Marianne ran her fingers through the tightly curled black hair that surrounded the perfect oval face she presented to the world and crossed one elegant leg over another. Like all newsreaders she was employed because of her intelligence, education, articulacy and talent. Aesthetics, however, thought Étienne were always an unspoken factor in such appointments.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me,” he said.
“Not at all,” she answered “I’m always pleased to help research. Besides I’m a big fan of your brother’s work.”
Having a famous relative, Étienne had found, was something of a mixed blessing but it certainly could be worked to his advantage on occasion. He decided to open diplomatically.
“Do you see your work as having a purpose other than the mere reporting of facts?” he began “What I mean is that you are a citizen as well as a journalist and so you have a certain amount of obligation towards society at large in both capacities.”
“What a good question!” responded the newsreader without consciously intending to be patronising. “Yes, the maintenance of good order and the building up of a just and fair society are part of my responsibilities as a human being in this society at this time.”
“And how is that reflected in the way you report the news?”
“We don’t avoid reporting things which may damage the fabric of society but we ensure that reports are sensitively worded and that constructive voices are always heard clearly while destructive ones are questioned closely.”
“That involves you having a positive vision of what society should be like going forward as well as what it actually is like at the moment doesn’t it? I mean, for example, that when interviewing or showing images of scientists, judges or soldiers you might show a disproportionately high percentage of women to act as role models and signposts to the future you would like to see,”
Marianne toyed with one of her earrings for a moment.
“Yes, I suppose that is so,” she replied “Equality is the direction of travel of our society. We are not reshaping it through journalism but we are at its cutting edge and that is reflected in the way we choose our subjects for interviews and discussion panels and so on. Not just women of course; in our multicultural, multiethnic world we need to show all the diversity which exists and which will increasingly replace the old stale monocultural and male dominated world of the past.”
“You think that equality of opportunity necessarily leads to equality of outcome?”
“If the playing field is level yes. Why wouldn’t it?”
Étienne rubbed his nose with the palm of his hand. It seemed to him that the time to edge away from diplomacy had arrived.
“The playing field is never going to be level,” he said didactically “The barriers to success in this country are not necessarily those put up consciously or unconsciously by the country itself. They may have a prior existence in the minds and desires of individuals or communities who have no wish or intention to succeed in the terms which society ordains for them to aspire to. Some sub-cultures may put a premium on family or collective advance over individual achievement for example. And/or many women might put a higher priority on parenthood than on career because their experience of becoming and being a parent has a radically different root from that of men. What I mean is that equality of outcome requires not only a level playing field but also a uniform understanding of what constitutes success or failure. You can have diversity or you can have uniformity but you can’t have both.”
Marianne gave her hair another pummelling.
“I see what you mean,” she said hesitatingly “but I’m not clear what you would like me to do about it?”
“Neither am I really,” Étienne was nothing if not candid “I do think though that you need to bear in mind that being on the cutting edge doesn’t guarantee that you are slicing away in the right direction. In fact, if you are headed in one direction and society beyond the confines of its leaders and teachers is heading in another you may not only fail to accurately report it but actively antagonise it and set up the conflicts which you are seeking to avoid.”
Marianne felt she was on firmer ground now
“Essentially, you are accusing the mainstream media of liberal bias, isn’t that so? The only people that criticise us more heavily than the Right is the Left so I think we must be doing our jobs well.”
“It’s not really that straightforward. There is no doubt that most broadcast journalists in your position go out of their way to be scrupulously fair. The problem is that the concept of ‘fair’ is not in itself unproblematic. It possesses itself of all sorts of assumptions not all of which are necessarily accurate or uncontested. Take for example your coverage of attacks by jihadis which is the thing which prompted my interviewing you today.”
