I’m arguing against myself here. I want more balanced news reporting, avoiding the cheap populist headlines that the tabloids indulge, and the reporting and biases that go with it. And the broadsheets don’t do much better.
But I try and make this blog pragmatic – connected to the everyday. Zen isn’t a place for dreamers. Is there any point shouting into the wind, when I know little will change? Unless… but the press barons won’t sell up and if they did they’d likely sell to worse not better. And post-Leveson the issue of press freedom’s died a death, as the likes of Paul Dacre knew it would if they stalled long enough.
And anyway, the daily press is all about stories, and stories don’t have two ‘sides’, there’s no even-handed treatment of the cast. They need a villain or two, they need endings, they’re not puzzles, arguments, analyses requiring a measured resolution.
I’m not talking here so much about left or right, more about story, and balance, and necessary villains.
Taking examples from last Saturday’s Telegraph, we find stories about substantial pay rises for NHS chief executives in times of extreme financial stringency, threats to company pension schemes from proposed tax changes (removing higher level relief), and ‘anger’ over the just-announced annual increase in train fares – 1%.
How are they linked? By the absence of any objectivity, of another side to each story. That’s where my heading ‘relentless carping’ – always looking for the negative, for villains – comes in. And it does turn me off newspapers.
And what might be the ‘other side’ to each story?
NHS: look into each salary increase and there’s often an explanation for the rise, and there’s also the brutal fact that to attract the best people to run organisations you have to pay what the market dictates.
Train fare increases: the headline focused on the aggregate increase over the last five years, not the 1%, the lowest for five years, just announced. And someone, a pressure group or two, is angry.
Company pension schemes: the story reflects the views of a trade body, an interested party. Counter-arguments? I could guess at another side – but I’ve not yet seen it reported.
My favourite press quote (CP Scott), ‘opinion is free, facts are sacred’, missed out a third category, ‘context’, or ‘frame’. The frame is integral to the story. Facts are framed, kept within a limited context, and the best stories unless it’s a football result or a big cricket score are usually negative. And we may (see above) amid the superabundance of future news reports never find the counter-arguments, if indeed they ever get a mention.
The alternative? The Economist sometimes manages pretty well. Under the heading ‘Northern waterhouse’, a play on the government’s proposed ‘Northern powerhouse’ it looks at government and local authority responses to the recent floods, highlights cuts in investment at both levels, and gives a context to the anger so often expressed in recent weeks. But… the December just past has been the wettest month on record, and would the investment which was cut have made any difference to the flooding that’s actually happened? That’s not mentioned. So no more than 6 out of 10 for the Economist.
I don’t want to be putting in a good word for overpaid NHS executives, badly run train companies, damaging taxation changes to company pensions, or cancelled flood prevention when it’s not justified. But I want more if I’m to have the full picture.
But again, that qualification: should newspaper stories be other than stories? With villains. Without villains they wouldn’t get read.
The Economist has the advantage of being a weekly. Daily papers are another matter. So in the end it comes down to the old proverbial pinch of salt.
And keep a set of scales to hand, just as a reminder – there is another side.