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Suzanne Franks and Jean Seaton

Is saving the world journalism’s job?

British Journalism Review
Vol. 20, No. 2, 2009, pages 13-20

Suzanne Franks, a former BBC producer, is director of research at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, and author of the forthcoming Reporting Disasters. Jean Seaton is professor of media history at the University of Westminster, an editor of Political Quarterly, director of the Orwell Prize and author of Carnage and the Media (Penguin).

Contents - Vol 20, No 2, 2009

Editorial - Jade Goody’s legacy 3

Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic 5
Charles Collier-Wright, Christian Christensen, Oliver Marre

Suzanne Franks and Jean Seaton - Is saving the world journalism’s job? 13

Torin Douglas - Inside stories: on the media beat 21

Janine di Giovanni - Why now I walk away from danger 27

Eddie Adams - Icons of photography 37

Steve Hewlett - For TV news, the news isn’t all bad 41

The press

Stephen Fay - Death of the posh Sundays 47

Matthew Engel - Local papers: an obituary 55

Charles Curry - Crisis? What crisis? 59

Paul Morley - The song is ended 67

Anthony Delano on Paul Preston 75

Susanna Forrest on H G Cocks 77

Geoffrey Goodman on Granville Williams 79

Ann Leslie on Justine Hardy 81

Jane Reed on Liz Hodgkinson 83

Michael Leapman on Gay Talese 85

Quotes of the Quarter – 36
Ten years ago The way we were 54
Letter 87
News – Hugh Cudlipp Award 74
Anniversary celebrations – IBC

  News is necessarily amoral: that is how it keeps us all decent. Moral news tells us what has happened – that is all it does and that is everything it does. This is why the BBC’s decision to reject the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal for Gaza in January 2009 was hard to get right but was – in the end – correct. The essence of impartiality is that one cannot pick and choose. And protecting impartial reporting is more important than permitting the BBC to be involved in what was inevitably a campaign. It is not the journalist’s job to save the world and the outcome of impartiality may sometimes mean that journalists appear inhumane.

The BBC has, perhaps, been lured into campaigning in recent years and has to make sure that it exercises fastidious judgment. Carefully-constructed policies about dealing with appeals and fundraising have come under strain. There was criticism over the Make Poverty History/Live 8 concerts and the BBC pulled out of broadcasting high-profile climate change events as a result of these concerns. No matter how worthy the cause, there are dangers for independent journalism.

Michael Buerk, whose reporting once went on to inspire a memorable humanitarian appeal, is emphatic about the role of the journalist. “It is not our purpose to solve the world’s problems but to so inform a working democracy that those people will come to their own conclusions about what is right and wrong... If that line is crossed, even if the goal is as benign as raising money for aid, then people will detect that agenda and not believe you in the same way as they would beforehand.” If the output is tainted by association with campaigning and apparently partisan appeals, then the associated journalism is undermined. Impartiality is rather like virginity. It cannot be recovered.

Yet there is a paradox. It is precisely because the viewing public received balanced and impartial news in the first place that, in the case of Gaza, so many were outraged by what they had seen and wanted therefore to “do something”. Indeed it is because of the public apprehension of injustice prompted by balanced news that people have been outraged at the BBC’s decision not to broadcast the appeal. In Britain we did see the conflict from both sides. A good deal of the news we saw and heard was not trapped up on the “hill of shame” overlooking the fighting, but was reported from within Gaza. The BBC had its producers and reporters on the ground and on all BBC outlets, which together cover everyone in Britain, and no one could be left in any doubt about what was going on. We, here, did not see a one-sided account, and looking back on the coverage, Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor, remarked: “In terms of coverage I think we did the best we could with the war bearing in mind the restrictions, and I think it was a pretty good job.” In the days following the fighting, Bowen’s restrained, forensic examination of evidence and interrogation for Panorama of all the sides of the conflict (including Israeli and Hamas spokesmen) piled the evidence for Israeli war crimes, brick by challenged brick. His tone was not one of self-regarding outrage – it just did the reporting.

Appeals require heart-rending images

Had the Corporation been running (and indeed making) the DEC appeal, the very reporting would have been compromised. Effective appeals require the broadcaster to use the most heart-rending images in order to evoke the strongest reaction and raise the most money. Moreover, these emergency appeals are compiled and produced by the broadcaster and usually fronted by their well-known voices and faces. This is in distinct contrast to party political broadcasts, which originate from and are made by the parties themselves and are then deliberately balanced by the opposing view in the same slot on subsequent nights.

The desire to give money was (quite properly) both a desire to relieve suffering and a desire to express political condemnation. But it was a political public reaction prompted by accurate news, so we need to protect the public’s capacity to trust news. Indeed this urge to protest and to knock the BBC seems to have outweighed the desire to assist, both publicly and privately. At the height of the controversy in late January, when the BBC Trust had logged more than 22,000 complaints about the decision not to screen an appeal, the actual number of donations to the DEC appeal numbered only 13,000.

