek asylum.
The fact Campbell called a trucker’s attention to the desperate migrants in the truck is quite disturbing. Even simply sticking to basic journalistic standards and, well, doing nothing, those involved in reporting here could have made life easier for those people struggling for a better life: the reporter could have said nothing, and the truck driver could have continued on with his job in blissful ignorance. Instead, the BBC chose to make the driver aware, putting responsibility on his shoulders under mass television scrutiny.
Ultimately, who at the BBC decided that for a Friday night prime-time audience it was more important for a public with anti-immigrant sentiment to see a de-humanising report on ‘migrants’ rather than the cause of migration, and the displacement of asylum seekers and refugees? Rather than taking the road less travelled and giving its audience what it needed – presenting a much-warranted and important perspective on migration issues – the BBC chose the easiest option: it decided to contribute another piece in-keeping with the current flow of immigration narratives that are undoubtedly in dangerous territory.
So we are left to wonder what happened to those people the BBC pointed their cameras at and simply labelled ‘migrants.’ More than a tag, these real people of flesh and bone and blood flee poverty, disease, famine, drought, chaos, and conflict. They know their time here on Earth is fleeting, and precious, as it is for us all. They want a better life for themselves and their loved ones, and in this way – regardless of the corporate media’s passive or even proactive attempts to differentiate and dehumanise them – they are of course just like us, whether we watch events unfold on BBC news, or enjoy a cocktail in the bars of Mallorca.
A community educator and lifelong anti-capitalist activist, Jay Baker (he/him) is the founder of SilenceBreaker Media and has written, produced, and directed documentaries in addition to writing for numerous newspapers, magazines, zines, and websites. His own website is at dukeofhardrock.com.