By Jamie Bryson @JamieBrysonCPNI
A Twitter exchange between Labour MP Kate Hoey and Sky’s Kay Burley has brought to the fore a debate around the balance and fairness required of journalists.
Kate Hoey had questioned the balance shown by some BBC journalists in relation to Brexit and Kay Burley responded forcefully claiming that such criticisms “lead to vilification and assaults on journalists”.
There are of course many types of activity defined as journalistic. The definition is carried HERE on the NUJ website and is based directly on that which is defined as journalistic work by the Office of National Statistics. It includes commentary, columnists, bloggers, writers, journalists, broadcasters, press officers and authors among many other things.
The broad church of ‘journalism’ therefore encompasses much activity that by its very nature is activism rather than independent reporting. Commenting for example is opinion based, which is of course subjective. Blogging, writing, press communications and columns can also be used as part of political activism, namely presenting a particular viewpoint.
So there has to be a distinction; journalism does not automatically mean balance and impartiality. However there is a difference when it comes to those whose role within the broad church of journalism is independent reporting; this definition mostly applies to those journalists employed by regulated media outlets and broadcasters guided by OFCOM rules and regulations. It is from these journalists more so than any other that balance and fairness is required.
Such a requirement, as alluded to by Kate Hoey MP, is even more important when working for publically funded broadcasters such as the BBC. And it is clear that many BBC employees have entirely lost the run of themselves when it comes to Brexit and allowed their journalism to turn into activism. Recently within Northern Ireland a BBC program held a discussion about the Belfast Agreement in the context of Brexit and did so without one single pro Brexit and/or anti agreement contributor; this despite a large section of the population voting for Brexit and also voting against the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Similarly some prominent BBC presenters have become social media Remain campaigners with a daily deluge of anti-Brexit comments and the retweeting and sharing of Remain propaganda. If, for example (I have no idea whether he supports Brexit or Remain) Stephen Nolan was to turn his social media into a broadcast feed in support of Brexit and spend his days tweeting pro-Brexit comments, then there would be outrage and calls for his head. Yet in the cosmopolitan liberal world of social media no such issue is taken with BBC presenters and personalities, so long as they are activists for Remain. Do the BBC rules in terms of social media conduct and balance apply equally to all employees, or are they only enforced depending on whether your viewpoint is popular amongst the liberal elite, or not?
Kate Hoey is absolutely right to call out the imbalance in how Brexit is presented across many outlets, not least sections of the BBC. It is a fair debate to have and the attempt by Kay Burley to shut down a debate on the issue is in poor taste.
Whilst the current debate is a broad one, more specifically in Northern Ireland there is also an important debate to be had around how the loyalist community are treated by sections of the media. I find it absolutely appalling that many loyalists are named in the media and allegations made against them, and when I speak to some of the people involved I find that they are never contacted and offered the right of reply. That is simply unacceptable. If an IRA man is going to be named in the press then you can guarantee that at the very least Sinn Fein’s press officer would be contacted and the offer of a right to reply made. Loyalists are treated entirely differently. The argument that loyalists don’t engage is perhaps a fair one, but it does not in of itself trump the basic requirement to at least offer someone the right to reply if allegations are to be made against them. The person concerned may very well refuse to comment, but that does not- or should not- prevent strenuous efforts being made to contact the person and at least give them the opportunity.
Moaning about a lack of fairness or balance is ineffective; only actively challenging issues of unfairness and engaging can ensure that instances of Brexiteers in context of the wider debate, or loyalists in terms of the Northern Ireland specific point, being treated unfairly is the exception rather than the rule. The time honoured British tradition is that complaining is bad; newsflash, it isn’t.
Remainers, nationalists and left wing campaigners have been hugely effective in balancing out media coverage by simply relentlessly demanding balance and fairness, and robustly challenging any instances whereby there is a perception that such basic principles of independent journalism have been forsaken and the line between reporting and activism has been crossed.