Sunday, 15 March 2009

Media Impartiality: the Polite Nihilism of the BBC

Two things cropped up recently which raised the issue of impartiality and made us question this extremely dubious value (the second we will leave for another post). One was the BBC's refusal to broadcast the charity appeal for the victims in the Gaza Strip. In the aftermath one of the editors of (which we had previously considered a thinking person's source of commentary in the few times we had come across it) was on Iranian TV (Press TV - the voice of Iran in English, and one of the few English language channels we can get on our satellite service) lambasting critics of the BBC who had been urging the BBC to take a stance and side with the Palestinians. The BBC must remain impartial, he said. The media, (in its editorial line? in choosing its mix of programming? in each individual programme? insofar as it purports to provide that hallowed thing called "the news"?) should remain impartial.

To some extent, impartiality has its attractions. One wouldn't want the sort of media which (apparently) Lebanon has. From what we gather each channel there is tied to a particular party, and can only be expected to toe the party line. (But is the problem here the mere attachment of a media channel to a social movement, or is the problem the narrowness, the unpleasantness, the pig-headedness and the lack of generosity of that social movement?).

But what is wrong with impartiality in the media? Isn't there something oddly empty about the concept of impartiality? Is there anything in impartiality to get excited about - something one really might want to defend, to promote? The negativity of impartiality is clear - we don't want to slip into a Lebanese situation. But what is the positive content of impartiality? Is there any?

In practice, does this discourse of impartiality connect with anything that actually matters to us?
I have just watched a programme on the staunchly impartial BBC, a documentary about the arms dealer Viktor Bout. The programme bore signs of trying to remain, to some extent, impartial. Russia, Britain, the US and other countries were mentioned, and there was no obvious attempt to besmirch the name of any of the countries involved. Bout is Russian and was obviously protected and aided by the Russian establishment, but nothing was made of this in the programme. Bout was also employed at one time by the British and at another time by the US, but this was mentioned in passing. The programme did not bash the British or the Americans. Were these things glossed over in the name of impartiality?

What was striking about the Bout documentary was the way it focussed entirely upon Bout as an individual - the so-called Merchant of Death, and entrepreneur without a conscience - and the way it then devoted so much time to telling and reconstructing the gripping story of how the man was tracked down and finally caught by a US team in Bankok. Was it impartiality that demanded this focus on the story of Bout as a wicked individual? Of course there was no impartiality with respect to Bout. Everyone on the programme agreed he was a man without a conscience who would sell arms wherever there was the money or the diamonds to pay for them. No time was devoted to the view of Bout as a victim or a pawn in a larger game. Was it out of a desire for impartiality that we got this very personal, this very partial view of Bout as the Merchant (the sole merchant working on his own initiative) of Death? Is this kind of partiality acceptable because it is so obviously the product of a media team doing its best to be impartial?

The Bout documentary is a perfect example of what the hailed value of impartiality means in practice. It means not rocking the boat. By construing Bout's story as the story of an evil individual - a story that appears to come to a complete end with his imprisonment - the programme avoids any of the boat-rocking that would have been involved in following up the Russian connection and the the business of Bout being employed by the British and the US after he was on record as someone acting in breach of international law (breaking arms embargos, money laundering, etc). There is also the phenomenon of the arms industry. Arms manufacturers sold arms to Bout. Who were they? Were one or two of them in NATO countries - countries supposedly unsullied by ties to the axis of evil? Some or all of these darker questions must have occured to the programme makers, but the decision was obviously taken to avoid them so as not to rock the boat.

A provisional conclusion: impartiality is defended so loudly to stop journalists feeling guilty for having glossed over so much that ought to have been brought to light, and to stop them feeling guilty about just doing their job (finding something pleasant to fill the gap between adverts). But behind the earnest talk about impartiality is not only the guilt of individuals but also corporate self-interest: boat-rocking would not chime well with advertisers (all of whom have a vested interested in leaving the boat unrocked). Personalised dramas (like the Bout documentary) that do not raise thorny issues about the social system make good sense from a business point of view.

