One thing I forgot to quote yesterday from editor-in-chief Katherine Viner’s long exegesis about her reinvigorated Guardian newspaper, was the following passage: “We will give people the facts, because they want and need information they can trust, and we will stick to the facts.”
This almost child-like belief in “the facts” is one of the prevailing myths of journalism, and is especially popular among journalists who hold positions of authority. They are sincere believers, usually, in the mission --- Viner’s title betrays this belief in the missionary objective --- “A mission for journalism in a time of crisis.”
Perhaps I can be forgiven after half a lifetime of working for newspapers to cast some doubt on the existence of these “facts,” and on the reality of this great missionary cause. The best description of such facts is that given by the late, inimitable socialist, Irish journalist and wit Claud Cockburn, who wrote:
To hear people talking about the facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be picked up by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market. Such a view is evidently and dangerously naive. There are no such facts. Or if there are, they are meaningless snd entirely ineffective; they might, in fact, just as well not be lying about at all, until the prospector --- the journalist --- puts them into relation with other facts: presents them, in other words. Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel.
For those who have never heard of Claud Cockburn, he was the son of a family of fairly elevated status in Ireland, who started out working for The Times in Germany and the United States, resigned when sickened by appeasement of the rising Nazi movement to start his own cyclostyled newsletter that was reputed to be handed around out of the back of the hand in Westminster to a fascinated political audience that couldn’t do without it, then seamlessly and without any fuss morphed into the Communist party, and as seamlessly morphed out of it into a latter-day life as a remarkable wit and raconteur, before dying in 1981, leaving behind him a slew of books and one of the most entertaining memoirs ever written.
The truth of his observation about facts was borne in on me most vividly when I was a reporter for a Canadian newspaper in London in the 1960s, and had the ten daily newspapers published at that time delivered to my door every morning at 7.30. By reading them all, from the Communist Daily Worker, through the liberal Guardian and News Chronicle, to the conservative Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and Times, not forgetting the popular mass-circulation Daily Mirror and Daily Express, one could get a fair idea of what might be going on in Britain, but only a fair idea, not a definitive account.
The newspapers were capable of reaching hilariously different conclusions from the same set of facts. And personally I felt I could not discount any of them, even the popular tabloids which had the capacity, when put to it, to illuminate important public issues with bell-like clarity in simple language that would be comprehensible to everyone, even to people with minimal education.
I remember a classic example of this variety of opinion from the report on the Royal Commission on the Press in Britain, published in 1948. A table was printed of the headlines published by each of the newspapers reporting on a document issued by the government giving the figures for houses built in the previous months. The government being Labour at that time, naturally the headlines of the conservative papers revealed the hidden truth, that the figures revealed scandalous neglect, if not mismanagement; the newspaper supporting the government, The Daily Herald, had an entirely different opinion, claiming a triumph of successful governance; and so on, down the line. So much, one might think, for the facts.
In the present day, one can observe the same carefree use of “the facts” every day on one’s television. I watch a lot of television, and especially I watch stations that are owned and financed by different governments --- the BBC for Britain, the CBC for Canada, RT for Russia, AlJazeera, owned by Qatar, a small country in the Arabian gulf.
I am alone among my acquaintance in watching RT, a station that has so exercised the authorities in the United States that they have forced the station to register as a foreign agent. To me, this is an entirely idiotic action. They could as well declare BBC or CBC to be foreign agents, for one thing that has been brought home to me quite powerfully from my watching of RT is that all these stations propagate news and information within, in each case, an unquestioned set of (different) assumptions. The BBC is probably the greatest news organization in the world, and yet one can watch it for days or months on end without hearing it broadcast anything that might be held to question what is the widely held set of assumptions known as “the western viewpoint.”
I listen to a lot of RT programmes, and although their news never deals with events in Russia itself, and concentrates on items that basically are critical of United States life, these programmes seem to be based on information that is freely available to everyone, and are more or less indisputable. RT is so far from being only an agency to propagandize Russian values, that it regularly attracts to its screens prominent experts in the west who have no hesitation, it seems, in accepting the invitations to appear, and who have no reticence about criticizing Russia if they feel like doing so. Their programmes are laden with former diplomats, former professors, and well-known experts. Programmes are run every week by such Western luminaries as Chis Hedges, a freelance journalist after a lifetime spent as a correspondent for the New York Times, Larry King, the doyen of American online hosts, Ed Schultz, a battle-hardened veteran of progressive causes, Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota, Alex Salmond, the former leader of the Scottish nationalist party, and many others. In addition there are regular programmes that attract interesting representatives of ideas that are not much, if at all, featured on American private stations. And they have two women interviewers, Sophie Shevardnadze, grand-daughter of the former Soviet foreign minister, later president of Georgia, who has no trouble attracting high-level experts from elevated circles in the West, and Oxana Boyko, a reporter of wide experience, highly educated, and with the authority to carry on illuminating argument with the most powerful brains from anywhere. In fact, for example, this week I heard Oxana discussing the state of Russia with Ichak Adizes, who is considered one of the most influential management consultants in the world, and who is obviously a deeply thoughtful man, who regretted that Russians appear to demand authoritarian leaders to such an extent that any leader who tries to democratize his style is fated to be replaced almost immediately
In relation to Putin Oxana said: “He really needs to change his leadership style if he is to modernize Russia as he says he wants to do,” and Adizes commented, “He wants to change, but he doesn’t know how to go about it.” According to those who demonize Putin, these two should be clapped in irons.
Just as these women accept and defend their country, so exactly does Stephen Sackur, host of the long-running BBC programme Hardtalk, expose himself week after week as a veritable repository of Western values that he defends, when he thinks it necessary, with absolute ferocity.
Meantime Claud Cockburn’s eclectic style lives on. He gave rise to a family of journalists who are still prominent in the UK and the US. His son Alexander, one of those people (John Pilger, the admirable Australian reporter is another such) who always had to be further left than anyone else, and founded the excellent left-wing web site Counterpoint, that lives on five years after his death. His brothers Andrew and Patrick are busy writing books that reveal some of the dark corners of global politics to the naked eye, and are quite often to be heard on RT. RT costs $3.50 a month, and I would no more be without it than I would be without the BBC World Service, the CBC, or AlJazeera.
Between them, and with the help of the many left-wing sites that consistently write excellent stuff describing our present condition and espousing a better future for all of us, I do manage, I hope, to make some sense of the facts that, as Claud said, could be lying about out there waiting to be picked up and put to good use.