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Tag Archives: truth

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

 

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Yesterday (Nov. 2nd 2011) on RTE Radio 1, Pat Kenny interrupted his morning radio programme to bring us “breaking news”. The news was that SF had left the Dáil until the afternoon in protest at the lack of parliamentary debate on the payment of hundreds of millions of Euro to bondholders at the now defunct Anglo Irish Bank. The SF finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, was brought on air to protest that there was little on no debate on handing over so much money when there was no moral or legal obligation to pay.

So far, so true! Indeed it is so true that there couldn’t possibly be a debate in any conventional sense of the word because absolutely no one is arguing that there is a moral or legal obligation to pay. On this point An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste, Fine Gael, The Labour Party and Sinn Fein are in agreement. However, on radio Pearse Doherty was allowed to pretend that there was disagreement on this. Indeed he said that the Taoiseach had been forced to admit that this was the case, whereas the Taoiseach couldn’t possibly have said otherwise.

Where there is disagreement is over the likely consequences of refusing to pay. SF of course is well aware of this but the last thing they want to do is engage in the real controversy because that turns on debating and considering risks. You see, the European Central Bank want Ireland to pay up. One response might be, “How dare they?” Well, the difficulty is that they keep Ireland supplied with the money to pay welfare recipients and public service workers. Because of this the government and many others feel it is prudent to pay up. In short, though there is no obligation to pay, Ireland is forced to pay. Should Ireland refuse to pay in full or in part, it is possible but unlikely that there will be no negative consequences. However, it is also possible that the money to keep Irish society going would be stopped. Essentially the difference between the government and SF is that the former don’t want to risk the livelihoods of many Irish people, while the latter want to run that risk.

This difference certainly does need to be debated. A public service broadcaster has an obligation to bring public controversy to the citizens. In this case a newsworthy event – a dramatic parliamentary walkout – was covered at the expense of an obligation to inform citizens. Sure, they were informed of the walkout but from then on they were subjected to lies and not the slightest attempt was made to call attention to the real – the only – debate.

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.