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Tag Archives: balance

Miriam O’Callaghan’s radio programme this morning (Sunday, 2nd March 2014) had three interviews*. One with Jimmy Guerin, the brother of murdered journalist, Veronica Guerin, whose acknowledged killer, John Gilligan, was injured last night when attackers attempted to murder him**. The second interview was with Jerry Hall, the model and actor. The third interview was with Tommy McKearney, convicted murderer, IRA member and hunger striker.

The Jerry Hall interview served as something of an insulator between two poles of editorial policy. The man suspected of the murder of Veronica Guerin, received no sympathy. There was absolutely no doubt that the editorial approach was condemnation; there was no desire to understand or to find redeeming features in John Gilligan or his actions. However, from the introduction when Tommy McKearney was described as “on active service” with the IRA, the third interview was not about murder but about exploring how this “gentle man” had come to murder/kill postman, Stanley Adams, his subsequent participation in a hunger strike and his thoughts on Northern Ireland.

At the close of the programme Miriam read out texts from listeners who thought that the Tommy McKearney interview lacked balance; they wondered why a family member of his victim or someone opposed to the IRA had not been interviewed. No text appeared asking why a family member of John Gilligan had not been interviewed. Here’s the thing: Balance is a fine convention in the coverage of a public controversy; it applies to two sides of a story, to contending political arguments. Paradoxically, however, when one decides that balance is applicable to an issue, one has taken sides in a most basic debate. That is the debate about what is a matter of public controversy and what is not, i.e. what is political and what is not. There is no way out of making an editorial decision so basic.

In the case of Miriam’s programme the editorial decision was that Veronica Guerin’s killing was not a matter of public controversy – was not political – but that the killing of Stanley Adams (Postman and a member of the UDR) was a matter of public controversy, was political. From the moment that balance is thought to apply there is no way back; the realm of politics has been entered – a realm of acceptable discussion – and in this instance the killing of a postman was brought within the consensus of what is acceptable as a matter for discussion.

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* http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10256460%3A15946%3A02%2D03%2D2014%3A
** http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/02/veronica-guerin-suspect-shot

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“The Frontline’s speakers often had knowledge of specific cutbacks that prompted blank expressions, never mind any justification, from ministerial faces. The audience, regularly comprising the many victims of austerity, would be hard-pressed to come away from the RTÉ studio feeling in any way satisfied with the empty promises and emergency damage-limitation words they heard back from officialdom.” – Laura Slattery ‘The Frontline’ is dead, long live a revamped ‘Prime Time’, Irish Times Thursday, January 31, 2013 (http://m.irishtimes.com/newspaper/finance/2013/0131/1224329469784.html)

Laura is getting close to the problem with the mass communication of political debate but she remains within the tent that is journalism.

Journalism has a political perspective. It is conservative, it poses no challenge but it manages to appear anti-establishment, pro-“people” and remain within the strictures of balance and fairness.

What it amounts to is this. There is, it is said, a “political class”. From this point on journalists are on safe ground. There’s now not the slightest chance of an accusation of bias or lack of balance because politics as a clash of parties, ideologies or major political perspectives – like liberalism or socialism – has been excluded.

There is of course a range of views which sees this as a managerial or a technocratic or a post-political approach. There’s quite a lot of sense here but it’s a whole lot worse because the participative citizen developed over centuries is about to be demoted to peasant!

Back to journalists. The “political class” controls the state, taxes and spending. People participate by putting pressure on the “political class” (Sometimes referred to as the “establishment” so as to secure an anti-establishment image for the commentator.) through pressure groups led by “activists” who share the journalists’ disdain for politics. An effective group wins a concession from the “political class” usually at the expense of a poorer and/or less well organised pressure group. Journalists function by siding with, reporting on and sorting out which pressure groups are most powerful, and then helping the “political class” decide which concessions must be made so as to maintain the system.

Yep, it’s really a great distance from citizens talking about great public controversies. It’s more like supplicants or peasants appealing to the ruler for preferential treatment and threatening unrest if that doesn’t work.
Laura Slattery came close when she observed the conservative futility of having “victims of austerity” state their cases for preferment. She then opted for the attractive diversion that is talk about broadcast programme formats. The problem is the abandonment of politics. The citizens need to talk about public priorities – setting a hierarchy of public spending – for in here lie real political differences over freedom and economic inequality.

In an interesting coincidence two articles in Opinion and Analysis in the Irish Times of March 10th share a common failing. They fail to recognise that journalists have a responsibility to facilitate a citizen who is trying or even willing to reflect on a public controversy.

The articles by Stephen Collins* (“What this next referendum is really all about”) and John Gibbons** (Shadow of a doubt: how they fooled us about a killer habit”) correctly blame tricksters for debasing public controversy but they neglect to extend the blame to those who publish the lies, flak, scare stories, doubts – call them what you will. The bizarre claims of opponents of EU integration and the bogus science presented to fool people into doubting the dangers of first smoking and then global warming, depended on compliant journalism. Naomi Oreskes, whom John Gibbons mentions, describes how well-organised bodies use the existing conventions and rules of journalism to undermine public understanding. She is spot on and unless Irish journalists choose to elevate truth above balance, the upcoming treaty debate will become a familiar circus.

* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107126.html

** http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0310/1224313107142.html

 

Yesterday on Pat Kenny’s radio programme David McWilliams painted a rosy picture of Argentina after default. Later in the programme a text was read out from someone painting a very different picture. Balance? Mmmm … ok, for now! However, does the Pat Kenny team now have a responsibility to sort out truth from lies or fantasy? I certainly think so. Otherwise lies and fantasy will continue under the cloak of “balance”. (Ok, I can see how both the positions just MIGHT be true depending on the different perspectives of the speakers but that simply increases the onus on the PK show to establish the truth.)

There is a report by Fiona Gartland in the Irish Times of Oct. 24th  that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution intend to reconsider the question of balance in broadcast coverage of referendum debates. It is long past time that the privileged status of this communication value was questioned.

 

It is certainly not the case that balance is without merit but its limitations and the risk of exalting it above other values has become apparent.

 

When there is a clear choice between two courses of action and where there are sensible arguments on both sides, balance is a treasure. Unfortunately this is seldom the case and balance – crudely understood – becomes a problem.

 

Very often there are many points of view. Balance implies just two.

 

Crude attempts to quantify balance by – for example – linking it to the number of TDs supporting an argument makes sense only if one believes that broadcast debate should reflect the existing consensus in society or the most widely held views. Balance can be evaluated quite differently if one believes that broadcast debate should serve the engaged citizen, someone who wants a lively challenge. In this view balance might be between the majority view and a minority view, between opposites, between antagonistic views or between consensus and innovation.

 

Coverage of the Lisbon Treaty debate showed how balance could be the enemy of truth. Nonsense was repeated day after day to create balance and newsworthy conflict.

 

Balance is important and worth defending as part of a parcel of communication values which should include at least truth and the promotion of challenging viewpoints.