Minority Press Group - Series 5
Why you can't read all about it
Chapter 1
www.kirkbytimes.co.uk
where theres brass theres muck

By Brian Whitaker

ISBN 0 906890 04 7
Erci Stevenson - Cheif Architect Knowsley Council- JAILED



Why you can't read all about it

Chapter One

News as propaganda

LATE one night in 1944 a woman told police in Mattoon, Illinois, that she and her daughter had been victims of a strange attack. Someone, she said, had opened her bedroom window and sprayed a sickly-sweet smelling gas that partly paralysed her legs and made her ill. The police found nothing. Next day Mattoon's evening paper, the Daily Gazette Journal, reported the incident with the headline: ANAESTHETIC PROWLER ON LOOSE.

The following day a man said that he and his wife had been attacked. He had woken up sick and asked his wife if the gas had been left on. On waking, his wife had been unable to walk. Before hearing about the prowler, the couple had blamed their symptoms on eating hot dogs. About the same time another man told the Press his daughter had woken up coughing. When his wife got up to attend to the girl, she could hardly walk. They had not suspected gas until they read the papers.

On the evening after these two accounts were published, a woman arrived home and found a cloth in the porch. She picked it up and sniffed it. The fumes, she said, burned her mouth and lips and made them bleed. Meanwhile, a man who worked nights said his wife had heard someone at the bedroom window, had smelled gas and had been partly paralysed by it In the next six days 20 further cases were reported. Many more people thought they had heard or seen the mad gasser (as he became known) and calls to the police reporting prowlers more than doubled'. Bands of men and boys armed with shotguns patrolled the streets or laid wait on doorsteps. State police with radio cars moved in and joined the hunt. But despite these efforts no-one was caught. Police were baffled by the apparent lack of a motive. Nothing was stolen and there was no evidence to suggest the culprit was a Peeping Tom.

Scientists, too, were puzzled. Symptoms described by the victims were nausea and vomiting, palpitations, paralysis of the legs, dryness of the mouth and throat and, in one case, burns to the mouth. All recovered quickly. Some said the gas smelled musty or like cheap perfume. Others said there was no smell. A major problem was identifying the gas. It must be strong enough to produce vomiting and paralysis quickly, and yet weak enough to disperse rapidly, leaving no traces and no noticeable after-effects in its victims. Scientifically, it had to be both stable and unstable - which was a contradiction. No gas fitting the description could be found in books on anaesthetics and war gases, and chemists at the University of Illinois doubted that such a gas could exist.

Eventually the police began to talk of "imagination" and insisted on victims being seen by doctors. Some newspapers then spoke of "mass hysteria". Abruptly, the "gassings" stopped. In most victims symptoms had disappeared before doctors could examine them. Of the four who were examined, all were diagnosed as suffering from hysteria. Shortly afterwards, Donald M Johnson of the University of Illinois investigated and concluded that the whole affair could be explained as hysteria'. He also found that the hysteria had been spread by the Press. The cases were widely scattered throughout the town. Apart from those who lived together and were `attacked' at the same time, the victims were not in direct contact with each other. Rumour and gossip take time to travel, but the hysteria spread rapidly. The main source of news was the Daily Gazette-Journal which, according to surveys, was read by 97 per cent of families in the town. (There was no local radio station and no-one interviewed by Johnson mentioned radio reports of the affair.) It was probably the Gazette-Journal that informed most people of the first incident. Its unsceptical first report ensured that many people took the case seriously. But it went even further. Its headline announcing a "prowler on loose" and its description of the mother and daughter as "first victims" suggested more attacks would follow. More `attacks' did follow, and the reports of them led to yet more `attacks'. After a day free from `attacks', the paper began its report:

Mattoon's "mad anesthetist" apparently took a respite from his forays Thursday night and while many terror-stricken people were somewhat relieved they were inclined to hold their breath and wonder when and where he might strike next. The `attacks' started again the same night..

Early in 1954, the United States tested its first H-bombs. Beginning on March 23, newspapers in Seattle carried reports of damage to car windscreens in a town 80 miles away. Police blamed vandals but could not prove it. On April 14, papers reported similar damage in another town 65 miles away. Later the same day cars at an air base only 45 miles from Seattle were "peppered". Hours later, Seattle itself was "hit". 242 people called the police, reporting damage to more than 3,000 cars (many, of the calls came from car park attendants and garage staff). Usually the damage was described as pitting marks on windscreens. Some windscreens were said to be splattered with tiny, metallic-looking particles. Various explanations were offered - the most popular was that it was fallout from the H-bomb tests. The mayor of Seattle dramatically announced that the damage was no longer a police matter, and called on the President for help. Many people covered their windscreens or kept their cars in the garage.

