C.P. Scott had one sentence that described his editorial philosophy. This sentence, written in 1921 to commemorate the Guardian’s first centenary and his 50 years as editor, became synonymous with the paper’s editorial philosophy.
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
That quote is also synonymous with my editorial philosophy, and in a time when significant debate has arisen on the media’s overall coverage of the UK’s vote to exit the European Union, there are ultimate questions as to the role journalism can have, and if ultimately if we can be impartial.
The bastion of principles
Impartiality is the bastion of all journalistic principles. It is one of the core principles that journalists must remember, but in an age where more platforms become available for more journalism to be curated, disseminated and produced, the line between news and comment has become blurred.
Newspapers in the UK have played an active political role in issues, yet the culture of stories towards the European Union had appeared flawed. As Martin Fletcher, a former foreign editor and associate editor of The Times newspaper wrote in The New York Times just before the referendum vote took place, as MP and lead Leave campaigner Boris Johnson had become known in his reports for the criticism put at the doorstep of officials in Brussels.
Johnson was sacked from The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quote.
The pieces, Fletcher wrote, were far more fun than the pieces solely focused on policy and debate in the EU, and its implications for Britain and the continent. For many editors, many of them at tabloids, that became the focus.
“By the time I arrived in Brussels, editors wanted only reports about faceless Eurocrats dictating the shape of the cucumbers that could be sold in Britain, or plots to impose a European superstate, or British prime ministers fighting plucky rear-guard actions against a hostile Continent,” Fletcher wrote. “Much of the British press seemed unable to view the European Union through any other prism. These narratives reflected and exploited the innate nationalism, historical sense of superiority and disdain for Johnny Foreigner of many readers.”
Articles, Fletcher wrote, that acknowledged the work of EU officials, or wrote about Britain’s allies in the continent, were killed instantly.
Telling the truth about Boris in the New York Times: https://t.co/ATjR3OdnXV
— Martin Fletcher (@mfletchertimes) June 21, 2016
In the near 30 years since then, there is still polarisation of how many newspapers cover issues. Yet, deep down, the majority of good, honest reporters acknowledge the importance of facts and balance, even though, depending on which publication you read, it may not be apparent.
Impartiality and accuracy: Quintessential
For broadcasters, the culture of impartiality differs, for they are required by Ofcom to be impartial, and there are guidelines set up by the BBC Trust to ensure impartiality in its news coverage. It is this reason of impartiality and dedication to journalism that continues to give the BBC a dedicated following not just in the UK but around the world.
However, the BBC, as the UK’s foremost public broadcaster, is subject to various, heightened amounts of criticism, from the recent criticism on its EU coverage from Lord Puttnam, to the criticism from supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that its political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, and the broadcaster itself, was unfair in its coverage.
— Media Guardian (@mediaguardian) June 29, 2016
Consumers from all political sides criticise the BBC constantly for its coverage of any story, though many consumers recognise the role the BBC has in journalism, and the role it needs to play. Clearly, they must be doing something right.
The criticism can also extend to ITV as well as fellow public broadcaster Channel 4. However, the majority of broadcast journalists recognise the role of impartiality, for it is impartial journalism that is the journalism that enhances the quality of public life.
Boris Johnson may not have followed the conventional models of journalism, but it does not excuse other journalists and editors from disregarding the need for impartial, accurate journalism, irrespective of medium.
Yes, impartial journalism can still be produced, and many in the industry recognise the need for it. Impartiality is ubiquitous with journalism, a necessity in order for journalism to properly function in a democracy. Impartial and accurate journalism makes sense, and continues to remain quintessential in modern life.
Indeed, comment is also a necessity in the media, especially in newspapers, for it improves and enhances the tone of civil discourse. There should be space for persons to advocate their views and to enlighten consumers as to why they think that.
However, for an effective comment piece, the facts must all be in place, no matter the author. Accurate, fair, impartial journalism is the backbone for media to co-exist.
In this age where the future of journalism is in a state of flux, and the line between news and comment remains blurred, it is important to remember the philosophy that C.P. Scott set out nearly a century ago, that no matter your views, being informed is essential to the fabric of modern life, and the facts always matter.
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
What do you think? How important are facts and impartiality in journalism? Have your say in the comments section below.