On Christmas Day I got a bit of a surprise, but it wasn’t wrapped up and placed under the tree. It was something I read in my local paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune. On the front page, under the picture of a gold Christmas bauble, the new publisher and chairman of the paper printed a seasonal message. It starts with the birth of Christ and talks about families coming together. Then, Douglas Manchester takes us through his early years – selling the Union-Tribune in Coronado and how he made a fortune out of developing hotels and the San Diego Convention Center. ‘Ever since then,’ he writes, ‘I have come to love our San Diego as the finest city in the greatest country in the world. I give thanks to God for the gift of being able to live in this wonderful city.’
In a paragraph further down, he talks about how he takes his latest role as the 10th publisher of the U-T ‘very seriously’. ‘We will adhere to the highest standard of journalistic integrity and objectivity,’ he vows. He also prays that he will be able to be a positive force in the community ‘as we create a superior newspaper and a complement of digital information sources’. He has a postscript that reads: Congratulations Douglas and Lauren. I have no idea who these people are or why they have been included. Are they his children? It lends the entire column a personal touch that makes it read like a Christmas newsletter to friends and family.
I’m more than a bit troubled by Mr. Manchester’s views. I believe this publisher’s letter/column sends out the wrong message. Any journalist knows that you strive to be objective above all else – and it’s a value the U-T publisher claims to strive for. Newspapers should adhere to the simple journalistic instinct to expose the truth, to inform the public. When you write a news piece, you continually ask yourself: is this honest, is it tainted by my personal views? How can Mr. Manchester talk about his personal views on religion and his jingoistic views of the United States without exposing himself as totally biased? I don’t care whether he is religious, I don’t care how much he loves his country, and writing about this on the front page betrays the highest ethics of journalism. His views are irrelevant. Printing them makes his newspaper pure propaganda and a source you can’t trust. Once you can’t trust a journalist or a news source, the game is up.
UK media – is it all titillation and gossip?
In general I think the media in the UK gets a bad rap. It has been regarded as too sensationalist, too in love with titillating gossip and too in love with its tabloid newspapers. It’s no secret that the majority of people in the UK read The Sun, a newspaper best known for its scantily clad page 3 girls. Then, recently, there was the News of the World mobile phone hacking scandal, in which a number of journalists and editors, and their bosses, were found to be engaging in high-level corruption at a tabloid newspaper with a reputation for breaking scandalous stories about celebrities. The method for getting these stories appears to have involved bribing the police and obtaining passwords and phone numbers illegally. The News of the World shut down earlier this year.
This is only one half of the story, however, and I have developed respect for some of the journalism and documentary filmmaking that comes out of the UK. The BBC, for instance, has some of the world’s bravest and most tenacious journalists. At this point I will come clean and admit that I am probably a bit biased, since I worked at the broadcaster for over 10 years. This is something I believe you should know about me before I continue, because it’s important for setting this in a wider context. Am I biased for saying that the BBC’s reputation for integrity and objectivity means that it gets access to stories that other media outlets cannot touch? No. I believe this is a fact. It is often at the heart of some of the most volatile places on earth, and reports on what happens there. It strives not to gloss over the facts or play loose with them. That’s not to say the corporation hasn’t got things wrong. Of course it has; no one is perfect. When big mistakes happen, the broadcaster has held its hands up and apologized.
Sexing up the truth
In a radio broadcast in 2003, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan reported that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that they could be deployed within 45 minutes. Gilligan also suggested that Prime Minister Tony Blair knew about this and misled the UK government. These claims were based on an interview with a single source he refused to name and a dossier he had seen. It was later discovered that this source – a weapons expert – was misinformed and that Gilligan ‘sexed up’ the dossier to make the story more explosive than it actually was. It did some serious damage to the BBC’s reputation at the time and resulted in the high-profile resignation of the BBC’s biggest boss, director general Greg Dyke, and its chairman. Gilligan’s source, David Kelly, committed suicide a week after an inquiry into the affair.
As bad as this was for the BBC, it was essentially an error of judgement – Gilligan’s editors shouldn’t have let the broadcast go out because it was based on a single, unnamed source and some of the claims were largely unsubstantiated. There’s a big difference between this and engaging in outright propaganda.
It’s not my intention to put the BBC on a pedestal.There are some illustrious newspapers and broadcasters in the United States as well. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN – I believe they are all worthy of being included with the BBC as serious and probing media organizations though they are not perfect. The Union-Tribune is not on this list and, as long as it continues to expound one man’s personal views, it never will be. Mr. Manchester would do well to learn a little from the BBC.