So what is there to object to here? Is it a lack of truth? It cannot be. The Bout documentary, let's assume, told no lies during the 25 or 30 minutes alloted to it. The documentary did not tell the whole truth, but there was never any possibility of it doing so in such a short space of time. Truth cannot be the issue here. The BBC, we might assume, takes care to fill its schedule coveying information that has been checked for accuracy. And in all of this no party line is being toed. It is all truth (for the sake of argument) and it is all impartial (again, for the sake of argument).

The problem does not concern truth, it concerns power and ethics. The impartial avoidance of boat rocking places the present system of power and social control beyond criticism prior to any investigation. The exclamation: "I am impartial" means "I do not judge; I do not criticise." But what if our particular boat deserves to be rocked? In that case, does impartiality not start to lose the moral high ground?

There is an ethical imperative (let's call it that) to rock this particular boat. If there is something ethically questionable about the status quo (as there is with the arms industry and the whole business of fomenting and perpetuating international tensions, for instance) then there is nothing to be gained ethically/morally by espousing impartiality. Do you not agree that there is something questionable here? If so, you see an imperative not to be impartial.

How about a provisional sketch of the virtuous journalist? She is first and foremost a woman of convictions (far from the impartial man who is proud of apparently having no convictions), who sees that there are urgent issues that need to be dealt with, and who sees that there are things which are being covered up that ought to be brought into the clear light of public scrutiny. It is no good just being interested in the Truth. The truth is everywhere. The virtuous journalist hates deception, but she is not a lover of the Truth. She is engaged by the contemporary situation and the way deception becomes a force to perpetuate injustice (assuming injustice is the thorn in the flesh of this particular journalist). As well as being engaged by everything that is dubious in the status quo, the virtuous journalist has a keen sense of responsibility to the public, or (looking at it slightly differently) has a keen sense of her role in raising the level of public debate in our as yet infant democracy. Again, what is at issue is not so much the Truth but the public's ability to comprehend more of what shapes their lives, and their ability to make intelligent judgments. Just as uncovering deception involves an engagement with power, the contribution to the public debate touches on the issue of power - the power of the people in a democracy to genuinely shape their world. The virtuous journalist hates to see the public being bombarded with masses and masses of disconnected newbites that mystify rather than illuminate.

But perhaps the Viktor Bout documentary was a bad example. Let's look at another. I can imagine a spokesperson for the BBC reminding us that Stephen Sackur has his Hard Talk programme. Now there is a man who can often seem to rock the boat, and rock it while remaining absolutely impartial (perhaps the metaphor needs altering so that there are many boats and Stephen rocks each of them equally). One week Stephen will be interviewing a Zionist, and will be insisting on answers to the hardest questions about Israel's flouting of international law, for instance; and the following week he will be interviewing a Palestinian spokesperson, demanding with equal vigor an answer as to why the faction will not recognise the state of Israel. There is no pussy-footing around on Hard Talk. Stephen does look for the hardest questions and he insists on answers with a steely look in his eye, although the discussion always ends with an apparently warm hand shake. Is this not an example of impartiality in the media at its best?
Hard Talk is a good example of what passes for impartiality, but it is also an example of how this ends up being all but indistinguishable from nihilism. Stephen has all the air of a man who is earnest about the Truth. But he is only allowed to ask the questions. They are the hard questions, admittedly, but they are only questions. All the answers come from those being interrogated. One week the Zionist is given a platform and appears to be able to justify bombing a thousand Palestinians and seems to eloquently justify the idea that all of Palestine belongs to the children of the twelve tribes; the following week the Palestinians seem to be equally able to justify firing rockets into Israel and equally eloquent in defending their right to the land they occupied before it was handed by foreign powers to the Zionists. The effect of this in the long term is the exact opposite of Stephen's incisive questioning. Although with the incisive question Stephen seems to grab hold of the side of the boat (in readiness to give it a good rocking?), in the long term the inescapable conclusion is that there is no authoritative way of judging what ought to be done. Although the guests are allowed to make the most noise, it is Stephen's silence that ends up being the most notable. Stephen refrains from judging. All the other "impartial" programmes do likewise.