The decision divided BBC newsrooms. The disagreement was not about the meaning and implications of the conflict in Gaza but about the role of reporting. News purists argued for the untainted objectivity of witnesses as the most important contribution against those journalists who wanted the BBC to show that it cared and do its bit in the midst of a bitter political and humanitarian crisis. Experienced foreign reporters such as David Loyn and Alan Little often vehemently disagreed with each other.

However, the real pressure was piled on the Corporation by Government ministers and others mounting the bandwagon of criticism. In a wonderfully BBC sort of way the most prominent broadsides were launched over its own airwaves. Notable among them was Douglas Alexander who, at the head of the Department of International Development, surely was in a prime position to do something about increasing aid provision if he felt so strongly about it. Indeed he was later admonished for stepping out of line, and he did eventually authorise Government aid for Gaza. More startlingly, Dame Suzi Leather, head of the Charity Commission, weakly joined the herd on Question Time and weighed into the attack. As Leather’s job is to regulate charities, and to make sure the British public’s confidence in the reliability of them is not undermined by surreptitious political campaigning, one might have expected her to have upheld her own duty of impartiality within the charitable world rather more stringently.

But in a global broadcasting world, impartiality is not solely for domestic consumption. The BBC output, in contrast to that in a previous era, is now seen continually by those about whom it is reporting. It has to go on reporting on the ground and needs to preserve trust and integrity on all fronts. In a far smaller way Sky, which still does extensive foreign reporting, faces the same problem. The BBC’s output is scrutinised throughout the Middle East and beyond. Hence the rather more cavalier attitude by ITV which (against precedent) rapidly broke ranks with other broadcasters, and along with Channel 4, decided to show the DEC appeal, even though Sky and BBC were resisting. Serious foreign news and an ongoing presence in foreign locations hardly bothers ITV any longer. They have long since abandoned this territory in favour of celebrity castaway shows.

Yet philanthropy is very much part of the BBC mission; in this the Corporation reflects the society it operates within. Charity plays a distinct role in British life and in a way is part of the unwritten constitution. The BBC has been involved in charitable appeals of one form or another since 1927 when it first broadcast The Week’s Good Cause. Moreover, although some appeals are relatively uncontroversial – mostly for needy children in the UK – many other worthwhile causes are more difficult and “grey”. But the difficulty of the judgments is no reason in principle simply to remove a strand of worthwhile public service, something now advocated by “charity fundamentalists”. So over the years the BBC has established careful procedures of scrutiny to determine which charities and which causes should be given the benefits of what is effectively a powerful source of free advertising.

Originally these arrangements were set up to cover fixed appeal slots. Later they went on to encompass the new and highly successful forms of “charity as a media event”, notably Children in Need and Comic Relief. What makes the DEC arrangement quite different is that it exists to co-ordinate emergency appeals that break into the established programme schedules and therefore have a far higher profile. They call on the immense convening power of the BBC and other broadcasters in a distinct temporal moment – a crisis. Their unique nature is endorsed and amplified by the authority of the broadcasters, which in turn is based on the broadcaster’s relationship of trust with audiences. The impact of the appeals consequently depends on their reliability as a certain kind of event.

A fiercely competitive field

The relationship between the DEC and the broadcasters is a careful modus vivendi that has been painstakingly developed over the past decades. The committee originated in the aftermath of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) cyclone in 1963. The High Commissioner, interviewed on television in the UK, said that if the British public wanted to help the disaster victims they could send donations to the charity War on Want. There was immediate concern that the broadcasters could not even inadvertently be seen to endorse one charity over all the others (after all this is a fiercely competitive field just the same as any other marketplace). The solution reached was a collaborative agreement between the big five aid charities at the time and the broadcasters (then only ITV and BBC). In future major disasters, the aid agencies would jointly ask for a broadcast appeal and the funds it raised would be shared between them through an arrangement with the banks and the Post Office. This was conceived as a pragmatic way of balancing the various institutional pressures, although as one noted: “The system puts the agencies in a strong position to exert moral pressure.” The first joint appeal by the DEC was in 1966 in response to the earthquake in Turkey, when the BBC appeal was made by the famous broadcaster Cliff Michelmore. Typically, DEC appeals have since called on BBC footage, programmemaking expertise and the authority of the known “face” – a familiar BBC presenter.

In 1971, the agreement between aid agencies and broadcasters was properly formalised with an aide-memoir initiated under the auspices of the chairman of the Red Cross, Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh (previously a distinguished diplomat). The charities and broadcasters agreed that the criteria for an emergency appeal had to be a natural disaster and that there should be unanimous agreement to any appeal by the broadcasters. There should be a demonstrable need for aid, an awareness of the situation by the wider public, and assurance in place to make certain that aid raised by the appeal could reach the victims. With one or two amendments this has been the foundation of the relationship ever since. Some years later, there was a gradual understanding that the distinction in reporting between a manmade and a natural disaster was not so obvious. Even the Asian tsunami in 2004 was in some senses not a straightforward case. It affected countries round the Indian Ocean where a specific (political/economic) decision had been taken not to install a vital early warning system, in contrast to the wealthier Pacific Ocean, which had such a system. The overwhelming number of victims of “natural disasters” are from poor countries – for example, earthquakes in richer countries have far fewer victims because of building regulations and better emergency systems. The aid world now refers to “complex emergencies” that blur the lines between the natural and the man-made and in the 1980s “natural” was removed from the criteria for DEC appeals. There was also discussion and, ultimately, amendment to cater for the problem of disasters that were severe but not considered sudden emergencies – famines, for example, are mostly disasters that develop over a long period.

