Drowning the good guys and gals

Analysis of MediaBite interview with Harry Browne

This analysis of our interview with Harry Browne is not a critique of his journalism but rather of the coercive effect on him of the professional, corporate media environment as it seemed evident during the interview. We contend all mainstream journalists are unavoidably affected by this phenomenon – even those who are conscious of it.

These are hardly original observations but they are worth restating for the purpose of exploring the case in point. Professional journalism is a commodity, a product that we buy. We should regard it as we would detergent on a supermarket shelf, recognising the various brand qualities but always aware that it is fundamentally the same sort of profit-orientated, business and advertiser- pleasing product – with a few mildly abrasive bio-granules tolerated in the mixture (the good guy journalists) so that news will come out of the wash with an illusion of whiter-than-whiteness. It’s not a substitute for establishing a normal, collective and truly factual understanding of our world. Sometimes it’s quite good at giving the impression that it is – occasionally it even manages to do it.

Avoidance is the key

That all of the above is true is easily proved by observing the fate of the best journalists. Those who try hard to resist the essential untruth of most corporate journalism, as Harry Browne does, seldom enjoy the extent of the recognition they deserve within the Irish mainstream no matter how good they are. The Irish journalists Joe MacAnthony and Frank Connolly can tell us all about that. It may seem provocative to say so, but there is no one now working in Irish journalism at a senior level who does not make seriously unworthy compromises with his or her journalism – routinely. The challenge is for a single one of them to prove this is not true – or that it is even possible for it to be otherwise. Kevin Myers might possibly be the single exception to prove the rule having cornered the market in uncompromising obnoxiousness – an observation I imagine he would be proud to own. For everyone else ‘avoidance’, to use an expression of Harry Browne’s, is the key to survival.

Browne is honest enough in his interview with us to acknowledge having avoided a more direct response to some of the questions asked of him – though it would be good for the public record to know what he might have said had he not felt constrained. This avoidance is incongruous in his case, given the more forthright quality of much of his actual journalism. But the interview is instructive – the conflict for any conscientious journalist is so evident in his responses. I find it hard to believe that he truly means all of what he has to say about Geraldine Kennedy, editor of the Irish Times for instance. Or alternatively that he has not left out a lot of criticisms that he would make off-the-record. We can only guess whether that is one of the questions that he was inclined to go around, but is he really ‘loathe to agree’ that the paper has been unquestionably favourable to business interests if at the same time he concedes it is his ‘impression’ that that is so? Does that word ‘unquestionably’ really pose such a challenge to his sense of correctness? Would Harry Browne really prefer Geraldine Kennedy for editor over Fintan O’Toole as he seems to imply – are her leadership abilities truly more significant to him than their differing editorial perspectives?

Likewise with his colleague Cliff Taylor at The Sunday Business Post who has written to say that it is ‘nonsense to talk of taxing the rich’. That’s just what Cliff does, Browne says, in effect – that’s Cliff’s thing.  Browne doesn’t address the substantive point: how any journalist writing in the middle of this economic crisis can be so comfortable about publishing a statement like that? It’s because Cliff knows, whatever his readers might think, the corporate media will love him for it. He could never offend big business interests so deeply and so casually as he does so many of his potential readers with such an arrogant remark.

Browne says that Gene Kerrigan’s column in The Sunday Independent goes some way to balancing out the poison of the rest of the paper but that seems a bit like wishful thinking. Readers and viewers are mostly over reliant on journalists like Kerrigan. Whatever honesty they dare – or are allowed – to bring to bear on their journalism is spread too thin. However good a journalist he is, Kerrigan is a woefully inadequate fig leaf with which to disguise the overwhelming intellectual and moral nakedness of The Sunday Independent. Fintan O’Toole, Lorna Siggins, Michael Jansen and Lara Marlowe have to do similar service for the Irish Times. Vincent Browne and Tom McGurk, likewise for the Sunday Business Post. The net effect of having them at all is the opposite of what is claimed: their journalism mostly only goes to validate everything else that is said – because the media hangs much of its claim to ‘balance’ on what is in fact extremely unbalanced coverage taken in the round. All of these journalists are massively outnumbered by more compliant and even servile journalists on all sides but the quality of the latter’s journalism is made to look better than it is by the fact of the Kerrigans and the Marlowes in the same paper. It’s a moot point whether there are any good guys at all in news reporting at RTE – radio or television. Life expectancy for them there, at any rate, is a good deal shorter than elsewhere. It also has to be acknowledged that most of these journalists are happily convinced of the rigour and professionalism with which they do their work – and confounded by ideas and observations like these.

