Silly Season reality check for journalism

9 August 2007 – When a young woman recently asked: “Were you watching ‘Big Brother Live’ or the real one?”’ the choice was between the rebroadcast of an ‘as live’ selection of time-lapsed camera shots with edited sound, or a pre-recorded show of edited highlights.

Her confusion is understandable. ‘Reality TV’ distorts reality as much, perhaps more than, the documentary and the drama-doc. YouTube and Second Life where people create their own realities online, are becoming more popular, especially among young people, than the authoritative BBC website and internet porn – perhaps the ultimate ‘unreality’. This too is unsurprising when news and entertainment routinely focuses on death and violence.

Young black men interviewed on the Today programme (9/7/07) complained that their role models are routinely shot down by the media, leaving them with the fantasy world of the ‘gangsta rappers’ and the dire risks of inner city street crime.

Media professionals should not be vilified for puncturing arrogance and hypocrisy, or for reporting on dreadful events – it is part of their job – but only part of it. Now more than ever they need to consider the likely consequences of their actions, and their motives.

Witness, for example, the mock hysteria generated around the beleaguered parents of missing Madeline McCann, and the speed with which the Cornish great white shark hoax traversed the world at the start of the summer silly season.

And consider the kerfuffle over Paul Watson’s ‘Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell’. The film-maker blamed ITV’s PR machine for claiming he had broken taboos by filming a man’s dying moments. Yet he modified his own script in the broadcast version, from the equivocal “by the day’s end Malcolm’s journey would be done” to the enigmatic “I went immediately to Malcolm’s bedside uncertain as to what I would find”.

By courting controversy to excite public prurience, a cynic would say, more people might be persuaded to watch a distressing film about a depressing topic.

Winning fresh audiences has become almost the sole raison d’etre of the media, and to hell with the consequences. The craven pursuit of headlines may seem an easy antidote to falling circulation and ratings, but as recent events have demonstrated, it destroys public trust that journalism is about keeping people reliably informed about the world.

It is doubly worrying that the Crown Prosecution Service has wasted public time and money reviewing 56 hours of unpublished footage from the C4 Dispatches film ‘Undercover Mosque’ at the behest of the police.

It sets a spurious, if not dangerous, precedent for judicial intervention into the editorial process, especially if it is linked to police efforts to shake off accusations of institutional racism’ – itself exposed by undercover reporting.

And it undermines the role of Ofcom as an independent arbitrator, far better equipped to evaluate complaints, with a multi-million budget and professional expertise. The regulator’s task is to strip artifice down to journalistic basics – have the facts and opinions been marshalled and presented accurately and fairly? It is the question news and commissioning editors – and journalists – should be asking themselves constantly.

That is increasingly difficult to get right, or to bolster the credibility of journalism, when commerce rules the news agenda. ‘Undercover Mosque’ came from Hardcash Productions – perhaps that says it all.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise
Visiting Professor in Media Ethics, Lincoln University

(Bulletin No 141)

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