IWPR'S BALKAN CRISIS REPORT, No. 483, March 05, 2004
COMMENT - BOSNIA: A QUESTION OF OBJECTIVITY
Could some journalists in south-east
Europe be rediscovering the importance of virtues that certain of their British
counterparts are abandoning?
By Marcus Tanner in Sarajevo
A few days ago, IWPR - the organisation
I now work for - posted a story from Sarajevo concerning controversial plans to
change the name of the main avenue from Tito to Izetbegovic street.
The story ended with a quote from the
youth wing of a political party that had published some diaries by way of
contribution to the debate containing a message from the late president Tito
"from beyond the grave". Tito's comment on the quarrel was upbeat: lucky the
city if I am the biggest problem!
An IWPR seminar in Sarajevo this week
looking at whether media objectivity poses a trap or a challenge gives rise to
similar feelings. The Balkans must be lucky now if we are even discussing such
More than a decade ago, when I was
reporting from the region, such a seminar would not have made any sense. Leaving
aside some well-known and often courageous exceptions, the very concept of an
objective media seemed hopelessly distant.
Indeed, I might be tempted to call this
talk "Where have all the Shiptars gone?" as one of the most dramatic changes in
the media in the region since that period has been the decline in routine ethnic
Working here a decade ago, newspapers
barely featured Albanians. They didn't exist - there was only the derogatory
term Shiptar. There were very few Croats either, for the media had long since
turned them all into Ustashe.
This ritual communal abuse was not
limited to one side in the conflict. In Croatia, there were few Serbs in the
media, for they had turned into that strange hybrid word Serbo-Chetniks.
I could afford to laugh at such terms.
To me, the word Serb-Chetnik was comic, and for some reason conjured up images
of a cheap eastern-European car. You drive a Skoda? I drive a Serb-Chetnik!
But among many people these words
exerted great power. Dehumanising and depersonalising their objects - as they
were intended to - their introduction into the general public discourse through
the media paved the way for the public in the former Yugoslav republics to
accept the principle of collective punishments for the "other side".
Reporting from Northern Ireland a few
years ago for the newspaper The Independent - and in an area as ethnically and
religiously divided as any of the Balkan crisis zones - I felt grateful that
British journalism - for all its weaknesses and flaws - had generally resisted
the temptation to demonise whole communities in this way.
In the bitterly divided town of
Portadown, I was reporting from an area whose local population was almost
totally opposed to a British presence in their community, whether that took the
form of police, soldiers or the judiciary.
But as a British media representative, I
met only courtesy from the community who - after years of conflict with the
British state - treated reporters as people who were likely to report their own
views with attention to detail and concern for accuracy. They assumed I was
likely to be reasonably objective in my reporting.
The reasons for the difference in the
Balkan and British traditions lie deep in history. British journalism has a
tradition - not so much of objectivity, but of critical independence - which
dates back to the beginning of organised party political conflict in the early
The relatively equal strength of two
large but opposing political parties created the necessary space in which a free
media could grow. By the 1740s, the British media was remarkably free of
external control in comparison to its continental counterparts. The philosopher
David Hume remarked this in his essay Of the Liberty of the Press in 1741.
"Nothing," he said, "is more apt to surprise a foreigner than the extreme
liberty which we enjoy in this country of communicating whatever we please to
the public and of openly censuring every measure entered into by the King or his
Accountable to wealthy press oligarchs
but not to governments, British journalism became famous for its aggression,
inquisitiveness and its freedom from restraint.
What enabled this state of affairs was
the wide distribution of power and money. Because the English crown was weak and
unable to finance itself, the crown had to govern in harness with parliaments
that voted the crown supplies of money. When money and power are widely
dispersed in this way, there can never be much centralised control of
information. It was, therefore, natural that with the rise of mass circulation
newspapers, proprietors in Britain should take an independent line from the
Balkan states emerged on different
lines. Impoverished by centuries of foreign rule, after the new states emerged
in the 1800s, power centralised in royal courts and in the royal bureaucracies.
It was hard to succeed in these societies without coming into close contact with
state officials from whose influence it was hard to escape and whom it was often
dangerous to oppose.
People often think the Serbian media's
culture of craven support for the Milosevic regime was a legacy of communist
ideology, which inculcated a disregard for inconvenient facts, refused to
separate news from comment, had an inbuilt preference for seeing issues in
black-and-white and was obsessed with the discovery and extermination of
internal enemies and traitors.
But while the communist legacy was
important in perpetuating the weaknesses in Balkan journalism, the roots of
these flaws predated the revolutions of 1945.
The journalistic culture of the Balkans
has had difficulty escaping a public culture that was shaped during the
independence struggles of the early 19th century. Milovan Djilas wrote an
interesting pen portrait of the public culture of pre-war Serbia - I forget in
which book - recalling the sight of a large crowd in Belgrade that had gathered
to applaud the public appearance of the King Aleskandar at some function. The
crowd, he wrote, was composed almost entirely of officials and their hangers-on
who were permanently on hand to create the impression of spontaneous, massive
public enthusiasm for any royal event.
