One of the more intriguing, as well as potentially explosive issues when it comes to media ethics is the question of in-built bias among journalists. Is there a newsroom atmosphere? Is there a herd instinct that influences how the reporters and editors do their jobs, thereby creating a dominating discourse that all too often may punish those in the media who do not toe the line? Let’s look at the BBC, where there seems to be a problem.
A fortnight ago, we learned that members of the BBC Newsnight program were pressured to leave due to their actions in the Savile expose. This claim was made by Meirion Jones, the former head of the program’s investigations unit, who also had to leave. (Jimmy Savile, a top BBC star, was exposed as a serial child abuser.) Jones was quoted as saying, “We were told at the time that you won’t be sacked but over a year or two years you’ll realize you are being treated as an outsider, that you will never be trusted because you blew the whistle, and you will find yourself leaving.” He insisted that those who tried to expose the BBC’s handling of the case were seen as “traitors” while executives who tried to suppress the scandal had continued their careers unhindered.
The problems with modern-day TV in England are not limited to news but also to programming. Tim Hincks is president of the UK Endemol Shine Group, and is considered a leading British TV executive. His company is one of the world’s largest independent production companies. He produces low-quality but highly popular shows such as Big Brother and Master-Chef . In a lecture last week, he described England’s television industry as “hideously middle class” and even called for forced diversity in broadcasting and production. He further noted that “It’s not moral, it’s not political...There’s a weak spot that we have that hampers the program-makers and the broadcasters. It’s an industry-wide problem....”
On June 27, Christopher Booker published an op-ed in The UK Telegraph on the BBC. He blunt, writing, “BBC’s senior executives are so lost in their corporate groupthink that they have no real idea just how biased it is” and provided examples of “how mindlessly the BBC falls into its party line.”
The BBC took another hit that same week when Brendan O’Neill, editor of the Spiked website, who describes himself as an atheistic libertarian, published this indictment: “For an institution that loves sneering at politicians, the BBC is remarkably thin-skinned when a politician fires back.” The BBC’s “irritation...shows how sacralised the Beeb has become, how much it fancies itself...a worship-worthy institution that none may blaspheme against.”
Here in Israel, many media people, feeling pressure from complaints, often defend themselves by comparing their standards to those of other countries. The employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, especially those in the news division, always point to the BBC as the paradigm of public broadcasting. We would suggest, especially in view of the evidence, that it is high time that the BBC no longer be considered an example and role model which should be emulated or revered.
Is mediocracy a characteristic only of British media? Is the failure of professional standards limited to England? In America they think not.
The 2015 State of the First Amendment Survey released two weeks ago indicated that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the news media report with an intentional bias. Only 24% of American adults agree that “the news media tries to report the news without bias.” That is a drop of 17 points from the previous year.
Investigative reporting should be the media’s bread and butter, but it is most difficult to maintain. Typically, one report - er is insufficient. Even with leaks from within, as in the Watergate affair, a team is required. Money needs to be invested, while results are usually months away. A good and reliable investigative reporter must be of higher quality than the standard journalist who parrots press releases of interested parties.
In Scotland, for example, there has been a steady and substantial decline in investigative reporting by the country’s established media. As published last month in The Scotsman , it has been accompanied by sharp cuts in staffing, pagination and funding in many daily papers. In parallel though, a group of freelance journalists has launched a new subscription-based, crowd-funded investigations unit to make up for the failure of the traditional Scottish news media. The Ferret, as the web- based project has named itself, parallels investigative journalism collectives such as De Correspondent in the Netherlands and the Belfast-based The Detail.
Here in Israel, we have a large assortment of writers or programmers who consider themselves investigative reporters. These include TV star Dr. Ilana Dayan, whose program may be characterized more by sensationalism and money making than with the need to supply the consumer with well investigated facts. The same malaise may be found in the major news-papers; the investigative weekly page of Israel Hayom may be considered more of a gossip column.
The only truly independent and influential investigative reporting in Israel which is also unbiased, willing to deal with any topic irrespective of its ideological or personal implications, is the News1 website of Yoav Yitzchak. Yet Yitzchak is ostracized by the mainstream media, who all too often “steal” his scoops, belittle them or even worse, ignore them.
Claiming that the media is over-ponderously slanted to the Left and that editorial and newsrooms are staffed by those who consider themselves liberal is pooh-poohed by media insiders, at best. More typically such a charge will result in the critic being besmirched, lambasted and other - wise pilloried. We should know. Israel’s Media Watch is invariably described as “right wing” while other NGOs, markedly leftist, usually merit the description “working for peace and/or democracy.”
When right-wingers suggest that the media should be more pluralistic in terms of content and editorial personnel, that, too, is not encouraged in the name of liberalism and democracy, but roundly denounced. This was never more obvious than in a session of a Knesset committee’s deliberations this week on amendments to the new public broadcasting authority.
Minister Ofir Akunis, who adopted IMW’s suggestion to name the new body the Israel Public Broadcasting Authority, had to vigorously defend himself instead of being acclaimed for his Zionist stance.
It is high time that our media stops copying the worst in the media abroad and instead become a “light onto the nations” as befits our start-up Jewish state.
The authors are respectively vice chair - man and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il)