Journalists considered to have radical views are sometimes judged as being unable to differentiate between fact and opinion, while on the other side accused of succumbing to an inaccurate ‘establishment approved’ version of the truth. I went to a session at last weekend’s Rebellious Media Conference and heard from three ‘radicals’ working in the mainstream media…
Annoying authority is doing a journalist’s job – advice journalist Amira Hass was once given and has stuck with her as a Jewish Israeli working for Israel’s oldest daily paper Haaretz and spending time living in and reporting on the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Hass was on a panel titled ‘Inside the Belly of the Beast: Radicals in the Mainstream Media’ joined by Duncan Campbell the man behind the controversial BBC series Secret Society and who exposed the ECHELON surveillance project. The third panel member was David Crouch, deputy Europe news editor of the Financial Times. All three have been, or continued to be, annoyances of authority but also have made successful careers of working in the mainstream media.
The idea for this session came from George Monbiot’s career’s advice article Choose Life. He writes: “the truth is that by following the path they suggest [careers people advising against specialism], you are becoming a specialist: a specialist in the moronic recycling of what the rich and powerful deem to be news. And after a few years of that, you are good for very little else.”
But for many people who want to earn a living out of journalism will follow the path Monbiot calls counter-educational, at least for a period and their day job may mean their work will be read or heard by a bigger range of people, who their ideas may not normally reach.
David Crouch maintained that it was possible to make a difference from the inside, using the anecdote of a friend who had worked as the night editor of a tabloid spending his whole shift taking the racism out of the paper so the bile wasn’t spread. He said the left have an ‘extermination’ approach to the mainstream media which needs rethinking. The hierarchy in the newsroom means the press is produced by ‘ordinary people’ so he feels there is a lot of potential in the unions, in particular the NUJ for which he is a representative. He said the union fosters pride in producing the facts and getting them right.
When asked whether the panel considered themselves activists as well as journalists Campbell pointed out the truth should never be sacrificed because of a partisan opinion but that, yes, journalists can have viewpoints too as long as they stick to the ground rules of good journalism. Hass agreed there was a line to be drawn; she will attend mass protests as a citizen but go to Gaza as a journalist. But she also said that truly objective journalism was a myth citing the examples of military embedded reporters. Everyone has opinions which come out in their work, whether they are explicitly voiced or not.
Amira Hass feels her role is to get stories covered that might not otherwise. Her main method of fact finding comes from ‘ordinary people’ although she feels this has less prestige in the eyes of editors who value secure documents and information. She also said that news sections where she has the most trouble getting her work published as they are kept more conventional but that investigative journalism was still possible in feature writing.
As well as media makers there were many activists in the audience keen to find out how they could get their campaigns more column inches. Duncan Campbell said campaigners needed to look more to the long term. While they may get coverage here and there real change is brought about by sustained campaigning and willingness to work with a variety of people. On the subject of ‘scandalism’ – a willingness to only cover issues with big fireworks and not drawn out problems – Campbell reiterated this point saying campaigners couldn’t rely on the media to do their activism for them. Media strategies can’t be the be all and end all. Hass was mostly in agreement; she pointed out that the exceptional is the usual for a Palestinian and admitted that there would need to be something ‘juicy’ in the story for it to attract attention as much as she didn’t like it.
Although the three people on the panel had had negative experiences working within the mainstream media, none of them seemed to feel disillusioned or like it wasn’t worth it. After all, today’s ‘radical’ views are often tomorrow’s common sense. As Amira Hass pointed out – you don’t feel the breakthroughs all at one time.