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September 1997

Aug 97 Sep 97 Nov 97




[Financial Times - 20 September 1997] 

Television/Christopher Dunkley

Whose news is it anyway?

A worrying change is occurring in the ethics of news journalism which, so far, has been treated almost entirely as an internal industry matter, but which should concern anybody who cares about the honesty and objectivity of news.

Martin Bell, formerly one of television's most respected news journalists, and generally regarded as one of the most even-handed, has now embraced the new style and even given it a name: the journalism of attachment. Writing in The British Journalism Review (Vol 8, No 1, 1997) he says "By this I mean a journalism that cares as well as knows: that is aware of its responsibilities; and will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor".

There is, of course, nothing new about that sort of journalism. In a previous generation it was practised by men such as Malcolm Muggeridge and James Cameron, who left little doubt about where they stood on moral questions, whether they cropped up in Soviet Russia, the US or Cambodia.

However, Muggeridge and Cameron were not known as hard news reporters but as colour writers: their function was not the two minute stand-up for The Nine O'Clock News, but the discursive 45-minute current affairs programme, or the lengthy feature. The worrying thing about "the journalism of attachment" is that it is being preached - and, worse, practised - by hard news reporters.

The risks inherent in this are laid out in a recently published pamphlet, Whose War Is It Anyway: The Dangers Of The Journalism Of Attachment written with clarity and vigour by Mick Hume, editor of LM, a small magazine which is at present waiting to be tried in a libel action brought against it by ITN.

That case is connected with the reporting of the war in Bosnia, the event which has done the most to inspire the journalism of attachment, with one side demonised, the other sides sanctified, and the public in other countries often encouraged to believe that Serbs alone were responsible for atrocities and all other parties were blameless. ITN's decision to take on such a very small David over the discussion of such matters is causing eyebrows to rise.

It is bad enough that reporters are starting to believe that they should reflect their emotional involvement in what they report. From there it is only a step, and perhaps not a conscious one, to the selection and manipulation of the facts to favour one side. Worse is what appears to be the endorsement of this new "Emotion is important, let's get involved" attitude among news executives at the highest level. Last week Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News, published an article in The Times which seemed to suggest that for him reactions to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, had been some sort of Damascus Road experience:

"Last week we learnt a tough lesson", he said. "We learnt that emotion has its political dimension, that by giving voice on our airwaves to 'ordinary' individuals' thoughts and feelings, we could get at some kind of truth, which would otherwise elude us, no matter how many facts we assembled...We heard from all kinds of people, of all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientation and social background. And the way they expressed themselves was highly cogent. This was a lesson for me. We must make sure that this diversity of voice stays in our programming".

Hall appears to believe that those who laid bouquets, teddy bears and doggerel outside the palaces, and queued to sign the books, were not just that fraction of the population approving such public exhibitions, but typical of everybody else. "The truth is this was a genuinely demotic week," he claims, and later: "There are lessons in all of this for politicians who seek to lead us, and journalists who seek to reflect and explain what's going on in the world. We have reasons to envy her. It seems that Diana made a connection with people, that very thing we use focus groups to help us to achieve. In a world of niche marketing and media fragmentation, it seems there is as much to join us as to divide us".

Does he mean all of us? It does not seem to have occurred to him that most of us may be deeply suspicious of the instinct to gather together and surrender to mass emotion, and that that was why more than 50 million of us, the overwhelming majority of the population, stayed away from both the flower-laying displays and the funeral route. It seems weirdly illogical to assume that the population was more accurately represented by the minority who opted for keening in the streets than by the huge majority choosing to stay at home and remain quiet.

Perhaps those who believe in the journalism of attachment would argue that the world would be a better place if only it were softer and more feminised; if only the Brits would abandon the stiff upper lip, embrace therapy culture, and let it all hang out. But to take that approach as the basis for a new style of journalism sounds appallingly dangerous.

Television news reporters should continue to be passionately interested in events but wholly dispassionate about them. Indeed, they should, in the true meaning of the word, always be completely disinterested.

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