17 September 1998
Sandy Starr reports from this year's Conflict and Peace Conference, held between September 4 and September 7, in which journalists from around the world discussed their role and their responsibilities
This year's Conflict and Peace Conference, held amongst the beautiful stately surroundings of Taplow Court in Berkshire, addressed the question 'What are journalists for?' A group of forty academics and journalists from around the world debated and discussed the question intensively for four days. Celebrity journalists and television personalities were brought in to give sessions in which they discussed their relationship to journalistic objectivity, and experiments were held in which we criticised the news and created our own alternatives.
Using professional facilities we re-edited footage of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and of recent political turbulence in Kosovo, and voiced over the footage with our own commentary. We had varied degrees of success in trying to create a less biased alternative to the mainstream television news. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we succeeded in pointing out that Hammas leader Ahed Yassim was conspicuously absent from discussions with Western powers, and emphasised the vacuous nature of discussions at Downing Street, contrasting Downing Street footage with footage of actual tensions in Israel and Palestine. In the case of Kosovo, however, the alternative coverage we created was in some ways an even more simplistic and emotional analysis than the original. In any case, the exercise was a fascinating one, and forced us to consider practically ways of improving upon today's news practices.
Channel 4's Sebastian Cody presented us with an insight into his famous and innovative discussion show After Dark. It was a surprise to discover that the programme had been founded upon a detailed set of psychotherapeutic principles. I asked Cody whether he saw a contradiction in hosting a debate objectively whilst treating your guests as though their relationship to that week's subject matter was a sickness that required healing. He insisted in reply that objectivity was the overriding principle. But he had touched upon a central and ongoing theme of the conference: the notion that discussion and debate are of more therapeutic benefit to their participants than they are of benefit to an advanced understanding of the issue under discussion.
Tamara Gordon, a BBC television producer who covers foreign conflict, elaborated upon this theme when discussing her 'video dialogues' in which opposing factions in African conflicts resolve their disputes through filmed discussions that they then watch. When I saw this material, it seemed to me to be more like therapy than journalism. Tamara summarised her approach with the phrase 'The process is more important than the product', and it occurred to me that I had never heard a more appropriate phrase for describing the ongoing peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. The underlying assumption of this approach is a highly questionable one. It holds that having a multiplicity of participants in a discussion is a sufficient guarantor of conflict resolution, and that each participant has by default an equally valid perspective to contribute. I asked Tamara whether her use of this approach made her complicit in the tendency to depoliticise peace negotiations. She did not think that it did.
We saw recent reports by the BBC's investigative journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts in which she uncovered contraventions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exposing cases of child labour and low-wage exploitation of workers in the developing world. Many conference participants responded to these reports by asking her about the danger of distortion that results from conflating your own cultural values with those of other cultures, a danger of which she was fully aware. Here was a journalist who had, by raising the profile of such issues, consciously influenced their outcome and was proud that she had done so. I inquired whether an investigative journalist should be challenging popular Western conceptions, rather than contributing to criticisms of the developing world with which the establishment wholeheartedly agree. I also invited Lloyd Roberts to be critical of the 'universality' of a Declaration of Human Rights that is drawn up and enforced by the West. She acknowledged these points, but said that there were no easy answers to them and that the alternative was to give up completely any hope of improving the world.
A more traditional journalist might have recommended to her that she pursue the latter course - after all, since when was it a journalist's job to improve the world? But a 'peace journalist', of the kind often put forward as an ideal at this conference, would endorse the possibility of favourably influencing the outcome of a conflict. Or rather, in the language of peace journalism, of making apparent to conflicting parties the possibility of such resolution. And here is the central paradox of peace journalism: it involves at the same time an astute and incisive criticism of biased conflict coverage, and a willingness to intervene in conflict as a 'mediator' or 'facilitator', thereby invoking bias. This paradox arises from the conflation of two distinct practices: the practice of acknowledging that journalism cannot be completely objective, and the practice of celebrating the fact that journalism cannot be completely objective. For a peace journalist, the possibility of intervention is not a bias that should be avoided but an inevitability that should be exploited with a sense of responsibility.
The high point of the conference was a presentation by Professor Rune Ottosen from Oslo, in which he outlined clear categories for questioning war reports. He had a systematic list of questions that should be asked of any news piece, such as how motives for conflict are explained, whether political figures are built up into enemy images, the presence or absence of historical context and the nature and accuracy of that context. We applied his categories to thirty articles from the Times which covered a series of incidents that have been attributed to Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, such as the recent bombing in Cape Town. The categories transpired to be a powerful critical tool, as we unravelled the wealth of biased assumptions underlying these pieces.
This, then, is peace journalism at its best. But what of its interventionist stance? The peace journalist's response to what Martin Bell has called 'The journalism of attachment' is not to be less attached, but to be attached to as many sides as possible. I asked Professor Johann Galtung, founding figure of the peace journalism movement and leading exponent of peace studies, whether it was as presumptuous to want to influence the outcome of a conflict as it was to endorse biased preconceptions in conflict coverage. He replied that this presumptuousness was his principal concern and reservation. Whatever the inherent contradictions of peace journalism, it is reassuring that at least a few journalists are keeping a critical eye on insidious developments in the media.
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