The media constitute not just one public space but THE public space in contemporary society. In this context the stance of Stephen and his colleagues takes on an epistemo-political significance. The message goes out that there are no values that we can come to rest on publicly, apart from the implied ones of maintaining a certain level of politeness, of being willing to shake the hand of anyone no matter how much blood is on it, and of always resisting the temptation to remove your shoes and throw them at someone. One must always be polite and one must always let the other chap have his say, but one must never be deluded that one's own criticism (if one is still capable of developing a critical position of any sophistication) will be anything other than just another futile point of view. This is the polite moral nihilism propagated by the BBC.

The upshot of this is that defenders of journalistic impartiality cannot be allowed to end the debate with their appeal either to impartiality or the Truth. Since in practice the pursuit of impartiality seems to involve avoiding anything that would rock the boat, they need to have a good reason for not rocking the boat. But how could they develop that argument and still remain impartial? And they need to have an argument as to why the media should continue to sap the public's ability to make intelligent judgments about the most important social developments. They need to have an argument to justify spreading the sort of polite nihilism spread so ably by the BBC.


K├╝mtoi said...

The issue with impartiality is that it is impossible. Everyone has stuff that influences their point of view. What we can have are honest reporters, as in people who honestly relay what they see.

The question is not what view a person holds but why that view is held. Is the person an automaton of a political party or perspective, or is the person holding an honest position of persuasion by the facts gathered up to that point.

A candid dialogue between two non-dogmatic opposing points of view is far more interesting and informative than the sorry attempts at impartiality.

There is nothing wrong with bias. Sometimes the facts point squarely to one conclusion (e.g. child prostitution and murder for body parts is wrong). The bias must simply be declared.

Thinking that one can report the news without personal bias entering into it is simply arrogant.

Lisa Pietsch said...

Journalist that promote comprehension and judgment work for think tanks. Anything else is just about selling copy.

As for the Bout case - on the one hand, you have the United States' political and military establishments while on the other, you have the Soviet (and later Russian) political and military establishments. A proxy war is being fought the courts of Thailand.

The interesting twist is that the U.S. has used Bout's services to deliver arms and personnel just as much as anyone else. By burying Bout, they're trying to burn the evidence.

neo-anchorite said...

Thanks to Lisa and Kumtoi for those comments. I take it that there is no essential disagreement. In connection with Kumtoi's point, it is sad the way the discourse of impartiality twists values into something called "bias". Lisa is also right that so much (all?) of journalism is about selling copy, and this is another aspect of the commodification of culture, and since the media are such an important part of the democratic process it also amounts to the commodification of democracy (if that makes sense).

Werther said...

I didn't read the whole post. But I'll give my take: these are corporations, dedicated to the profit motive; what would it mean for such an organization to take a stand on anything? To take a stand requires having beliefs, a worldview, a theory. A corporation has none of those things, and the behavior of every individual in it is ruthlessly subordinated to its ultimate purpose (that's called efficiency). All a corporation has is money, and in terms of "beliefs," that translates into reflecting as transparently as possible the worldview of your audience, as well as you are able to determine it. In a pluralistic society, for mass media, that effectively means having no beliefs at all - and the result is, as you point out, nihilism.

neo-anchorite said...

Werther, you put it starkly, but accurately, correctly. And since the Thatcher-Reagan era every social activity, including schooling it seems, is to be run along corporate lines. Corporate Totalitarianism. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the rise and rise of instrumental reason. The decline of anything that could be called Western Culture (which comes increasingly to seem like something that might only be found on a DVD given away free with a Sunday magazine - because it can't even be sold any longer).