The fifth estate needs to beware mirroring the media it deconstructs

Updated: May 10, 2020

There can be no doubt that a full-blown battle of ideas is now raging across the media and political landscape. Its apparent intensity itself indicates how a consensus around a relatively narrow set of ideas had come to be so widely accepted.

I wrote in my last post about how the rules of the game had changed in the wake of the General Election. Since then we’ve seen virtual paralysis at government level as the Conservative Party has struggled to draw up a programme for government and resolve growing splits in its own ranks, and continued discussion on the left of how change is being recognised. And then came the shocking events at Grenfell Tower. The reporting of the fire and its aftermath have prompted some of the fiercest debate yet on media coverage and the assumptions behind it.

As I began pulling some research together before writing this, I realised it was 33 years to the day since the battle between striking miners and the police at Orgreave. Those of us old enough to remember that, and old enough to remember what happened at Hillsborough four years later, detected some familiar tactics in the wake of the Grenfell fire. Some elements of mainstream media sought to find individuals to blame, while others sought to portray angry residents getting organised as a “mob”. And any attempt to suggest that political decisions were to blame for what happened was denounced as ‘making capital out of tragedy’.

Let’s be clear what that last accusation amounts to. It is an attempt to shut down discussion on what caused an event that led to people burning to death in their own homes, that led to an as yet unknown death toll, and that is leading to continuing suffering. When shutting down legitimate discussion is put forward as an accepted mainstream opinion, the reasons why people are opting to create and consult their own media — something John Pilger called the fifth estate—become clear. But what recent events have also shown is that this new media is not without fault. As I said in my last post:

“There is also stuff that looks a little too much like what the traditional media has done for too long too. Using the methods we have criticised to get across a message we agree with cannot be the way forward.”

There’s been a feeling in the business for years that the media is disproportionately interested in itself, but the current discussion of the way it operates is directly connected to the way it intereacts with people — something I think elevates the discussion above the realms of media theory and into real life.

One of the best pieces I’ve read on the subject recently is the take by Buzzfeed political editor @jimwaterson This Was The Election Where The Newspapers Lost Their Monopoly On The Political News Agenda. It looks not only at how the ability of the traditional print media to shape debate seems to have diminished, but also at how new forms of media have changed the rules of engagement. That analysis, in itself, is nothing new, but where Waterson’s piece moves things on is in examining those new media forms in more depth. And an observation he makes after doing this should make us pause for thought.

“Crucially the lines between what is political reporting, what is political comment, and what is simply partisan internet ephemera seem to be blurring — to little concern from an audience who don’t distinguish between spoof videos, traditional analysis pieces, and celebrity endorsements.”

It’s the bit about the audience having little concern for what is happening that stands out.

You don’t have to believe the old myth that ‘journalists must be impartial’ to be concerned about that, and it’s worth expanding a little on that idea of journalistic impartiality before moving on. Good journalism certainly should mean being curious, open to facts that challenge the writer’s interpretation, and willing to consider opposing viewpoints. But to imagine that any individual living in any society is not shaped by their surroundings and experiences is fantasy.

One of the things that shaped me as I grew up was reading John Pilger in the Daily Mirror, and I tend to agree with his view on journalistic impartiality.

“The problem with those words “impartiality” and “objectivity” is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They’ve been taken over. “Impartiality” and “objectivity” now mean the establishment point of view.”

That is all too often true, and is why I’ve never been reticent about making clear my own take on issues I write about if I can. Something which, ironically, has made it easier for some people to immediately dismiss what I say. There are advantages in styling yourself as an impartial teller of truths.

But we seem to be reaching a point where what is happening is that some of the media emerging to challenge ‘the establishment’ is merely mirroring it. And where the response when this is pointed out is increasingly along the lines of ‘who cares, the mainstream media have told lies and misrepresented things for too long’.

Take an argument that broke out late last week in the aftermath of the GrenfellTower fire. The Skwawkbox, one of the left-leaning sites challenging the mainstream media narrative, published a story headlined Govt “puts ‘D-Notice’ gag” on real #Grenfell death toll #national security. I first picked that up from Tweetdeck, which I run during most working days, as a number of journalists began to accuse the site of running a story it knew not to be true.

The Skwawkbox story is here, so you can read it for yourself. All that has changed since it originally went up is the headline and the explanatory note at the top. Just to fill you in on the argument, here’s James Ball on Buzzfeed running a story about the Skwawkbox piece.

If it was true that a D-Notice had been put on the number of deaths (I chose ‘put’ rather than ‘slapped’ for a reason, by the way) then it would have been a big story. One it was right to report. And there is another question about whether there are any other restrictions on reporting the toll that it’s entrirely legitimate to put. But it was relatively easy to find out that there was no D-Notice. So did Skwawkbox make a mistake? Quite possibly. But the site’s reaction is concerning.

It has changed, or corrected, the headline on the story. But it responded to criticism by saying that critics were misrepresenting the story. Skwawbox said its story was misrepresented because what it wrote was “If it is true that the government has issued a D-Notice…”. So its story was pursuing a legitimate line of invesigation.

Let’s take a breath here. The headline on the original Skwawbox story was clear. It clearly said a D-Notice gag had been put onto reporting the death toll. Putting the words “puts ‘D-Notice’ gag” into quotes is an old newspaper device used to put across an angle while providing the ability to disassociate from that angle. One of the first things you learn as a sub-editor — that’s the people who have traditionally tended to write the headlines—is to be very careful when using quote marks in such circumstances. Because, to use another loaded phrase that will be familiar to left-of-centre media, it is important not to ‘sex up’ a story to the point where its accuracy is compromised. Especially if that story is powerful enough in its own right.

