Taking Sides in JournalismObjectivity is Not Neutrality
In his editorial from the February 2023 print edition of Byline Times, Peter Jukes looks at Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch and the scandals around ‘Russiagate’ coverage in the US
‘You’re taking sides,’ they say. ‘You’ve swallowed Nato propaganda’ or you’re like ‘the journalists hugging [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelensky’. These are some of the negative comments Byline Times has received over our year of covering the full Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We’re not alone. It may be a coincidence but, as the Kremlin is reportedly planning a counter-offensive in Ukraine to mark the year’s anniversary, there has been a war of words over the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections.
The Columbia Journalism Review recently devoted no fewer than 23,000 words suggesting that The New York Times reporting on Donald Trump’s many Russian connections during the 2016 US Presidential Election was a ‘hoax’.
As Duncan Campbell points out in this edition, the CJR has its own problems reporting on Russia. But rather than establish a clearer picture of events through competing perspectives, these swirling debates tend to muddy the waters and boost a post-truth concept of journalism: objectivity is a ‘myth’; that all journalists are biased.
To borrow the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s prescient book on modern Russia: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.
Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
Of course, achieving absolute objectivity may be impossible, but that does not mean abandoning the principle of more objectivity any more than it means you should give up your refrigerator because it doesn’t reach absolute zero.
Facts matter. They underpin our world. Without the accuracy and precision of tested facts, I probably would not be around at all to write this, lacking modern medicine, sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics – and I certainly would not be writing this on a computer, the words sent via copper and fibre optic cables, to be delivered to your door or inbox.
A cavalier attitude to facts would also, given litigious oligarchs and England’s libel laws, have probably closed this newspaper by now.
Objectivity in journalism is like the Pole star which, though we can never reach it, can still set our compasses. But objectivity isn’t the same as neutrality.
Beyond being the title of the main newspaper for the Soviet Communist Party, the Russian word Pravda used to mean both ‘truth’ and ‘justice’.
To Alastair Morgan, who I worked with for many years in his long campaign to get justice for his brother Daniel, telling the truth about the police corruption involved in the murder was important in itself. Alastair had long given up hope of any formal kind of justice in the criminal courts. A sense of accountability and fairness is implicit in the desire to expose hidden wrongs or chronicle ignored lives.
Then there are the lies. It would be impossible to report from Iraq or Afghanistan in the past two decades, for example, without pointing out the absolute failures of US-led military interventions there to deliver on their public promises of stable regime change and Western democracy. On the same note, any coverage of the economic and reputational harm caused by Brexit would have to document how far short it has fallen from the policy pronouncements of the Leave campaigns. That is journalism holding political promises to account.
Some conflicts are so extreme it is our humanity, rather than just our professionalism, that is invoked. While trying to objectively and accurately depict his grim Spanish Civil War experiences in Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell would have been failing this wider obligation if he didn’t provide moral information about the failures of Britain and France to support the republican regime or Stalin’s attack on the anarchists in Barcelona.
Likewise, Ed Morrow’s radio reports from London during the Blitz, Richard Dimbleby’s on entering the Belsen concentration camp, or Nick Ut’s photos of a napalm attack in Vietnam, go beyond observation into a kind of intervention because, in the human realm, it is impossible to be a neutral bystander during some events without tacitly condoning them.
At Byline Times, given our many years of covering Russia’s long war against Ukraine – and Vladimir Putin’s various attempts to suborn democracy in Europe and the US – we have always been diligently factual and accurate but we have not remained neutral when it comes to lies and disinformation, unaccountable dark money and targeted harassment, legal and illegal, because that would be to betray our own profession.
There are certain other democratic values and basic human rights we also believe cannot be alienated from journalism – for example, opposing racism or discrimination by religion, sex or gender. But these value judgments evolve over time.
Attitudes and prejudices that were common in my youth over sexuality or disability are now unacceptable. And the rights of one group are often pitted in competition with another – look at the amount of media coverage given to the apparent clash between transgender people and feminists – so journalists struggle with ‘taking sides’ over these moral and social matters. There’s no easy answer.
But there are certainly easily wrong answers. To an extent, the BBC has taken the wrong way out with much of its coverage of immigration, Brexit, climate change and other contentious social issues in the past 15 years or so.
Rather than inform its viewers about what’s actually happening, the corporation has tended to look at the range of British public opinion over these matters and represent those opinions back to the public regardless of whether they’re based on reality or facts. When the public broadcaster simply reflects the prejudices of the population, rather than striving to illuminate them – and becomes a mirror rather than a lamp – it is not performing a public service.
Meanwhile, social media only distorts our reality further. If, as Noam Chomsky claimed, our big broadcasters and newspapers ‘manufacture consent’, then the Big Tech platforms such as YouTube and Facebook automate it, based on advertising algorithms that feed off outrage and extremism.
Twitter’s new owner, the billionaire Tesla and Space-X owner Elon Musk, has reinstated many thousands of accounts previously banned for hate speech or Covid misinformation. This is particularly concerning because, although Twitter doesn’t have the public reach of other platforms, it is very influential among journalists, who use it for open-source intelligence and to distribute and highlight their reporting.
According to recent testimony in the US Congress, Twitter is still populated by many false, inauthentic accounts, often linked and automated to boost particular political messages. Many of the ‘bots’ and ‘sock puppets’ that toxify debate and produce disinformation are targeted at journalists. At present, many of them are pushing propaganda over Russia’s war with Ukraine or the current US President, which appears to accord with Musk’s own stated views on these matters.
These attempts to manipulate reality are not new. Musk was photographed at this month’s US Super Bowl sitting next to Rupert Murdoch and, despite the changes in technology, the message of the Big Tech giants isn’t really that different to the old analogue press barons and media moguls.
From Pravda to News of the World to Twitter, these men want to monopolise the conversation, often by stealth and under the guise of populism, to add cultural capital to their political power.
Journalists shouldn’t struggle to take sides against that.