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Does fair journalism mean not saying sorry?
February 03, 2004
With a little bit of help from Hollywood, the media has successfully created an image of itself as a doughty crusader against the hidden tyranny of governments and big corporations. The picture of a brave journalist, armed with nothing more than sheer doggedness, bravely taking on a sinister establishment and unearthing the buried truth has created a romantic aura around the profession. Indeed, the popular expectations from the media are dizzying. There is a genuinely held belief that the fourth estate is one of the custodians of democracy. In a battle between the government and the media, public opinion is invariably on the side of the perceived underdog-the journalist.
There are moments when this slightly skewed relationship is threatened. I vividly recall the unconcealed hostility that greeted every person with either a notebook or a camera in the Kensington Palace Gardens in 1997 after the death of Princess Diana. "You kill people," was the cold comment of an English grandmother as I was giving instructions to a photographer to shoot the mass of floral tributes that had been left for the 'Queen of hearts.' Diana, it was then assumed, had died because her car was trying to shake off intrusive photographers. The media was not the flavour of England that September.
I expect that mood of hostility to be as profound in the gentleman's clubs on Pall Mall this week. The report of Lord Hutton's inquiry into the suicide of a British scientist was expected by many to be Prime Minister Tony Blair's nemesis. Instead, it has ended up as the most damning and devastating indictment of the BBC. The public broadcaster, which is funded by a compulsory licence fee from every television set owner in the United Kingdom, has been charged with levelling 'unfounded' allegations against the government. Worse, Lord Hutton has suggested that there is a 'defective editorial system' in place in the BBC.
The impact of the Hutton report has been quite serious. Gavin Davies, the chairman of the BBC's board of governors, and Greg Dyke, the BBC's director general, have resigned. The acting chairman has issued a full and unqualified apology to all those who were maligned by a false story of the government doctoring intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons. Blair has gratefully and even gleefully accepted the apology and assured everyone that a simple sorry is all that he was seeking in the first place.
At the risk of offending the trade union instincts of fellow journalists, let me say that my sympathies are totally with Blair and his former spin doctor, the much-maligned Alastair Campbell. The BBC authorities should have known from the time Downing Street issued its first denial that the report of one of its correspondents was based on shaky foundations and could not be
substantiated. Yet, for the sake of upholding its independence, the BBC chose to stick to the story, perhaps knowing that it was wrong.
In terms of political positioning, the BBC was on firm ground. The British decision to back the US in the war on Saddam was not terribly popular. Consequently, the claim that some Downing Street apparatchiks had 'sexed up' intelligence reports to make the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction more compelling, corresponded to the prevailing mood of
scepticism. At the best of times, it is just not done to believe that a government can be speaking the truth.
Yet, there is a difference between arguing against a war and claiming that the government had wilfully doctored intelligence reports. The former is an opinion and the latter is projected as fact. The difference, as any old-fashioned journalist will tell you, is not insignificant. Yet just because a fabrication bolstered a prevailing mood, the BBC chose to indulge in grandstanding. Many millions of taxpayers' money was spent on an exhaustive inquiry because journalists have bloated egos.
For long, many have felt that the English media is guilty of a soft-Left bias. It has assumed that what liberal journalists feel to be correct is both fact and reasonable. There is a profound arrogance in the media that prevents it from admitting it can be wrong. Any attack on the veracity of its assertions is invariably projected as an assault on the freedom of the
Yet, as we well know, the media is not infallible. Last year, the venerable New York Times was shaken after it emerged that one of its star reporters was guilty of both plagiarism and fabrication. The editor of a leading newspaper in Delhi had to resign some five years ago after it emerged that one of his articles was plagarised.
And how many times has the media been shown up to be wrong? Remember the so-called Coffingate allegations against Defence Minister George Fernandes? Did the media apologise to Fernandes for its malicious misrepresentation? Was there an apology to former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal for misrepresenting what he said in New York last October? Did the television channel that falsely accused Law Minister Arun Jaitley of being fined by municipal authorities for breeding mosquitoes admit its stupid error? Did Time magazine conduct an internal inquiry as to why its India correspondent painted Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a jolly tippler who is permanently out to lunch? Was there a grovelling public apology? Or was the justified outrage in political circles viewed in the press clubs as an assault on press freedom?
Why does fair journalism mean never having to say you are sorry? Why should apologies have to be forcibly extracted from errant media houses?
Over the past few years, many Indian politicians have argued in private for a media audit that would curb tendentious fabrication of facts. It is an idea worth exploring.
If the BBC, which used to set the standards of fair reporting, cannot be expected to play by gentlemanly rules, what is the hope that lesser institutions will play with a straight bat?