I can understand, up to a point, Skwawkbox mounting a robust defence when criticised by media that have not thought twice about using similar tactics they berate Skwawbox for. And I can understand their annoyance at being singled out by people who they think have been less willing to call out mainstream media misrepresentation. But the bottom line is not the credentials of the critics, it is the credentials of the story. And in this case, the main angle, that a D-Notice was being used by the government to suppress the number of deaths, was the story. The headline could have given the reader no other impression, and those writing and publishing the story cannot be so unfamiliar with how media works not to know this.

The story itself did indeed contain the line “If it is true that the government has issued a D-Notice…”. That line came at the beginning of paragraph 11 of the story. Paragraph 14 if you include two video clips and a cutting from Wikipedia as paragraphs. That’s quite way down the story.

The story led with five paragraphs on how grime artist Saskilla was claiming firefighters had told him the death toll was higher than official sources had confirmed, and continued by reporting Lily Allen’s claim that the BBC had pulled an interview with her after she made similar claims. The direction of travel is clear.

And if you read the end of the story, the copy following immediately on from the clause Skwawkbox claims shows it was merely raising a question rather than making an assertion, it is clear that the site has made up its mind that information is being witheld because the government is abusing national security regulations to protect itself and the Tory party.

But the central reason for that assertion is that a D-Notice has been applied. Something which Skwawbox admits in its correction has not been applied. And something which it did not confirm before running the story. So the headline does not stand up. And neither does the assumption in the conclusion of the story — an assumption which is left as was in the corrected version of the story.

Now it might be the case that other restrictions on reporting the number of dead have been applied, a question Skwawbox has asked. It might also be the case that there are good reasons for this. But the headline makes a clear assertion. Skwawkbox has published a robust defence of the way it ran the story. That defence makes clear it is now satisfied that no D-Notice was issued, while drawing attention to the the fact that the wider question about “other restrictions” had not received a satisfactory answer. But the substance of this defence is in fact an attack on “mainstream media outlets” for spreading “fake news” about the original story.

The Skwawkbox piece says:

“Even the title of the article was carefully constructed, with speech-marks to indicate that it was quoting the allegations of others rather than making claims.”

But choosing that claim as the headline gives the claim great substance, and provides the shock value that pulls in readers. As I’ve said earlier, the use of single quote marks in headlines is a well-established journalistic device. There’s a good examination of the problems that raises in this story from Australia’s Media Watch site. And this piece on the use of single and double quotes from The Guardian’s style guide is also worth reading.

If you think I’m being unduly picky, take a look at this story from the Daily Mail, headlined The man ‘whose faulty fridge started tower inferno’. Notice those single quote marks? If they make you suspicious, your instincts are right. Because the story says, in its first line, that the man featured is the man whose faulty fridge is “alleged” to have started the fire. If you read the whole story you will find no further mention of this allegation, no attribution of where the allegation comes from, and nothing on whether the alleged allegation is even being considered as a cause of the fire. What you will find is the detail that the man is Ethiopian, and some pictures of him drinking beer. It’s a typical piece of nasty Daily Mail innuendo, and poor journalism to boot.

It is, in fact, the sort of story sites such as Skwawkbox call out. Because of its use of tactics such as putting single quote marks around assertions it thinks it may need to distance itself from.

I’m all in favour of Pilger’s fifth estate, something he defines as:

“a journalism that monitors, deconstructs and counters propaganda and teaches the young to be agents of people, not power”

What we are witnessing now can be seen as the rise of such a fifth estate, something that has been aided by the growth of the internet and its ability to deliver not only the means of production but of distribution to hands outside the control of the big media corporations. But such a fifth estate can only really succeed if it is trusted, if it delivers information as honestly as it can and invites readers to from their own conclusions.

At the end of Jim Waterson’s article on the breaking of the mainstream newspapers’ monopoly, he quotes Matt Turner of Evolve Politics. Turner says:

“The direction of travel for political journalism is set and the crossover between activism and reporting is only going to increase: ‘People want writing and content that lights a fire in their belly and gets them riled up’.”

I’m not convinced the crossover between activism and reporting increasing is necessarily a good thing–and I speak as someone who has written politically engaged journalism. I worry about the observation Waterson makes about the line blurring between “political comment and what is simply partisan internet ephemera”.

That’s partly because I believe my political views can stand up to journalistic examination, but also because I believe it is important for people to trust what they are reading isn’t being spun. Deconstructing the spin is very different to reversing the spin.

It may well be the case that the current public discontent with mainstream media means that anything seen as stemming from mainstream media is treated with suspicion. But eventually people will see through spin wherever it comes from, and those responsible for spinning will see support for their views slip away.

There’s a huge amount that is encouraging about much of the new media output that is establishing itself, but the the difference between outlets that admit their allegiances openly and those that attempt to disguise those allegiances as common sense or mainstream views will be lost on most people. It’s the spin that will be most apparent.

What that means for me, right now, is that I will treat the next headline I see from Skwawkbox with the same reservations as the next headline I see from the Daily Mail. And I suspect I won’t be alone.

#DNotices #Hillsborough #JohnPilger #Grenfell #Orgreave #impartiality #GeneralElection2017 #TheSqwawbox #Buzzfeed

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