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Why no news is good news

2010 November 7
by Paul Vallely

I think I may be a news addict. But I have evidence that the condition may not be incurable. Two days ago BBC journalists began a 48 hour strike and I found myself, in a welcome break from the relentless harrying of John Humphrys on the Today programme, listening to a chap on Radio 4 splashing about in the estuarial waters of the Wash describing the oyster-catchers you could hear shrieking in the background. It was a welcome reminder that there are other kinds of reality than the whirligig of events which are 24-hour news.

There is more to that thought than whimsy. We had several good examples last week of how the news reshapes reality. First Dr David Nutt, the government’s former chief adviser on drugs, who was sacked last year for being too political, produced a new independent guide to dangerous drugs which turned the official classifications upside down. Let us set aside the hysteria generated by tabloid headlines, he effectively said, and instead take a cold scientific look at the degree of harm different drugs do to the user and to wider society.  Dr Nutt concluded that alcohol does more overall damage than heroin, ecstasy or LSD and suggested the government was putting its efforts into the wrong places.

Critics, rightly, had reservations about the method he used to estimate the overall harm of individual drugs. His formula for weighting the combined social and personal damage included estimates of each drug’s impact on the NHS, crime, the family, the environment, the economy and more. Those are judgements on which an expert neuropharmacologist like him has no more expertise than do a politicians. But his conclusion that drugs policy is currently driven by headlines rather than facts is persuasive. The debate should prefer scientific evaluations to social preconceptions or political prejudice.

Our approach to news is partly to blame here. There is an attack culture in modern journalism which it is easy for lobbyists to exploit. To get attention from the media nowadays all you have to do is say the opposite of conventional wisdom. Emma Thompson says that Audrey Hepburn couldn’t act. An Oxford academic pronounces that Jane Austen couldn’t write. The BBC says that Live Aid money was spent on buying arms.

A contrarian dynamic has infected the modern media. So when, next, the free-market thinktank the Institute for Economic Affairs on Thursday published a report saying fair-trade is a bad thing – because it misleads consumers, retards good labelling schemes and imprisons Third World farmers in inefficient farming methods – everybody covered the story and made it sound it speciously plausible.

But look at the whole report – which you suspect many deadline-pressured reporters do not – and you find all this is just a cheap debating trick. Fair-trade does good, but not perhaps as much good as shoppers think, the report actually says, because most of the price the public pays does not reach the farmer. But that is true of most goods on the supermarket shelf. The key fact is that a cotton farmer in Mali, for example, who supplies the fair-trade market earns 50 per cent more than one who supplies the normal market. Some 95 per cent of the kids of fair-trade farmers in Mali go to school – more than double the national average. The lives of the seven million people who benefit from fair-trade are improved immeasurably. Claim after claim in the IEA report evaporates when subjected to proper scrutiny.

The real objection of the right-wing IEA to fair-trade is ideological. It regards it as a disguised form of charity which must inevitably distort markets. And it thinks fair-trade diverts political attention from its own pet cause, the promotion of free trade – though the two are far from incompatible in pragmatic terms because the vast farming subsidies of the US, Japan and the EU are anathema to advocates of both fair and free trade alike.

The problem is that a ding-dong between fair and free makes for a better story. It has two strong components – a row and a contradiction of the conventional wisdom that to be fair must be a good thing. Many journalists now seem to think that their first obligation is no longer to the truth; it is simply to cause a stir. And where there is no genuine stir one can be sexed-up, as happened with the BBC story claiming that “millions of pounds of Band Aid money had been siphoned off by rebel groups to buy weapons” – which led to an unreserved apology which was broadcast, unprecedentedly, across five BBC services last week.

What was most shocking about that episode was not the lamentable failure of  Britain’s most prestigious news organisation to check its facts; it was the way BBC executives did their best to undermine the apology by insisting that the World Service programme at the heart of the problem did not actually say money provided by Band Aid was diverted. Not in so many words, it didn’t. But to say, as they did, that “this impression could have been taken from the programme” was dissembling of the most brazen kind.

The programme was an exercise in innuendo. It ran clips of Geldof’s voice on three separate occasions. It used the music from the Band Aid singles at the top and end of the programme. It clipped the opening announcement from the Live Aid concert. It included commentary like “unbeknown to Bob Geldof, rebels were diverting millions of dollars to buy weapons”. This was not inadvertent. It was a deliberate editorial decision to wrap Geldof, with whom I have worked on aid issues for 20 years, and his charity all around what would have otherwise have been an obscure story to sex it up – which was presumably why so many BBC journalists from the corporation’s other outlets were misled by the programme and ran reports of it which were even more inaccurate.

Then last week BBC executives went on air to say that the main thrust of the story was correct – despite the BBC’s independent Editorial Complaints Unit upholding five complaints about that programme alone: that it created an unfair overall impression; that its main witness, Aregawi Behre, was found to lack credibility; that it said a CIA report supported its case when it did not; that it quoted a US ambassador in a misleading way and that it had failed to tell Bob Geldof of the gravity of the allegations when it requested an interview. In the circumstances it is extraordinary that many of the programme’s hotchpotch of claims – some from unreliable witnesses, some circumstantial, some mere hearsay – remain unaltered on the BBC website.

“A good journalist,” says Kevin Marsh, Editor of the BBC College of Journalism, has “the ability to grasp the big truths – with the humility to let them go again when the facts don’t fit.”  Marsh, a former editor of the Today programme, is a journalist of the old school. But for too many journalists today the search for truth has been replaced by a search for controversy.  The thirst for sensationalism has deadened parts of our journalistic elite to such a degree that it no longer knows what real news is.  Respect for journalistic integrity is only painstakingly won. But it is very easily lost.  

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