Why "Impartiality" in News Coverage Means a Sleep-Walk to the Right

“Opinions are not facts. What happened and how you feel about it are two different things. And people should know which is which.”

This was the earnest declaration at the centre of an advertisement poster for The Guardian newspaper, a poster which can be presently seen adorning the London transport system, inviting commuters to ponder at its earnestness and profundity. The observations are surely correct – opinions are indeed not the same as facts, and events are not the same as feelings. And of course the more people can distinguish events and feelings the better. But it is not entirely clear that the problem of people confusing events and feelings was an issue of social concern, except perhaps in some very specific circles – surrealists’ conventions, perhaps, or crack-houses. The Guardian might just have legitimately launched a colourful campaign to convince us that it would not be worthwhile or in the public interest to confuse road traffic accidents with yearnings.

The only meaning which can be inferred from the campaign, short of the absurd conclusions resulting from a literal interpretation, is that of a disarming statement of sobriety. The newspaper, widely regarded as the most left wing in the mainstream press and considered part of the “loony left” by the sort of luminaries who are prone to using that expression, is in a very public way asserting its impartiality. It is reminding the reader that although it is a newspaper and has an opinion section like any other newspaper, it will not make the mistake of allowing the opinions of its writers get in the way of its coverage of news events. The advertisement thus implicitly admonishes the newspaper’s critics, be they of a right wing or left wing persuasion, for being hostages to “opinions” and “feelings”. These, it is suggested, have no place in honest reporting.

Looked at in a generous light this assertion seems reasonable enough – the news reporter’s job is, after all, first and foremost to provide coverage of a given story, and allow the reader to make up his or her own mind about how they feel about that story. Who could possibly object to that premise? The difficulty arises when this outlook is withdrawn from the realm of indulgent marketing drivel and applied to a real and serious situation. Given that so many important stories start their life as a press briefing from, variously as the case may be, the government or the MoD or a company or NGO etc, it is worth considering quite what effect the proposed ultra-passivity might have on the ultimate end, that is, the provision of reliable and impartial news. To what extent does critical thought on the part of the reporter constitute the very undesirable concession to “feelings”? If a journalist decides he wishes to take issue with a factual assertion by the MoD, is that his “opinion” taking over and contaminating the article with his own personal bias? Most people would say surely not. However, suppose a journalist were to contest the government’s stated motive for a foreign policy decision, this would probably be deemed to be an “opinion” for these purposes, and therefore undesirable, even though this, too, would only have constituted a challenge of a factual assertion – I.e. “I put it to you that the fact is you are doing this for x reason, rather than y reason”.

Nevertheless it would seem that the proposed outlook requests that we create an artificial distinction between mundane facts and facts which pertain to strategic matters. The latter, which involve important questions of interpretation but are nevertheless still facts, would come to be regarded as matters of “opinion” and therefore to be kept separate from the “facts”. The “facts”, by necessity, will constitute a more or less undiluted transcript of the press briefing from which they originated, and the metamorphosis of the newspaper into a mouthpiece of power is quite complete.

An example of the importance of this distinction can be found in any article in any newspaper – to take one at random from today’s stories, take a piece on a Guantanamo Bay detainee recently released: no mainstream newspaper ever refers to “Camp X-Ray” as a concentration camp, even though that is exactly what it is. It is a progression from the method first employed by the Spanish general Weyler in Cuba in the late 19th Century, whereby the elderly, women and children of a rural community were taken away and detained in camps in order to make it easier to capture young men suspected of involvement in insurgency, by denying them the cover of ordinary community life. In today’s more humane age, the United States merely inverted the process in order to produce the same outcome in a more politically acceptable way, by removing all the young men from a given area, mendaciously labelling them all “enemy combatants” irrespective of the circumstances of their capture, and locking them up for half a decade and counting in order to see to it that any potential insurgents among their number would not evade capture. The barbarity and inhumanity of this policy is an affront, and yet any suggestion that by any understood definition Guantanamo Bay is a concentration camp would, presumably, be dismissed, as a matter of editorial policy, as a statement of “opinion” and perhaps also a concession to “feelings”, because it would involve using emotive language where the press release contained none. The mainstream media, therefore, with their heroic commitment to “the facts”, can take a large part of the credit for the fact that the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay still stands today, over half a decade after it was first erected.

The poster could, of course, be readily dismissed as merely a piece of pompous advertising dross, were it not for the insight it quite unwittingly offers into the reactionary outlook of the mainstream press. It is, sadly, a fitting tribute to The Guardian and the endemic complacency of the mainstream press at large.

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This article first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 4th April 2007

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