In fact the damage was probably nothing more than normal wear and tear which was spotted only when the Press reports caused people to look at their windscreens instead of through them. A chemist from Washington University's Environmental Research Laboratory, asked by the Governor to investigate, concluded: "The number of pits increases with the age and mileage of the car". There was no scientific evidence that the windscreens were pitted by some mysterious cause in the space of a few minutes or hours. Later, a random survey of 1,000 people in Seattle, conducted by two university researchers (3), showed 93 per cent of those interviewed had heard reports of windscreen damage. When asked how they first heard the news, 51 per cent said from newspapers, 19 per cent from other people, 18 per cent from the radio, 6 per cent from television and 6 per cent from direct experience. They were then asked whether they believed there had been unusual damage with an unusual cause. The results were: Believers 50 per cent, undecided 26 per cent, sceptical 21 per cent, no reply 3 per cent.

There are numerous examples of strange effects induced by the media. Probably the most famous was the panic caused by an American radio dramatisation of H G Wells' "The War of the Worlds" in 1938. But that was the result of people mistaking the play for reality. On another occasion, as an experiment, British astronomer Patrick Moore pretended to have seen an Unidentified Flying Object near his home. The story he sold to his local paper was entirely fictitious but when it was published several `witnesses' came forward to confirm the `sighting(4). At a more down-to-earth level, a British newspaper once warned of the possibility of a salt shortage within a few months. The prophecy was fulfilled immediately as people rushed to the shops to stock up. At a conference organised by the British Psychological Society in 1980, Dr Roger Ingham, who has made a special study of football violence, pinned some 4d the blame on the Press. He gave an example of a match between Southampton and Chelsea, where newspapers had predicted trouble. "A group of Southampton supporters who do not usually carry knives took knives to that particular game because they had been told how violent Chelsea was. So the prediction had an effect on the actual game," he said. He added that reports of violence also affect the public's behavior. Faced with groups of supporters wearing team scarves, people tend to keep their distance and be fearful. The fans sense this reaction and eventually assume the role people expect of them.(5)

No self-respecting person admits to being easily influenced. If you were asked: "Do you believe everything you read in the newspapers?" the sensible answer would be "No". Answer "Yes" and you could end up looking silly. And yet what alternative have we but to believe? We all rely heavily on newspapers and television for our knowledge of what is going on in the world. So how do we decide what to believe and what not to believe? Partly, it is a question of credibility: Does it seem likely that am event has actually happened in the way it is reported? Also, it is a question of reputation: We regard some sources as more reliable than others - often without any good reason. A survey in 1973 showed that only 27 per cent of people who said newspapers were their maim source of mews also believed newspapers were the most accurate and trustworthy source of news(6).

Also - rather illogically we tend to become less sceptical about mews reports the further they are removed from our personal experience. So factory workers may dismiss newspaper reports of a dispute in their own factory as a load of rubbish, but mot question stories in the same paper that say the Social Security provides a life of luxury for immigrants. Evidence from several surveys supports this view. In Seattle, for instance, car ownership was 10 per cent higher among those who were sceptical about the windscreen damage - suggesting that those without a chance of personal experience were more willing to believe in it. And a survey of racial attitudes among school children found that children in areas of low immigration are more likely to think of race relations in terms of conflict than children in high immigration areas. Stories about "scroungers" and Social Security fiddlers, for example, are common in the popular Press. These papers are read by vast numbers of ordinary people, and they influence ordinary people. Stories about "scroungers" cam be effective in several ways. They can:

(a) make people more willing to accept work for low wages rather than stay on the dole;

(b) get popular support for keeping state benefits at a low level; (c) create divisions between the employed "taxpayers" and the unemployed;

(d) encourage people to inform on fiddlers.

And by the simple repetition of such stories, the public begin to accept that "scroungers" are a major drain on public resources. But if the papers' real purpose was to save money, they would concentrate on the much more serious problem of tax evasion.