How little Serbia had changed in fifty
years from King Aleksandar's time to Slobodan Milosevic's, for I can still
remember the vast, not-so-spontaneous meetings in support of Milosevic's policy
in Kosovo comprising huge numbers of workers who had been bussed in from their
factories by the government.
This may seem like a divergence from the
subject of journalistic objectivity. But objectivity can only flourish in the
framework of independence - and newspaper independence, as I have tried to
outline, is closely related to the distribution of resources and to the public
culture which grows up in the shade of those resources.
In Britain, the public culture is
changing all the time. The balance of power between the media and the government
has continued to change - dramatically at the expense of the latter. David Hume
might be shocked at the change since 1741.
Within my own lifetime, journalists
interviewing leading politicians have moved from a general culture of deference
to one of aggression. A highly inquisitorial interviewing style - carrying the
implicit suggestion that almost every politician is lying - has become something
of a new journalistic norm.
The recent battle between the BBC and
the Blair government over the BBC Today programme's reporting of the Iraq war
has exposed this confrontation and triggered the most wide-ranging debate that I
can remember on the British media's standards of objectivity.
The debate has been highly polemical and
has not been characterised by the journalistic corpus rushing to defend the
standards of criticised colleagues.
Some - its is true - have robustly
defended the British media as the best of its kind, guilty at the very worst of
cutting a few ethical corners in order to pursue the superior goal of uncovering
wrong-doing in high places.
Writing in the British Journalism
Review, sociology professor Stein Ringen takes precisely this line.
"Standards are relevant, but they are
not what the press is about," he said. "They are the means by which the press
does its job, but are not the job. That job is to enlighten the public and to
educate and entertain it. It is to hold to answer those who exercise power.
He describes what he calls "the
essential democratic job" of the media quite simply as "scrutinising power".
"In order to be able to display power at
work, the press may need to sacrifice some accuracy of information, at least
during the process of investigation," he went on. " There is something
paralysingly puritanical and bloodless in the opinion that standards are holy
and paramount. That is to ask for a pretty press with no bite."
Ringen contrasted this British approach
with that of the French press, which he calls "pretty" in the sense that it
cultivates standards at the expense of investigation. Lambasting leading titles
such as Le Monde for their refusal to inform the French public about the private
life and political background of the late president Francois Mitterrand until he
was almost dead, Ringen describes this flagship of French journalism as an
example of "élitism on display".
" No censorship is needed because a
culture is in place in which order is maintained," he said.
But this is only one side of the
argument in the debate. Many other voices, including a surprising number from
the centre-left stable, who might once have been expected to rally round the
flag of journalistic freedom, have said the BBC-Blair bust-up has exposed a
decline in the standards of objectivity in British press reporting and a
worrying tendency to conflate news and comment.
The highly respected magazine the
Economist in an editorial damningly described the BBC's controversial reporting
on Iraq as "typical of much of modern British journalism, twisting or falsifying
the supposed news to fit a journalist's opinion about where the truth really
lies. Some in the British media have described such journalism as 'brave'.
Sloppy or biased would be better words".
Similarly the Financial Times editor
Andrew Gowers has described the row over the BBC as a "wake-up call" for British
journalism rather than for the government. Gowers has said it "should prompt us
to resist the easy, superficial certainties of parti-pris opinion and rediscover
the virtues of accuracy, context and verification".
Finally, John Lloyd, former editor of
the left-leaning New Statesman, has attacked what he calls a "culture of
attachment" in the press, which he says grew directly out of the experience of
journalists frustrated over British and western inactivity in the Bosnian war.
It was not the fact that journalists had
openly called for Western intervention in Bosnia that disturbed him, he wrote.
It was their growing inability to distinguish between "advocacy" journalism and
news reporting, which he insists must be kept rigorously separate from one
It might be painting too flattering a
picture of Balkan journalism to say that journalists in south-east Europe are
rediscovering the importance of virtues that their British counterparts are
Even without the crude ethnic
stereotyping I described earlier, the drive to raise standards of objective
journalism in this region remains hampered by the un-signposted fusion of news
and comment. There is still an over-reliance on the famous "anonymous sources"
and unnamed "experts" to prove points.
This kind of journalism only pretends to
standards of objectivity, crudely adopting a few superficial mannerisms and
techniques of western journalism to disguise what in fact is the same old deeply
There is also another much newer problem
in the Balkans - a kind of wildcat reporting which, rejoicing in the sudden
lifting of state censorship, identifies "liberty" with the liberty to print
almost any rumours about anyone, with no regard to the laborious fact-checking
that has long been the rule in American, if not so much in British, newspapers.
But as the current debate over the media
in Britain shows, the British have no monopoly on the question of objectivity.
We are not paragons of virtue, either.
Marcus Tanner is an IWPR editor/trainer
in Belgrade. This article formed the basis of a lecture he delivered at an IWPR
seminar, Media Freedom - a Challenge and a Trap, in Sarajevo on March 4.
source: IWPR's Balkan Crisis Report
published by: Daniela Mathis firstname.lastname@example.org
date of release on this site 10/03/04