‘Celebrities’, ‘Dilettantes’ and ‘Citizen Journalists’

Since recording this interview with Harry Browne he has said that he regretted, as a lecturer, being as positive as he was at the time about the impact of citizen journalists on the mainstream media meaning, I understand, those who submit unpaid pieces to news outlets. He was concerned with the effect on the availability of work for newly qualified students of journalism, for example. I interpret his comments to mean that the ‘dilettantes’, ‘celebrity bloggers’ and citizen journalists who write voluntarily are encouraging a climate in which editors can exploit journalists who have been through the professional training system by having them write for nothing too – and calling it ‘work experience’. Browne also said that some citizen journalists / dilettantes are only motivated by a desire to see their names in print. I asked if he would like to qualify what he had said in the interview in the light of these remarks but he declined, though re-emphasising the points above. For someone who daily logged himself into the Irish Times system under an ID which was a variation on the spelling of Chomsky’s name, the thrust of some of his comments are surprising – beyond his valid concern about exploitation of young journalists who choose to apply for work in the mainstream media.

The reasons for saying these things go back to first principles. The public account of events and of communities are not the property of any person or group, no matter how much some might like to ring fence them for a paid career in a profit-making enterprise – and persuade us that they are thereby better motivated and placed to do it for us. It’s incredible that it appears necessary to remind journalists of this but we, individually and collectively, own the telling of the events of our lives and our experience and views of events in the world in general. We are as qualified as any journalist to do this by virtue of membership of the human race – whenever and wherever we believe it necessary. Where we chose to organize for the purpose of reporting things ourselves, our voices are as legitimate and expert as any journalist’s – right across the social spectrum and regardless of educational background. We should not allow ourselves to be infantilised by schools of journalism, corporate journalists or their journalism, however they see things themselves.

The present reality of news reporting is a far cry from that, of course. A thing printed in a newspaper, no matter how much ‘agency’ people are relied upon to have in order to decipher its worth or truth, carries weight and authority beyond what it deserves most of the time. The ‘balance’ trick (above) works better than Browne would seem to think. That said, many of us feel no particular reverence or respect for what journalists say beyond what we would feel about any other human being offering a view or a report of events. And that’s exactly as it should be – even when journalists are as talented at writing as Browne is.

As to people who only want to see their names in print, it’s not clear what the difference between a citizen or a paid journalist is where that is concerned. If vanity is the issue for some, arguably it’s rather more of a problem when people are paid to indulge it. At any rate the outpouring of vanity evident daily in the corporate media is something we have to wade through wearily to get to the small spaces where we can avoid it. And it has to be said too, where vanity is concerned, as a profession, journalists are notoriously defensive about criticism while frequently excoriating others (usually soft targets) with impunity – protected by their editors a lot of the time from seeing any equivalent responses to them. Even those responses that do appear are less prominent, frequently censored and much shorter. Not much of the vaunted journalistic ‘balance’ there, then.

And if we are searching for examples of dilettantism it is surely the dabblers in faux truth hiding their cowardice behind absurdly contrived notions of professionalism to whom we must look for the best examples. For instance, the journalistic ritual of achieving ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ are so self-interestedly applied more often than not that they manage to render truth and facts into virtually meaningless versions of themselves for all the worth they have in their professionally eviscerated form: thus a criminal and murderous war becomes ‘a military adventure’ and even a ‘mistake’; corruption and fraud become ‘an appearance of impropriety’;  greed-driven privatisation becomes ‘reform’; the slashing of desperately needed services for sick and disabled people becomes ‘efficiency’. It’s an ocean of euphemism the consequence of which is, for the journalists responsible, that they never upset anyone powerful.