Not only is the agenda for debate pre-determined. The very language in which it is conducted cam be decided for us. Words, Humpty Dumpty said, meant whatever he wanted them to mean. Their meaning is in the hands of the media and those who speak through the media. And once we lose control of our own words, we lose control of our own thoughts. George Orwell, in "1984" foresaw language as so controlled by the authorities that opposition became linguistically impossible. As am example, the American Declaration of Independence could be translated into the new language, Newspeak, in two ways: It could be condensed into one word - "crimethink" -or be given a full ideological translation, turning it into a panegyric for absolute government. Much of journalism involves reporting the words of those who are considered important. This gives "newsworthy" people a great deal of power to manipulate language for their own ends. The point was noticed by The Sunday 'Times when Italian politician Aldo Moro was kidnapped by an organisation called the Red Brigades. A leading article said:

"One of the sickening aspects of the Red Brigade crisis in Italy is the way the terrorists borrow the language of civilised institutions - and the way the media round the world regurgitate it. We are told the Red Brigade has issued a "communique" threatening the "execution" of Signor Moro, who is being held in a "people's jail" pending being "brought to justice" in a "trial". The reality is that a gang of murderers in a secret hideout has sent a message saying it is going to kill its victim. There cannot be a proper trial unless there is a recognised law and a procedure acknowledged to be fair by all reasonable men.

Wrong or questionable acts are often obfuscated by words - the bombing raids in Vietnam that were referred to as "pacification missions" is a classic example . . . Newspapers and television should report what the Red Brigades say and the words they use, but they should handle them as a biologist handles toxic matter.

To endorse them by transmitting them neutrally as if the words represented something valid is itself an act of corruption'.(8)

While a reluctant Britain was being dragged into the Common Market, the unattractively-named Common Market was suddenly renamed. Supporters of entry constantly referred to it as "Europe" or "the Community" and were themselves described in the Press as "passionate Europeans". Giving the Common Market a more acceptable name was the sort of trick any smart public relations firm would recommend. It also confused the geographical Europe to which Britain has always belonged with the political "Europe" which it had only recently joined. (In this case, the change to a more appealing name was not entirely successful because the popular Press continued using "market", which was already well understood by readers.) Another technique used by politicians - and one with a distinctly Orwellian character - is to take ordinary, well understood words and give them a technical meaning that is somewhat different. One was the concept of "fair" rents. Under the Heath Government's Housing Finance Act, for example, rents were to rise to a "fair" level - fairer, that was, to landlords. Another was "peaceful" picketing. The Heath Government's view of "peaceful" picketing was extremely narrow. This meant that picketing which might be peaceful in the ordinary sense was not necessarily peaceful in the legal sense. Trade unionists soon realised that "peaceful" picketing meant ineffective picketing. The effect of changing the meaning of these words was to make opposition linguistically difficult. What reasonable, sensible person would object either to a fair rent or to peaceful pickets?

One of the most noticeable things about newspaper language is the scarcity of adjectives. You cannot get very far with adjectives before someone challenges their appropriateness. Everyone may agree that the Queen's dress is pink - or perhaps rose-coloured - but you only have to say it has been a good summer and someone questions it. Novelists, of course, can use adjectives as much as they like because they are writing fiction. It may be that one of the unconscious ways that readers distinguish "fact" from "fiction" is by the free or unrestricted use of adjectives. More consciously, readers may suspect adjectives of being used to influence them. Nouns, on the other hand, are much more acceptable. People believe that a noun states what something is, not what the writer thinks it is. And a popular newspaper technique is to turn words which were originally adjectives (e.g. moderate) into nouns (a moderate).

Being in a position to decide what to call someone or something is by no means unimportant. Orwell's state had ministries of peace, plenty, truth and love, each dealing in the opposition of what its name implied. (The dreaded Ministry of Love was the thought police.) Most modern British Government ministries are named according to the same principle. The War Office has been re-organised into the Ministry of Defence, implying we would never start a fight. The Departments of Health and Employment deal with sickness and unemployment, while their names suggest they are doing something positive. Numerous companies have given themselves names which have an obvious meaning - Supasave, Gainmore, etc - so that no-one can talk about them without paying them a compliment. Others pay to have sports tournaments named after them (eg the Gillette Cup and the John Player League in cricket) to get a mention on the sports pages and also on the BBC where trade names are normally banned. Political groups also choose their own names, and this causes the papers problems when a name implies something the papers do not want to imply. The Times, for example, refers to Ulster Loyalists with inverted commas, presumably to avoid suggesting it regards them as loyal.

