Redefining goals

Published March 19, 2023
The writer researches newsroom culture in Pakistan.
The writer researches newsroom culture in Pakistan.

IN my first week of media ethics class at graduate school in 2016, Prof Charles Whitaker dove into the issue of how journalists should use social media. Could our opinions on Twitter, for example, affect our credibility or perceived notions of objectivity? Was the ‘retweet does not equal endorsement’ just a shield to prevent journalists from implicating themselves? Some newsrooms in the US see retweets as endorsements which I think ends up infantilizing audiences incapable of making their own judgements. These questions are tricky given that news organisations often expec­ted journalists to tweet their work out, engage with audiences and redirect traffic back to the site — tasks journalists didn’t have to worry about before social media.

It seems there’s still no definitive answer to the questions Prof Whitaker posed as evidenced by the recent debacle at BBC following Gary Lineker’s tweet. In case you missed it, the former footballer and highest paid sports broadcaster, tweeted his dismay at a new UK immigration policy aimed at stopping refugees from entering the country. He tweeted that it was beyond awful and “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s”.

The reactions were swift. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described his tweet as disappointing from someone “whose salary is funded by hardworking British [licence fee] payers” and suddenly Lineker’s impartiality — or lack thereof — became the focal point of the debate. However, it felt like impartiality was being weaponised. The BBC suspended Lineker two days later for breaching social media guidelines, even though Lineker is a freelance contractor and not bound by them like full-time employees. His co-panelists and other sports personalities refused to appear on BBC in solidarity with Lineker and after much debate on traditional and digital media, he was reinstated.

BBC says it places a great deal of value on its impartiality and its viewers expect this but I think a lot of the licence fee-paying audiences expect to watch Lineker’s commentary on sports and may not care for his opinions outside the show. I wonder what the licence fee-paying audience made of Lineker’s political views during the World Cup in Qatar where he criticised the Gulf country on air for its ban on same-sex couples and treatment of migrant workers. So Lineker should not mix politics on his TV show except when it suits the bosses, ie the government of the day? The hypocrisy is sickening.

It’s a good time to review what neutrality in journalism means.

Where was the impartiality in BBC when, for example, it kowtowed to government pressure during the pandemic in 2020 and avoided using the word ‘lockdown’ on their instructions? This was reported by the Guardian on March 14 after they were shown messages and emails between 2020 and 2022 that demonstrated “the BBC coming under pressure from No 10 over the corporation’s political reporting”. A BBC insider told the Guardian the headlines on their website were determined by calls from Downing Street. The BBC claims that it “makes its own independent editorial decisions and none of these messages show otherwise”.

The BBC’s response to Lineker’s tweet has exposed its partiality and disservice to the audience it claims to serve. It also shows the lengths politicians will go to, to mount an attack on free speech which will have far-reaching consequences. The BBC, which is the first public broadcaster, enjoys enormous influence. It says it reached an average audience of 489 million adults every week in 2022. But like so many media outlets around the wor­ld, it too faces enormous challenges in catering to a diver­­se au­­dience which cons­umes social media, Netflix over TV and radio. But its most pressing issue is that it be seen as independent. It can’t do that by cherry-picking which BBC presenter it wants to censure and at whose behest.

At a time where audiences are drifting away from news, it may even be a good time to review what impartiality/neutrality means and who it impacts. Quick answer: it almost always hurts the marginalised. For example, is it objective journalism if missing people have to share newspaper space with the powerful agencies that abduct them? Perhaps we need to call for independent journalism to do the necessary work to ensure audiences’ news needs are met fairly. Public media, free of political and commercial pressures, play a valuable role in creating an informed society, thus protecting democracy.

A study by the Reuters Institute of Journalism showed “public service media have a net positive impact on the amount of hard news produced and on the levels of political knowledge. By extension, it may also incrementally increase political participation”. That is the kind of media more people need to get behind.

The writer researches newsroom culture in Pakistan.

Twitter: @ledeinglady

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2023

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