Readers can also be completely unaware of the highly subjective ‘objectivity’ of what they are reading – Harry Browne had an exchange with the Irish Times about their reporting of a recent debate held at Trinity College, ‘Nobel winner defends Israel’s actions’.

Despite the fact that there were other participants in the debate, the report focuses exclusively on the contribution of just one of them, the staunchly pro Israeli Professor Steven Weinberg. Ronan McGreevy described the others present as an ‘audience’. Weinberg’s justifications for Israel’s violence in Palestine are taken at face value. Not one word of anyone else’s contribution is reported. People who had indicated that they wanted to ask questions or make a point of order are described as ‘those of a different view’ and of having ‘several times interrupted’ the professor. Browne wrote to the Irish Times in response.

But his letter was altered. Browne says “the IT took my inverted commas off “disorderly”, which I think made it somewhat offensive to the woman in question, who was genuinely charming, and disorderly only in the absurd technical sense I was trying to capture in my depiction of the debate. I was surprised the letter was published — I suspect only the Prof’s own letter made the appearance of mine possible.”

The multiple failures of the corporate media

If anyone is inclined to think all of this is exaggeration, it might help to itemise some of the media’s continuing and determined failures: the media knows who is corrupt in politics and why – it will not thoroughly investigate or report it; it knew the property bubble was corrupt long before the current crisis, but it would not investigate or report it; it knew parts of the banking system was corrupt long before it collapsed and even now it is failing properly to investigate and report it; it knows that climate change is a potentially devastating threat and it is failing to report it – particularly in relation to any of the causes that implicate major corporate interests; it knows many businessmen are corrupt and why but it will not investigate or report about them; it knows the abject failures and corruption of public administration and governance but it will not thoroughly investigate or report them. If any news journalist doesn’t know any of these things, it can only be for choosing to peg their nose in the stink so as not to have to deal with it.
Is there an alternative?

Open-publishing, internet-based citizen journalism is without fear or favour to editors, advertisers, newspaper owners or professional colleagues – funded by donations from its users and contributors to cover only its basic costs. Nobody is paid to write there. The journalism there is also vulnerable to instant and equally public challenge from anyone with information or motive to do so. Fools are suffered very un-gladly – any vanity in evidence will be rounded on in short order. Gerry Ryan wouldn’t last, oh, five minutes.

In the case of Indymedia Ireland, one of the most successful and popular of the hundreds of Independent Media Centre newswires like it around the world, the editors have no input on what news items will be published until they are already on the site, in public view. What editing they do is to ensure anything published is within the law and basic guidelines for publishing – and all their decisions are publicly recorded with reasons given – for the whole world to see. There is no transparency, accountability or editorial freedom to equal that of Indymedia in the mainstream media where we are kept completely in the dark about what has been edited out of the account. There are many other examples but The Real News Network – based in Toronto – deserves a mention too. Funded by subscription from viewers and independent of advertising revenue RNN has made a serious foray into broadcast journalism providing a desperately needed alternative perspective on the dominant themes of the advertiser and owner-constrained journalism of the mainstream networks.

This interview with Harry Browne is depressing in this context: despite the fact that he has often been a pretty fearless journalist himself and has paid the price of it at the Irish Times, it’s clear that even he – as one of the best journalists we have in Ireland – cannot withstand the immense pressure from within the profession to conform, not to critique the journalism of colleagues or papers that he has worked with or for, too closely. Browne has said that he is inclined to be cautious in the context of an interview like this for reasons that would not be apparent. I may have put an interpretation on his responses that doesn’t do him justice. Nevertheless, I still think that even in allowing for what he says there is strong evidence of the coercive, subtly intimidating effect of the corporate media environment in his caution and evasion in places.

So where does the truthful telling of the public account stand in all of this? For the vast majority of journalists who, unlike Harry Browne, scarcely even question the values and conventions of their profession, framing the story in acceptable and unchallenging terms and not upsetting powerful people too much will trump it more often than not – while the conventions of their ‘professionalism’ are the very things that encourage them to believe they are doing the opposite. As the editors of Medialens in the UK wrote in a recent media alert ‘freedom of expression into corporate journalism does not go‘. The good guys and gals almost all drown there sooner or later. Harry Browne is doing his damndest to tread water and keep air in his lungs.

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