On the other hand, newspapers sometimes choose their own names to describe people. "Activist" has the innocent meaning of someone who believes in action. By repeatedly using it in a certain context, newspapers have made it mean someone who stirs up trouble. Approved troublemakers in Communist countries used to be called "intellectuals". That has now gone out of fashion, perhaps because "left-wing intellectuals" in the West were confusing readers. They are now known as "dissidents" and newspapers have to be careful not to use the word to describe troublemakers on this side of the Iron Curtain. Words can be given added force by frequent association with other words. Most people will, at some time, have heard the phrase "mindless militants". It is used by columnists and politicians in a general way, not referring to identifiable individuals, and so avoiding the risk of a libel action. If the two words are associated often enough, when papers refer to "Joe Smith, a militant", readers will associate him with mindlessness, but the courts will not. Much of the same effects can be achieved by judicious selection of photographs. Photographs are the visual equivalent of nouns: We trust them because the camera does not lie. But what the camera reveals is a moment of truth, nothing more. We cannot see what happened before the split-second when the picture was taken, nor what happened afterwards. Content is all-important. A newspaper picture freezes an action or expression and gives it permanence. We may see Roy Jenkins, one of the darlings of the press, photographed with an amiable smile and think better of him as a result, not knowing that it was the sort of amiability bestowed by a four-course lunch at the Savoy served with the finest claret. There are times - so they say - when Tony Benn, the demon of tie left, also looks amiable. But try finding the pictures to prove it. More often, he is shown at an instant during a speech, looking wild, dangerous and slightly batty: mouth open, arms flailing, eyes flashing with the light 1 the photographer's own flashgun. Such pictures convey what a lot of papers would like to say in words, if only the law of libel would let them.

So far we have looked at ways the news media can influence people's attitudes and beliefs. But more important than beliefs is behaviour. Mr W R Pitt, Vice-Chancellor of Reading University expressed a typical view from the top in 1970 when he complained:

There are certain people, both inside and outside the university, who hold view positively destructive of national institutions. They are tolerated bemuse a university should be a place where people can read, write and think freely. We must draw the line, however, when these people think their ideas should be put into action.

In the West generally, there is more concern with what people do than what they think. And if we return to the odd events in Mattoon, we can see that the largest number of people affected were not those who believed they had been gassed, but those whose behaviour was influenced. What is more, behaviour can sometimes be influenced without belief being affected. Much of the behaviour at Mattoon was sensible or reasonable: Some checked for prowlers or made sure their windows were locked -just in case. And the police, believing or not, had to react to the reports and beliefs of others and to restrain the vigilantes. In Seattle, no doubt, there were sceptics who checked their car windscreens out of curiosity.

The effects of the news media in Mattoon and in Seattle were produced accidentally. And they were undesirable, causing disruption and inconvenience, particularly to the authorities. But the media can also have the opposite effect, helping the authorities and powerful interest /amps to maintain control and govern smoothly. And that is when news becomes propaganda.

Journalists by and large recognise that they are under pressure from various quarters to present the news in ways they may disagree with to make propaganda on behalf of others. Alternatively, they may be tempted to slant the news in ways they do agree with - to make their own propaganda. Their response is to employ certain safeguards ethical and professional principles - in their work. Of these, the most important principle is objectivity.

A dictionary definition of objectivity is "Concern with outward things, not thoughts and feelings". Journalists attempt to exclude their own thoughts and feelings from news reports so they can say to readers: "Look! I haven't been bribed, intimidated, cajoled or influenced by anybody". Thus, to journalists, objectivity has come to mean impartiality, neutrality, lack of bias. In a more particular sense, objectivity describes a method of working and presenting information that is designed to ensure impartiality, neutrality, etc. There are, as we shall see, some serious practical difficulties in achieving this. Many journalists accept there are problems but usually fall back on a second line of defence, arguing that objectivity is an ideal to be aimed at, and calling for higher professional standards, better training and so on.

Despite the problems, objectivity is regarded - almost universally by western journalists - as a fundamental of good journalism. Its desirability is hardly ever questioned. And yet a closer look at the origins of objectivity shows it is not the purely ethical principle it is widely believed to be. The separation of fact and comment which is the basis of objective journalism developed to meet a specific need of the Press in its transition from the small, radical, non-commercial journals of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries to the large, pro-establishment, commercial newspapers of today. What is more, the practice of objectivity provides no safeguard against a supply of news that is - as we shall see later - largely shaped by forces outside journalists' control. Indeed, as long as journalists believe that by giving that supply an objective presentation they ensure impartiality, objectivity can be positively dangerous.