Until 2006, decisions about emergency appeals rested with the board of governors and the chairman of the BBC. The procedure was that a “natural” disaster request could be dealt with by the chairman alone, but anything more complex had to be discussed by the whole board. The minutes of BBC board meetings refer to a number of occasions when there was protracted disagreement over appeal requests. In 1982, an appeal for victims of the Lebanon war was rejected, but after pressure the decision was reversed a month later. Meanwhile an appeal for victims of fighting in El Salvador raised considerable opposition from the board. After some weeks of disagreement, the appeal was then allowed, but when it failed to raise very much money the board of governors’ response was that, in future, similar appeals should not be allowed. Some years later, there was similar unhappiness about an appeal for famine in Ethiopia in 1989. The board of governors’ discussions showed they felt that they had been pushed into accepting an appeal despite strong reservations and complained that “there had been an element of emotional blackmail in the approach to the broadcasters on this occasion”.

On other occasions there have been discreet enquiries by the DEC to the broadcasters before a formal request. If the response was negative then the suggestion was dropped. However the whole atmosphere has recently become more politicised and high profile.

Charities jostling for position

Part of the reason for this is that over the years the nature of the DEC itself has changed. It was originally a small ad hoc committee of aid agencies and broadcasters that met when the need required – usually just a few times a year. Nowadays the DEC has a life of its own – a staff of 10 led by an ambitious chairman, Mike Walsh, with a background in advertising, and its own PR arm. Indeed the DEC, established as a conduit between aid agencies and broadcasters, now has a distinct and visible presence, funded by the agencies. And what began as a small and select committee of five charities now has 13 players jostling for position (and the lifeblood of attention) as more agencies have been allowed to join, most recently Islamic Aid. This is in part a reflection of how the nature of aid agencies has also changed enormously from small amateur-style operations into significant corporate players with wider strategic objectives. The world of international humanitarian relief has become vastly more competitive, more marketing driven, and in many ways more political. According to Dr Hugo Slim, an expert in this area: “Many modern NGOs use their aura of humanitarian impartiality to promote a partisan attitude.”

Against this background the DEC became more PR savvy and concerned with promoting itself. Arguments within it also became more pressing. Indeed, the origins of the Gaza appeal emerged when the committee was on an awayday, which prompted the idea. In the past the DEC’s main role was to negotiate with the broadcasters collaboratively rather than campaign on behalf of NGOs. As a result there were some who felt the DEC was inclined to “go public” at an earlier stage than in the past. The fallout with the broadcasters over an appeal for victims in the Lebanon War of 2006 was probably an example of this.

But if the DEC has changed, so has the BBC. It has a new constitution with a Trust replacing the less independent board of governors, with executive management accountable to it. The DEC crisis shows the subtler working out of the new arrangements in policy and procedures. Decisions about appeals, once made by the governors, are now the responsibility of the director-general. As editor-in-chief of the BBC, he has an overriding concern to protect impartiality and may be professionally more resistant to the whim of populist pressures. This may be a good thing or at times a bad one; issues certainly do look different from where an editor-in-chief sits. Governors who used to “be” the BBC were often able to represent public opinion within the Corporation in a quite different way from that of the Trust, with its scrutinising role. The inherent risks in any decision are re-calibrated. After all, if D-G Mark Thompson had swum with the tide of public opinion over the Gaza request, he might have had an easier ride. Once the affair went public, the “Chinese wall” between the management and the Trust “became an iron curtain”, one insider observed. The D-G’s decision was subsequently investigated by the Trust – especially as there had been a challenge for judicial review – and its arms’-length assessment was that Thompson’s decision, and the reasoning behind it, was sound. The Trust recognised at the same time that the whole relationship is under strain and called for a reassessment of the mechanism of DEC appeals, and that is now under way.

Charity matters. Responding to humanitarian crisis appropriately matters. Some feel that the current fiasco involving high-profile lobbying undermines the whole case for such emergency appeals altogether. There are so many competing and diverse interests on the side of the aid agencies and the broadcasters that the system as codified in 1971 may well need an overhaul if it is to survive at all. But it is worth recalling that all the energy in the system of concerned attention to injustices at home and abroad derives from fastidious reporting. Three months after Gaza burnt before our eyes the Sri Lankan government finished off the Tamils but made sure reporters could not show us that catastrophe. Despite what is undoubtedly appalling civilian suffering, there has not been, so far, a call for an appeal. It is journalism that does the witnessing that matters. It is maintaining the capacity to witness and tell fresh, uncomfortable and unbiased stories that fuels charitable responses as well as democratic accountability.