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Democratic perfectionism as a political method

Transparency v Objectivity

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Does the sceptical journalist solve the problems that we thought they did?

Does the sceptical journalist solve the problems that we thought they did?

As local newspapers retreat from providing anything like a good quality of news coverage, local authorities are wondering what their response should be.

On the one hand, there’s the model that Birmingham City Council have taken – providing a much more user-friendly information gateway that is designed to provide resources to citizen-journalists and bloggers.

Other options include beefing up the council’s information department with a view to turning the fairly skimpy info circulars into fully-fledged newspapers or being more in tune with hyperlocal sites of the kind that Will Perrin is promoting at the moment.

It’s a question that raises a number of important philosophical questions about the role of the state and the bureaucracy in providing information about itself. Stripping bureaucracies of the monopoly position that they have in describing their own services is a potentially game-changing idea that could, in some ways, redefine the state as we know it.

But what about the idea of ‘public service journalism’? The Press Association have a slightly opportunistic proposal to position themselves as the hub for ‘public service journalism’ – as far as I can see, the BBC do it with an efficiency that other media players can only dream of.

But all of these changes help to foreground one of the real problems that the BBC has faced for some time. And not only the BBC, but the very concept of ‘objective reporting’ itself.

In the past, journalists have provided a nice work-around for the problem of bureaucratic neutrality. The deal runs something like this:

  • Local politicians are not expected to be neutral
  • … but the officers are
  • … and it’s the officers job to disseminate information about the local authority in a way that doesn’t compromise the next election (incumbents shouldn’t benefit from ‘spin on the rates’)
  • Practically, this is a problem because a positive message about a council service implies an endorsement of the ruling group
  • … but thankfully, journalists apply their scepticism and neutralise any spin that is being applied by the council press officer

Without journalists, the objectivity has gone. But was it ever there in the first place? And if so, was it of any real value?

In Northern Ireland, Slugger O’Toole deployed its bloggers far and wide to cover the Orangefest celebrations. The reporting was truly eye-opening, and it brought observations that haven’t reached the dress-rehearsed coverage of this highly contentious period in the Northern Ireland calender.  Mick was particularly scathing about the BBC’s attachment to ‘neutrality’

“…the BBC at least, was possessed of a bizarrely split personality: juddering between tourist board schmalz and an utter distaste for the whole thing. If I were to venture a guess I would say it was less a case of being conflicted than the modern BBC utterly loathing the whole thing within their very hearts and souls. I’ve nothing against Walter Love, but he retired from the BBC years ago as a working journalist. Mark Carruthers’ series of tough questions on Evening Extra last night were all sharp and relevant, and Drew Nelson, one of the ablest men to hold his post of Grand Secretary in modern times, was able to field them with some alacrity.

But you are left with the feeling that at the very least there is a huge emotional vacuum within the BBC. It gave the impression that no one of any ability or talent inside the modern BBC wants to do the job of publicly being nice to the Orange Order. To return to JP’s acute analysis, the Orange Order exists almost entirely as a negative valence in BBCNI’s inner emotional life.

Because the BBC holds a public service broadcasting remit, it has to cover things that perhaps its producers and journalists feel at best ambivalent about, and worst find inimical. It is, to follow Heath, incongruous for the BBC to cover an Orange parade which is not responsible for all the trouble it attracts. And if it does not attract trouble, like the parade in Dromore where demonstrators took their pints in three nationalist owned pubs bedecked with Tyrone flags, it is not news.”

Slugger’s correspondents offered a powerful counterweight to the neutrality of the BBC by offering, instead, pluralism (oddly, the way that BBC’s Newsnight has handled it’s strong commentary role is to employ regular correspondents from accross the spectrum over the years, though the pretense of neutrality is imposed upon semi-Trotskyists like Paul Mason or closet Tories such as Evan Davis).

I’ve just seen this post - ‘Transparency is the new objectivity’ (via my American friend Nathalie on Facebook):

“…transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can.”

Is the objective journalist really as useful as we assumed in the past? And in an age when a cynical media is seen as being corrosive towards democratic processes, have we given them a tribune role that they’ve never been cut out for in the first place?

Is ‘transparency through pluralistic coverage’ the better option?

Written by Paul Evans

July 27th, 2009 at 12:10 pm

One Response to 'Transparency v Objectivity'

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  1. The short answer to that question is yes. Objectivity was always constructed. Transparency is complicated but it’s easier to hold people to account.

    Nick Booth

    27 Jul 09 at 12:37 pm

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