Until the present century it was very difficult to argue that the main function of the Press was anything but propaganda. Very quickly after the arrival of printing in Britain, the subversive possibilities of journalism were recognised and a flourishing radical Press developed, at first in the form of pamphlets rather than newspapers. Governments recognised the threat, too. Between 1500 and 1700 there were numerous attempts to restrict the number of printers, without success. Between 1700 and 1820 they tried instead to control what was printed. Journalists were imprisoned or - where more appropriate - bribed. Walpole, for example, spent 50,000 on bribing newspapers. One paper set up as a counterweight to the radical Press was The Times, which received a Government "subsidy" of 300 a year. Advertisements were taxed and a stamp duty was imposed on every page. The declared purpose was not to raise money but to "suppress libels". By 1815 stamp duty had reached 4d - quite a hefty sum. A red seal on the page showed that duty had been paid. Some publishers designed their own stamps to use instead. In 1831 the Poor Man's Guardian carried a drawing of a printing press and the slogan "Knowledge is Power". Beneath it were the words: "published in defiance of the Law, to try the power of Might with Right". Its statement aims simply quoted a list from the Act of Parliament saying what was forbidden:

News, intelligence, occurrences and remarks and observations thereon tending to excite hatred and contempt of the government and constitution ... and also to vilify the abuses of religion.

Stamp duty actually had the opposite effect to what was intended. Radical papers continued to be sold - but more cheaply than the law-abiding ones. The radical papers were by far the more important. Early in 1836 the combined circulation of the leading six unstamped journals was about 200,000 - compared with just over 7,000 for The Times and less than 6,000 for the Morning Chronicle. And there were other (legal) radical papers like the Weekly Dispatch, which combined reports on the wicked deeds of the nobility with attacks on the Government. (In 1836 it was selling 30,000.) It was illegal to sell unstamped papers - but there were ways around that. One shop in London in the early 19th century had what was probably the first slot machine in history. Customers turned a pointer on a dial to the name of the paper they wanted and put their money in a slot. Then someone hiding behind a partition sent the paper down a chute. This meant that informers could not identify the sellers and have them prosecuted. Most of the prosecutions up to this stage had been done privately, by societies set up for the purpose. But the cost was enormous. One society, the "Constitutional", spent 30,000 on prosecutions and went bust in 1823. And soon after, what was known as the Vice Society (Society for the Suppression of Vice, Blasphemy and Profaneness) also ran out of cash. The Government then stepped in briefly, but eventually gave up.

Pressure to abolish stamp duty grew. It came not only from the radical press but also from the "responsible" papers who realised that once it had gone they would be able to compete on more than equal terms. The more perceptive politicians also saw the value in abolition. In 1834 Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, argued that it was no longer a question of whether people should be allowed to read or not, but what they should read. He said: "The only question to answer ... is how they shall read in the best manner; how they shall be instructed politically and have political habits formed the most safe for the constitution of the country." In 1836 stamp duty was reduced to ld and in 1855 it was abolished.

The 1830s also brought the steepest rise in production costs since newspapers began. Access to newspaper ownership became more restricted as the amount of capital and size of organisation needed to run a competitive newspaper grew. To meet higher costs, larger circulations became necessary and distribution became more formalised. Papers began to be sold in shops rather than only in the streets.

In the 1840s Samuel Morse was developing the telegraph, which was to have an important effect on the content of newspapers. It was this invention that began the separation of fact from comment that is so familiar today. Telegrams were expensive; they had to be kept as short as possible and confined to the bare essentials - the facts. The managing editor of The Times, Mobberley Bell, told correspondents: "Telegrams are for facts. Background and comment must come by post"(9). Previously, accounts and interpretations of events had arrived simultaneously. But from then on there were likely to be delays between reporting news and commenting on it.

Improved communications brought an enormous increase in the volume of news. If newspapers used their own staff alone to provide it, the cost would be too great. Economies were possible, however, if correspondents supplied more than one newspaper. This was how the news agencies began. But agency reporters could not work in the old way, mixing facts with comment. That was fine for reporters who wrote for their own newspaper and knew its policies. Agency news had to be acceptable to any newspaper. The agency provided the hard facts and the newspaper used them in whatever way it liked. In practice agency news was not quite acceptable to any newspaper; it often had a strong national bias. American newspapers, for example, found Havas and Reuters provided material they did not want'. But certainly within individual countries, and between countries with political ties, the agencies did become a universal source of news.

