Why I do not diss bloggers, but...
- 7 Jul 06, 08:38 AM
If you look at the thread attached to the last Prezza article, or plunge into the blogosphere's discussions adjacent to the Prezza issue, you will see a theme emerging whereby the bloggers repeatedly assert that, a) they, in some way are doing better journalism than the journos and b) we are somehow hostile to them.
This is not the case. I want to make clear my attitude to the bloggers who are on Prescott's case...
1) I welcome blogging as an extension of the political public space. It probably start of a decisive extension of public space - akin to the arrival of uncensored newspapers in France in 1830, which had immediate social impact and added an extra dimension to public life.
2) But blogging and professional journalism work to different codes of conduct. The journalist's role with regard to facts is to check them; with regard to assertions - to doubt them. I have to start the day presuming anything said to me by people who want to get it in print is not true; and that every invitation to participate in something nice comes with a reciprocal favour attached somewhere down the line. From that starting point it is easy to work backwards towards what is true, what is uncompromised. The blogger may or may not do that.
3) The number one addition blogging has made to the public space is the ability to collectively and incontrovertibly chase down facts: was the George Bush military record used in a CBS report a fake? It was. Did the US military use white phosphorous as an anti-personnel weapon in Fallujah? It did. Blogging, by drawing in fair minded people from across the political spectrum, can immediately neutralise the journalism of propaganda and censorship that, for example in Britain, defines tabloid newspapers. It is one of the reasons newspapers are dying - not because digital replaces print; ad revenues decline etc - but because what the Daily Blurb tells you can so easily be checked by reference to other people minded to read the Daily Blurb and found to be baby talk.
4) However journalism is more than a list of facts. It is the facts selected to tell the story of what happened. The facts don't all appear at the same time, and some of them are purposely hidden: but you have to tell a version of the story at any given time. On the sharp end are agency journalists - from PA, AFP, Reuters: I have never heard a blogger criticise a wire journalist, partly because few get to read wires, partly because what they do is beyond reproach: a bomb goes off in Gaza - they rush to the scene and count the bodies. After wire journalism, the decisions begin about the crucial question: what is the story?
5) Anybody who denies they approach a story with an preconceived idea of what it is, is lying. Anybody who sticks to the same preconception having looked at the facts is not doing journalism.
6) Here the crucial difference between journalists and bloggers - it does not make us better than them, but we are doing different things in the truth ecosystem: because of the authority of what I say (even tiny Newsnight goes out to 1.2m people) it has to be right. If I say "Prescott has slept with more people than we know about" I have to be able to prove it. Likewise the assertion "Prescott lobbied for a casino in the Dome in a way that conflicted with his role as planning arbiter". Right now we cannot prove it, but we can ask questions. With the latter, like Unity, we can make a case for saying he did - after that it's over to the standards bodies and the electorate.
7) Here comes the next difference: the type of journalism you do depends which line of inquiry you pursue. My personal belief here is allied to the priorities of the programme I work for. I think the casino is a more substantive issue than the alleged philandering. Even so, however, I have to ask if it is worth pursuing. Obviously Newsnight thinks it is, as we devoted more programme time last night to the Prescott-Casino issue. One thing I should make clear here is that I personally am not assigned to the Casino story: so don't keep asking me why I haven't done x, y or z. My mind is on other stories. Harass David Grossman and Martha Kearney if you must.
8) One of the most annoying things about bloggers is their paranoia - but it is partly justified. If you do not report exactly as they wish, they accuse you of being in the pay of the government, corrupt, useless etc. I think media executives have to get over their annoyance and come to terms with why so many rational and intelligent people feel this way: it is the result of their frustration with journalism's lack of creativity, ambition, courage. The solution is to allow much greater prominence to conflicting viewpoints and stick to the facts - and ultimately I believe blogging will synergise with reporting and a better kind of journalism will emerge. Another solution, demanded by some bloggers and not entirely unattractive to me, is for the journalist to make clear exactly where they are coming from: then the reader can add a percentage discount (up to 100%) on the truth of what they are saying. However it will take primary legislation to get the Beeb to do this!
9) If me and Nick Robinson have sounded tetchy it is because we - and especially he - is/are being accused of failing to report on Prescott's affairs because of some ulterior motive. The reason the BBC has not reported Prescott's newly discovered affairs is because we cannot prove they happened. We have reported the allegations - but we have not named the names: it is against my professional code to defame somebody without justification. There is also frankly an editorial ethos that says even if he did that is less important than the Casino issue. You can quarrel with that - indeed it is your licence money, you can demand the bosses shift their editorial priorities. Go ahead. What you are up against is a huge institutional pressure the other way coming from parliament. So in a way yes, who pays the piper calls the tune - but you elected them.
10) Were the bloggers ahead of the journalists on the casino? Entirely likely. People who care about something are always faster to notice what's happening than people paid to be dispassionate. That is why blogging is a good thing. I mainly get stories from outraged people. Already the outraged can bypass me and go straight to print in a blog. But there is still a need for the MSM - although its role changes. Journalism has to be a bit like justice: slow, erring on the side of "innocent until proven guilty", acting with decisive authority if the case is proven.
Postscript: It is a pointless exercise quibbling with my language. This is a blog: I write it, read it once and fire it off. It in no way represents my final and precise thoughts on anything. I am always persuadable.