Marianne bridled, ready to take offence at the drop of a hat
“What about our coverage?” she said defensively
“As I see it,” Étienne began “A conscious decision is made by your organisation when an atrocity is committed by someone pledged to Islamic State and shouting Allahu Akbar. In order to be fair to the vast majority of Muslims in the West who are peaceful and law abiding you decide to put a wedge between them and the terrorist. To do this you begin by not reporting anything which cannot be verified and locked down as certain fact. Which means that, for example, you say that the motivation for the attack is ‘unclear’ or ‘unknown.'”
“Now, it is perfectly possible to justify this approach on purely journalistic grounds, only reporting facts not speculation. However, what your viewers know and what you know is that you do not adhere to this policy on every single story. Where violence involving sports fans or vandalism at an abortion clinic are the matters in hand then you are much less rigorous, allowing a narrative to emerge from the testimony of witnesses and interested parties at an early stage in your reporting. By contrast the narrative of an Islamist atrocity only filters out days or weeks later when government or police sources make official statements.”
“Clearly an editorial decision is being made that fairness to innocent Muslim citizens and social cohesion are high priorities whereas that does not apply to, say, sports fans. Now it is perfectly possible to justify such an approach. It may even, for all I know, be the best possible thing to do. What is more difficult to justify is concealing or denying that this is what you are doing as a deliberate choice based on your assessment of the needs of society as a whole rather than simply upon the news value of a particular story as it presents itself to you.”
Marianne leaned forward and spoke earnestly
“So, what you’re saying is that our editorial policy needs to be more transparent. That with some reports we should flag up our reasons for reporting it in a particular way. In theory, it’s not a terrible idea but in practice we need to keep things as simple as possible. There is only so much complexity our general audience can handle. If we go into too much detail about our process they might tune out and miss the actual news itself.”
Étienne looked sceptical.
“What you are really saying is that in order to protect Muslims you have to protect the image of Islam because it is too complex for your viewers to differentiate the two things. Therefore you distance Islamic State killers shouting Islamic slogans and quoting from the Quran from Islam itself by saying that their motivation is not known. A while later when all the shock, horror and outrage has died down you can admit that Islam is a factor but only when you have captured enough images and quotes of condemnation from Muslim leaders and members of the public to balance the news.”
“In The Republic Plato suggests that the Guardians of society should tell a Noble Lie which will have the effect of leading the public to behave in more moral and virtuous ways than would be the case otherwise. You, the media, are in effect acting as Guardians today. Unfortunately for your strategy however the public now simply disbelieves your Noble Lie. When an incident happens they not only assume that Muslims are behind it they further assume that the authorities are engaged in the business of covering up for them. This does not lead to a lessening of community tensions but a sharp upward spike in them. Worse than that is the associated belief that if you are covering up for one minority you are likely to be covering up for others so visible minorities of all kinds get viewed less favourably.”
“In seeking to make things better you run the risk of making them worse. The people do not understand what is really happening, because you do not report it, neither do they believe the Noble Lie any more because multiple experiences contradict it. What you create is a population who are alienated from the authorities who lie to them, angry at being deceived and suspicious of minority groups whom they perceive as being unjustly favoured.”
Marianne looked a little shell shocked.
“There may be something in what you say. We can’t control how people interpret the news we broadcast. It is right for us to apply the highest standards to the most sensitive issues and, yes, we do have to make a judgement about what is or is not highly sensitive. What you overlook though is that the society to whom we report is not itself a static thing. The prejudice and Islamophobia which allows people to misinterpret things in the way which you suggest is being challenged all the time not by the media as such, it is outside our remit, but by social activists like Pierre Lethatch. They change the climate of the public opinion and can correct the errors of those still trapped in the bigotries of the past.”
“Yes, activists do play a crucial role in how this society is changing under the challenges it faces,” conceded Étienne “I would like to speak to Mr Lethatch if I could”
“Nothing easier,” said Marianne sensing an opportunity to get rid of this troublesome interviewer “I know him well and can give you an introduction. I’m sure he would be delighted to speak with you.”
“Thank you” smiled Étienne, I’ll take you up on that.
To be continued…
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