Newspapers were still seen as organs of propaganda. But an important change had taken place: The concept of "pure" news had arrived. Where once propaganda had been the raw material of newspapers, the raw material was now facts - The News. Propaganda was something newspapers imposed on the news by their selection, interpretation and comment. But from there it was only a small step to say: Let the readers impose their own propaganda on the news; let newspapers provide the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. This was the idea expounded in grandiose form by C P Scott, the revered Manchester Guardian editor in 1926:

The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free but facts are sacred"

Scott's doctrine did not preclude a newspaper from holding opinions and making them known, as long as it did so in the right place. But a year later, in 1927, the BBC's charter went a step further and forbade the BBC to express any opinions of its own. The charter freed the BBC from direct Government control (though it is still controlled indirectly because Parliament votes on its licence fees). In return for this "freedom", the BBC had to be balanced, unbiased, impartial and neutral.

Arguments that "pure" news cannot be propaganda are, however, untenable. Propaganda is most effective when it is unrecognised, and when people come across a factual, informative statement they are off Sword and believe it cannot be propaganda. And if they can be made to think that the views they hold are their own, arrived at without outside interference, so much the better. Propaganda is no longer a simple matter of praising oneself or hurling abuse at opponents. Separation of fact from comment, or the exclusion of explicit comment altogether, is entirely compatible with modern forms of propaganda.

This sort of propaganda can be hard to distinguish from pure information. The difference was perhaps best summed up by the Nazi propagandist, Goebbels, when he said: "We do not talk to say something, but to obtain a certain effect". The need for factual - and truthful - propaganda has become widely recognised in the last forty or fifty years. 16 the United States accuracy is the Number One rule (except for unbelievable or harmful truths). One American propaganda manual says":

When there is no compelling reason to suppress a fact, tell it ... Aside from considerations of military security, the only reason to suppress a piece of news is if it is unbelievable... When the listener catches you in a lie, your power diminishes ... For this reason never tell a lie which can be discovered".

On the Communist side, Lenin recognised the need for propaganda to be factually accurate. Writing on "The Character of Our Newspapers", he called for the gathering, careful checking and study of the facts of the actual organisation of the new life. Have real successes been achieved by the big factories, agricultural communes, the Poor Peasants' Committees, the local Economic Councils in building up the new economy? ... Have they been verified? ... Where is the blacklist with the names of lagging factories which since nationalisation have remained models of disorder, disintegration, dirt, hooliganism and parasitism? Nowhere to be found. But there are such factories.

French propagandists have discovered that it is better to announce bad news yourself than to wait for it to be revealed by enemies. Goebbels - despite being nicknamed The Big Liar by the allies - usually insisted on accuracy. American and neutral opinion between 1939 and 1942 was that German communiques were on the whole more truthful than the Allied ones". Also, the Germans liked to get in first, publishing the news two or three days before the Allies. Goebbels did approve of lying where there was no danger of contradiction. For example, only the captain of a U-boat knew whether he had sunk a ship or not. This meant the Germans could safely go into great detail about fictitious U-boat successes. Goebbels also understood the danger of telling the truth when it is too improbable for people to believe. A good example was in 1942 when Montgomery had a decisive victory in North Africa and thought he had beaten Rommel. In fact Rommel was in Germany because the attack was not expected. Goebbels gave orders to keep this secret - because no-one would believe it was not Rommel who had been defeated ... they would think the Germans were making excuses.

It should be clear from these examples that the emphasis on truthful propaganda is not for moral reasons - it simply pays to tell the truth. To be caught in a lie casts doubt on everything else you say. Silence also has its dangers; keep quite about the bad news and you lose people's confidence if an opponent reveals it. Be first with the bad news and you gain people's confidence.

Belief in "pure" news rests on the premise that fact and comment can actually be separated. At a very basic level this is not difficult to do. Anyone can describe a meal they have eaten without saying whether they thought it enjoyable or well-cooked. A comment is a way of conveying personal feelings about something. But feelings can also be conveyed indirectly, using only facts. A person who says the meal included fresh peaches and real cream will convey a much more favourable impression than someone who speaks of canned peaches and artificial cream. Of course the impression may be conveyed accidentally or deliberately.

Let us now take a very ordinary, uncomplicated occurrence to illustrate the problem facing would-be objective journalists. An egg lies broken on the floor. What happened? Witnesses give their accounts - all factual, but all different:

The egg broke.

Joe broke the egg.

The egg fell.

Joe dropped the egg.

Joe dropped the egg and broke it.

Joe dropped the egg and it broke.

The egg fell and broke.

The egg rolled from Joe's hand and broke. The egg hit the floor and broke.

