Simon Williamson

The great media neutrality debate

2011-12-02 07:51

Simon Williamson

While the usual hysterical cry-freedom acolytes came to the party last week as Parliament voted on the Protection of State Information Bill, a number of contrarian crusaders also pitched up on call-in programmes, in man-(or women) on-the-street interviews and in opinion columns across the republic. These people made an unusual cogent and coherent point:  They do not want the media gone, of course, but rather to have it serve the interests of more than the people it currently does.

In fact the subject of neutrality (or, conversely, bias) is often brought up in the comments sections of articles across South African media (if one reads between the lines of bigoted tripe which sticks to news sites like turds to a blanket), and it is a rather justifiable question to ask of the people who are supposed to tell you what is happening in the world.

Neutrality, in my opinion, is an ideal so far removed from anything that the media, or anyone else, is capable of, that we should drop the principle entirely. There is no possible way for someone to talk about something without passing some form of opinion on it. It begins with headlines, with nicknames for incidents and legislation (for example, the Protection of State Information Bill being referred to as the Secrecy Bill adds an extra dimension and tone to the story which the bill’s official name does not). In fact, it would be virtually lying to claim that publishers and writers of news do not have a point of view about the topic on which they are writing. And why should they have to pretend otherwise?

For example, news in America is entertainment. Good entertainment means good ratings. Good ratings mean more advertisers. More advertisers mean profitability. What this does is spawn a host of points of view covered in the mainstream media, from Fox News which leans further right than a fat man driving an Uno, all the way across to the lefties MSNBC which is a modern-day, multi-racial, minority-presented version of Pravda.

Between the two extremes is a mass of news outlets all reporting their own version of what is happening in the world. And it is no secret how these companies operate. Fox News does not like President Barack Obama, his economic policies, his social policies, his foreign policy, his spending plans, his wife, his dog or his face. MSNBC, however, detests anything Republican and doesn’t quite yet understand why Barack Obama uses boats instead of just walking across the Atlantic on state visits to Europe. Neither institution has any qualms about the agenda it pushes. While it may try to corporately sell objectivity, asteroids come closer to earth than either company comes to neutrality. The goings on of the day are covered, but with salacious points of view thrown in. And do you know what? That’s OK. Because we know who is saying what, and why they are saying it.

As another example: would you trust the ANC to tell you the news? Of course not: its principles and role in society create a massive conflict of interest. What about trusting a paper that supports the ANC, and believes in its governance? Is there less of a conflict of interest? Reaction to The New Age would indicate otherwise. And on the other side of the same hand, how reliable is the word of a paper that supports the Democratic Alliance?

It is not internationally common for publications to declare their interests and push for them. As media, of which I am admittedly part, we would be far better off declaring our interests beforehand, as our ideal, quite obviously, is to serve the reader. Surely a reader is served best by knowing who is speaking to him or her? If we assume that neutrality is the basis from which all of the media we are exposed to operates, then our ideas of what is happening in the world are vastly skewed.

If your assumption that the news coming your way is 100% free of bias, then it is no surprise that your expectations of what is going on around you don’t necessarily tie in with actual reality.

Simon Williamson is a freelance writer.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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