Right and wrong – black and white?
The thing about black and white photography is that it isn’t really. Black and white, I mean. It’s shades of … no, I’m not going to finish that thought given the film (apparently) currently showing in cinemas. Black and white are just the ends of that spectrum, there is an infinite range of grey in between. Thanks to two very large books that recently arrived, I’ve been poring over some of the best photos from the last century, or at least some of the best black and white ones, trying to understand better what works in a picture and why. And I’ve also been out and about with my camera, experimenting a lot. I have no idea if any of the pictures are even worth looking at, never mind printing. But I’m hopeful that this coming weekend I will be able to develop and scan them and then we will know. For now, there are a couple of rolls of film lying in the fridge waiting for me to get to them. And I am very grateful for a wife who grew up with film in the fridge and who finds this entirely normal. Thank goodness for her journalist parents.
We often talk about ethical issues in black and white terms as well. Maybe it’s easier to take a firm position than recognise the nuances of the arguments for and against any proposition. I know that I have opinions on enough subjects where I am nowhere near as informed as I should be to have such strong view, but there we are. And there are some questions where we don’t need to know every fact to have a sense of what we think a reasonable (if not ‘right’) point of view is. However… when it comes to politics, I was given something of a surprise when I looked at https://voteforpolicies.org.uk and selected which policies my views were closer to – without knowing which party they came from – and am now having to re-examine some assumptions I had previously made. It’s an excellent exercise to go through.
Despite the internet providing us with a range of opinions more than wide enough, we do still rely on the professionals working across the media sectors both to report and comment on current issues.
And that brings me on to the current debacle with the Telegraph and the reporting of the HSBC offshore tax disclosures. A quick recap – an allegation that the Telegraph didn’t report much of the HSBC story because of the amount of advertising the paper received from the bank, one of the paper’s senior reporters resigns and writes about his reasons in some detail, then we find out that apparently the newspaper’s owners received a loan from HSBC. And a general sense that all is not right in the world of editorial independence. Black and white, right? But this was, of course, the same newspaper that broke the story of the MPs and their expenses, and just today came the ‘revelation’ of two prominent MPs (for balance, one each from both the two main political parties) and the way in which they might be using their name, access or reputation to earn some extra money.
But back to the HSBC reporting issue.
Here are the front pages of the online newspapers of the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Telegraph on the day HSBC offices were raided in connection with alleged tax evasion:
Clear cut, then. Only the Telegraph didn’t have the HSBC cover on its front page. Guilty as charged. Neither did the Independent. I just chose to omit that, because it wouldn’t have fit with the picture I was trying to paint. So sometimes it depends on what facts you include and which you exclude. Was there any agenda in my selection? No, they were just the three papers I tend to check. I only looked at the Independent to see if I could say that all the quality dailies except the Telegraph covered the story with the same degree of prominence.
None of this is new, the conflict between editorial independence and the commercial necessities of running a newspaper as a (profitable) business. I haven’t spoken with any of the journalists at the Telegraph and know no more about what really is going on at the top of that organisation than I read about elsewhere. But I did speak with journalists in Germany who went through a similar experience.
During the Soviet era, politics drove reporting of events in East Germany. Some areas were more overtly steered than others, but nowhere was immune. When the Berlin wall fell, the old system of media direction collapsed, the previous newspaper editors either resigned or were effectively fired by the rest of the staff. It was going to be a new beginning. And for a year or so, that was a reality. Thanks to continuing subsidies and without political interference, journalists could write about what they wanted, how they wanted to. And they did.
And then reality set in. Western publishers came along and the parameters of the reporting changed. Where there had previously been politically-driven dictats, now there were commercially-driven ones. Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences (you can, of course, read the whole story with all its nuances in my book – you can even skip the Marxist-Leninist theory and go straight to the fun parts where I shut up and let the journalists speak):
For those of us in the business affairs team the conflict is conducted between advertising customers and editorial work and there are conflicts there for me when advertising customers call the Berliner Zeitung saying the reporting of the opening of some shop was too limited and they buy so much advertising from this paper. Then the publisher impresses upon us that some reporter from the business affairs team has to go back there again and write about it again so that the advertising customer is satisfied, and I think that’s totally wrong – that so much influence is exerted by advertising customers – I think it’s increased as the number of advertising customers has reduced, business is bad, then you do something to counteract that, I think that’s somehow a betrayal of the reader.
And that is for me the biggest conflict of all, that in my opinion the profit that is made from this newspaper comes higher – obviously, because in this system it must come higher – than any ethics of journalism.
In the case of small advertisers you can bat it off easily and refuse, but when it’s a large, important advertiser who is close to the heart of our advertising department or the publisher, you don’t have much chance, you have to do it even if it tastes bitter to you, but we have got used to that.
There are limitations, so you can’t write a critical article about bad, overpriced goods in a supplement about homes and building if the same companies have adverts in the supplements. The freedom of the press ends with money, it used to be that it ended with political influencing, today it ends with economic goals.
So I wasn’t at all surprised to read that something similar has allegedly been happening at the Telegraph. For me, the more surprising thing was that we, as a population, didn’t think it was to some degree or other. What I haven’t seen (maybe I just missed it) is any suggestion for how to avoid this. We live in a world where we expect to get a lot for free, even our news. But we also want it to be produced by experienced professionals, with high standards of reporting and ethics, independent of external influences. If we aren’t willing to pay for that, how do we expect the newspapers to be able to continue to pay its journalists and other staff, if not through advertising? And if that becomes a vital source of income to allow the newspaper to continue to exist and report the cash-for-access, Snowden, MPs expenses type of stories, is it any wonder that the people paying for the advertising don’t expect to be lambasted in the same publication? I’m not saying it’s right or that I like it. But I don’t know what the solution is.
Did I mention that these kinds of questions are covered in my book? Now – was I influenced to write about this topic this week in the hope that someone might buy my book or because I thought it was important to write about it?
None of this is black and white.