When the egg and the floor met, the floor broke the egg.

All the accounts are objective, in that they contain only facts, not openly expressed opinions. And yet they are not pure description - they are all interpretations. In these interpretations, two processes are at work: Selection and organisation.

Selection: Facts are selected by time, relevance and the observation of witnesses. Time: The event is isolated in time from the continuous chain of events to which it belongs. The event is created by the accounts, which impose on it a beginning and an end. We are not told, for instance, how the egg came to be in Joe's hand because that is not considered part of the event - it is something that happened before the "event". Several accounts make no mention of Joe and begin the event with the egg already falling. Relevance: Some accounts include more information than others. Most do not mention the floor. None tell us what time of day it was, whether Joe had anything else in his hand, whether he slipped and his balance. The reason we are not told is probably because none of observers thought it relevant. So we may assume Joe was not groping in the dark, that his hands were not full and he did not slip. Observation: me information may have been excluded because witnesses did not notice. This is unlikely in the case of the broken egg, but it is a serious) blew for journalists. Relevant information may be omitted because someone is withholding it or because no-one can be found to describe what happened.

Organisation: Witnesses must select and organise words to describe oat they have seen in a way that seems to them satisfactory. Some !versions of the broken egg differ only in nuances, others differ greatly. some choose Joe as the subject of the sentence, others choose the egg. In some there are hints that Joe, either deliberately or through carelessness, as the cause of the egg's fall. Others imply it was the fault of the egg for rolling or being fragile.

Neither of these processes is truly objective: The observers must use their judgment and opinion in deciding what the "event" is, what is relevant, and in using language to describe it. Of course, if the observers were asked to discuss their different versions they might eventually agree on a single account of what they had seen. But that would still be an interpretation - an interpretation based on collective judgment and agreed opinion.

Objectivity insists on facts, not opinion. But facts are nothing more than observations that are - in the general opinion - accepted. So the problem for objective journalists is to determine which "facts" are acceptable as facts and which are not. Those which are not must either be rejected as "opinion" or supported by evidence (ie more acceptable "facts"). Gaye Tuchman, in an American study of newspaper objectivity, gives two examples of borderline facts:

One evening the assistant managing editor asked for "more objective obituaries" after reading an obituary which described the deceased as a "master musician". He asked: "How do we know" the deceased was a "master musician" as opposed to a "two-bit musician" playing with the town band? He was told that, several paragraphs into the story, one learns that the deceased had played with John Philip Sousa [an American bandmaster and composer who died in 1932]. The additional "fact", the editor agreed, justified the term "master musician".

Of course that was not really a fact at all. Whether or not readers would be convinced that the man was really a master musician would depend on how highly they regarded Sousa. Tuchman continues: Similarly, a reporter criticised the news editors for "bad" non-objective editing, when a published story referred to "Communist propaganda" seen at a specific location. He claimed the article should have included more "facts", such as titles of specific observed works. While recognising that the label "Communist propaganda" might not be an accurate characterisation of each individual piece of literature, he insisted that such a presentation would be more "objective". It would offer "facts" (titles) supporting the initial truth-claim. Furthermore, the titles would presumably enable the reader to assess the degree to which the description "Communist propaganda" was accurate and thus "factual".

If the disputed article had listed Das Kapital,as a publication seen at the scene of the story, the term "Communist" would supposedly have been justified. Das Kapital is commonly associated with communism and is not generally viewed as a text concerning the theory of economics(15)

Unproven or unprovable statements can very easily be made into "facts" by attributing them to someone. Thus a journalist would not normally write: "Unemployment will fall next year" because it is unlikely he can prove it. But if he writes: "The Prime Minister said unemployment would fall next year", that is a fact. The fact is that the Prime Minister said this. Of course there is a danger here; the reporter may be accused of bias by accepting that what the Prime Minister said was true. So he may balance the statement with another from the opposition party saying the Prime Minister is talking rubbish. The reporter may have a strong suspicion that one side or the other is lying, but objectivity prevents him evaluating the statements. The result is that readers are perplexed by two equally weighted but opposite views.

