Many years ago I was interviewed for a national newspaper by one of its senior journalists. The interview took place in Glasgow, on a Saturday morning prior to an Old Firm match. The city centre was teeming with the usual suspects. We found a space in a relatively quiet pub and the journalist placed two pints and a tape recorder on the table. On his expense account, of course. It was one of those chatty hung over interviews, the sort where it’s easy to get caught off your guard and stitched up like a kipper.
The interview was eventually splashed across the front pages of a weekend culture supplement. It was a decent spread and the sort of publicity money can’t buy. The journalist was genuinely enthusiastic about what I was up to at the time and the bits where I was quoted were suitably provocative and spiky. The only problem was that every single quote was made up, invented, fabricated.
I read the piece again, gob-smacked. I couldn’t quite believe the guy had the sheer gall to make it all up. The language in the quotes contained words I would never use in ordinary speech. For good measure the journo had me dissing all sorts of people and their publications. Now, I’m quite a diplomatic person by nature. I don’t see the point in launching verbal broadsides at anyone … unless they’re in a position of power or deserve a good skewering. Some of the folk I was rubbishing in the interview, unbeknownst to the hack, were good friends of mine. Aye, right. (NB The journalist in question is still a well kent face in Scottish media circles.)
Johann Hari didn’t go as far as inventing quotes to suit his purposes. Nor did he even bend his interviewees words out of shape to mean something else. He didn’t even quote anyone out of context. One interviewee, Gideon Levy, has issued a statement saying he was happy with the published interview.
Hari’s main fault – for which he has been castigated and has since apologised for – was to attribute quotes to interviewees that were taken from other sources, but without saying so. This is not exactly on the same scale of unethical behaviour as News of the World phone-hackers. But it’s still bad practice nonetheless. Primary sources are important, they’re the currency of serious historians, and a reader has a right to know where any quotes or facts originate.
But the sheer volume of attacks on Johann Hari have little to do with this. There is an unstated agenda at work here. Hari is a well-known leftwing radical who repeatedly puts himself in the firing line by writing provocative and informed commentary. He has made enemies in high places and more power to his pen for that.
Conservative columnists can make up any old fictions and pass them off as commentary without a murmur of dissent in the MSM. But different rules apply for lefties. Michael Moore found this out the hard way when his documentary film, Fahrenheit 9/11. was torn apart on the basis of a few ill-judged inclusions. Google “Michael Moore” and websites like Michael Moore Exposed are in the Top 10 returns. They use the flaws in Fahrenheit 9/11 to justify their polemical attacks on someone they fear and loathe. This is still ongoing.
Despite its many strengths Moore should have avoided conspiracy theories and stuck to what he does best. This he did with subsequent films, such as the much tighter and more powerful Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story but his opponents use Fahrenheit 911 to create the impression his journalism is somehow flawed or sloppy.
Al Gore also discovered with An Inconvenient Truth – replete with its notorious hockey stick graph – that if you get some facts wrong there is a legion of conservatively minded critics and lobbyists who will use these errors to rubbish the totality of what you have to say on a subject.
This is the way the conservative right operate. Whenever they feel their vested interests are threatened they rarely attack the message, instead they try to destroy the credibility of the messenger. It’s a familiar pattern. For instance, few media commentators attack atheism these days. Why bother when you can have a go at the much easier target of Richard Dawkins instead. Same thing, innit?
The bulk of the mainstream media is owned by rich corporations and duly reflects its owners’ political, economic and social agendas. Conservative ideas aren’t subjected to the same degree of intense scrutiny. Credible alternatives to the UK government’s austerity measures have been studiously ignored. Radical ideas are carefully filtered before they break free from their moorings and run amok among the proles.
Take the idea of a Robin Hood Tax. It’s a reasonable and fair proposition that suggests that the financial institutions who created the banking crisis pay their fair share in taxation. I can’t think of any other radical economic proposal that is more likely to get majority support among Joe Public.
Yet Google “Robin Hood Tax” and there’s not much published in the MSM to read. In the last two years perhaps a few pages in the Guardian, a couple of pages on BBC News Online, and a few one-sided rebuttals in the Express, Telegraph, etc. You would think that given the wholesale butchery of the public sector unleashed there would be dozens of op-eds, editorials, features, debates, cartoons, letters, putting forward a more progressive and socially acceptable alternative. Not so.
For my sins I used to teach journalism. The art of getting the right quote is central to old school print journalism. Quotes are simply slotted into their pre-determined place in an article to flesh out pre-determined lines points. In order to get the right quotes you have to select the right person to make them. It’s that simple. That’s how censorship and bias works in the media. It’s all about selection and editing. Students of journalism pick this up pretty quick.
Interviewees can be manipulated, blatantly or subtly. The very fact they’ve agreed to do an interview often tells you their ego has got the better of their common sense. Teasing out the quote you want needs little more than basic psychology, persistence or alcohol. If you keep asking loaded questions, from different angles if necessary, eventually you’ll get them to say what you want them to say. Anything else will be disregarded and deemed superfluous. It’s a game and there is usually complicity on both sides.
In print media the journalist does the editing. Fear of the P45 does wonders for self-censorship and sticking resolutely to the company line. Radio and TV journalists use much the same methods but have invisible Supreme Beings in a studio who cut-and-paste your words to suit their story and their purposes.
I got bored with this bollocks many years ago and decided I’d had enough of having my words – which I happen to value – chopped, edited and censored willy-nilly by strangers whose talents would be better of utilised in a hairdresser salon. Sweeping up at the end of the day. The dumbed-down culture of newsy sound-bites – BBC, STV, Herald, Scotsman – doesn’t seem to miss my chirpy contributions so everyone’s happy.
Like many who read Bella my place-of-choice is in the developing digital media. It just feels right. I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore and wonder whether this or that will get past the editors. For better or for worse I do my own editing.
As well as the democracy of access, and the freedom to self-edit, the hierarchical division between interview and interviewee can be done away with in the New Media in a way that the censorial control freaks of the MSM can’t quite get their heads round.
I don’t conduct many interviews these days but when I do I try to insist they are done in real-time, either by email or MSN messenger. (E.g. this one with writer Alan Bissett). That way there is no misquoting, there is enough time to retract, edit or think about what you say, and best of all a dialogue can develop.
New digital media, by necessity, creates a different type of citizen journalist. The old ways of fact-checking, scrupulous honesty, and good prose still apply. Writing is an art, dammit, and badly researched or sloppy writing doesn’t deserve to be published or read. But nor should writing and publishing be an elitist pursuit.
Perhaps those of us active in the new digital media – if we really want to see the old order crumble – should step back from the keyboards more often to spend time passing on the writing and editing skills we have learned over the years. Maybe this is an area we could develop through Bella if there was interest. Just a thought.