The BBC has long prided itself on its balance. But even this sort of objectivity starts from certain assumptions. It has to be interpreted in the eyes of right-thinking citizens. And what right-thinking citizens see as fair treatment for Members of Parliament is very different from the "fair" treatment meted out to those who threaten the fabric of society. As Lord Reith, the father of the BBC, noted in his diary in 1926: "They know they can trust us not to be really impartial". These double standards were accepted by a majority of the public until quite recently. According to the BBC's own surveys, in 1962, 62 per cent thought BBC television "always impartial". A repeat survey in 1970 showed a sharp drop to 47 per cent. A few of the younger people questioned thought lack of coverage given to IRA and Vietcong points of view was a sign of bias. Even if the BBC could dismiss these people as extremists, it could not get away from the fact that more than half the population now thought the BBC was not always impartial (16). In 1976 a research team at Glasgow University showed that BBC bias was not limited to the IRA and Vietcong but extended to quite ordinary British trade unionists (17).

From a philosophical standpoint, objectivity has been summarised like this:

Objectivity is what is commonly received as objectively valid, all the attitudes, presuppositions, unquestioned assumptions typical of any given society. Objectivity implies the acceptance of the dominant social, ethical and religious views of the society. Objectivity is, for all practical purposes, the totality of what is taken to be the case, believed to be the case, affirmed to be the case. Objectivity is the totality of received opinion on what is acceptable/not acceptable, desirable/not desirable, good/not good, etc. Objectivity in any given society in fact gets defined as the political and social status quo (18).

And from a journalistic standpoint it has been summarised like this:

(To journalists] a finite number of things "really happen", of which the most special, interesting or important are to be selected. The typical conception of the media's role, then, at least in western, formally uncensored societies, is that the media stand as reporter-reflector indicators of an objective reality "out there", consisting of knowably "important" events of the world. Armed with time and money, an expert with a "nose for news" will be led to occurrences which do, indeed, index that reality. Any departure from this ideal tends to be treated as "bias" or some other pathological circumstance ...

Because western conceptions of news rely on the assumption that there is a reality-out-there-to-be-described, the product of any system which denies this premise is termed "propaganda". Thus, in the western mind, the distinction between news and propaganda lies in a premise seen to be embodied in the assemblers' [journalists'] work: Those with purposes produce propaganda; those whose only purpose is to reflect reality, produce news(19).

In virtually any other profession, such a narrow attitude would at least be questioned. In education, for example, few teachers see their task as purely to impart knowledge, regardless of whether it equips children for life after school. And few medical researchers study diseases with no intention of discovering a cure. Journalism is surely the only profession where a lack of purpose is so highly esteemed, where belief in it is so deeply rooted and yet so patently absurd. Thus the function of objectivity is to deny that news has a purpose: to transform the selection and processing of news from an essentially subjective business into a technical one; and to disguise a narrow, highly filtered and regulated picture of the world as reality. How that picture of the world is obtained we shall see in succeeding chapters.

NOTES 1. A prowler case is one where someone reports seeing or hearing something suspicious but there is no evidence of damage or a break-in.

2. Donald M. Johnson: The "Phantom Anaesthetist" of Mattoon - a field study of mass hysteria. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 40, April 1945.

3. Nahum Z Medalia/Otto N Larsen: Diffusion and belief in a collective delusions. American Sociological Review, Vol 23, No. 2.

4. Disclosed by Moore during a television discussion of flying saucers. 5. The Times, 11 January, 1980.

6. Annual Review of BBC Audience Research Findings, 1973-74. 7. Paul Hartmann/Charles Husband: The mass media and racial conflict. Race, Vol 12, 1970-71. Reprinted in The Sociology of Mass Communications, Penguin, 1972.

8. The Sunday Times, 23 April, 1978.

9. Anthony Smith: The Politics of Information. Macmillan, 1978. 10. Anthony Smith: op. cit.

11. Manchester Guardian, 6 May, 1926.

12. Quoted in Jacques Ellul: Propaganda - the Formation of Men's Attitudes. Vintage/Wildwood House, 1973.

13. V I Lenin: Pravda, 20 September, 1918. Reprinted in Lenin: Where to Begin. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971. 14. Jacques Ellul: op. cit.

15. Gaye Tuchmann: Objectivity as strategic ritual. American Journal of Sociology, No. 77, 1972.

16. Glasgow University Media Research Group: Bad News. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.

17. ibid.

18. Roger Poole: Towards Deep Subjectivity. Allen Lane, 1972.

19. Harvey Molotch/Marilyn Lester: News as purposive behavior. American Sociological Review, Vol 39 February 1974.

Back to Top

News Ltd Chapter 1

Preface
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

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  Kirkby Times has simply reproduced this material and you should contact the original author if you want to use it commercially. Please give credit to the original author Brian Whitaker if quoting any section of this book. Thanks.