Unless everyone accuses you of bias, you’re doing it wrong

Enda gives Obama a rhetorical lesson- or is it the other way round?

“The only way you’ll ever know an article on the Middle East is correct is if everyone on all sides hates it”.

So spoke a journalism professor to a seminar I attended on bias in news reporting. It’s a great process of elimination – if everyone hates it equally, then you’ve remained impartial.

There are those who argue that it is one of the functions of the media to be biased, to provide comment which balances the output of corporations and government, and in many cases that’s true.

This blog, for instance, gives me an outlet for my own opinions which, due to the nature of my work, have no place in straightforward reporting of news, politics or sport. The comment and op-ed pages in our newspapers are valuable vehicles for debate and ideas.

The problem arises when comment starts to masquerade as news.

Take Enda and the “plagiarised” lines from Obama at College Green this week, about which Colin Murphy provides an excellent explanation over at politico.ie.

I’m usually the first to give Enda a good kicking in these pages, but not this time.

This time, he didn’t “plagiarise” anything – he engaged in a simple, respectful and powerful rhetorical device, and to interpret it otherwise is disingenuous.

But of course, in Irish media it was reported as “plagiarism”, instead of the skilful piece of  political theatre performed before a master of the art that it actually was.

As most people are aware, plagiarism is a terrible crime in both journalism and academia, and those accusing Enda Kenny of it knew exactly what they were doing, regardless of their political colours.

Whether they are disappointed with him for dragging his feet over how to make the poor poorer, or cut thousands of jobs from the civil service, essentially they wished to paint the Taoiseach as a fraud and a gombeen.

They wanted to give the impression of a man stupid enough to steal the words of the American President and then repeat them in front of him.

I disagree with some of Colm’s conclusions, in that I don’t think speed or social media has anything major to do with such distortions. For me it’s more a simple lack of humility and respect on the part of those reporting the events.

Just as economists have become our newest celebrities, it is far too easy these days for the reporter to become the story.

We all know who Charlie Bird and Anne Doyle and Ingrid Miley and Kay Burley are, but that is something that doesn’t matter – what matters is what they are reporting and how.

Because most of us want to make up our own minds, what we want is news based on facts, not hearsay or opinion from someone with no respect for or knowledge of the subjects with which they are dealing.

With the possible exception of the staggeringly ill-informed Burley, there are far worse culprits out there than those named above.

The reason I always wanted to work for the Reuters news agency was because of the principles and strict guidelines that cover how we report- these apply to every journalist, including freelancers like me. It’s not just that they make it easier for us to be unbiased in our reporting – they demand it.

Some might find it difficult to work under such circumstances, but I feel the opposite – it moves journalism out of the shadows, liberating its practitioners to do their best work. It also reminds us that it is what we are reporting – and not we who report it – that is important.

Which is why I’m looking forward to next week. Despite the fact that I find most of the professional athletes I meet boorish and unapproachable, I’ll write another article about Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Swedish national team, and then sit back and wait for the mails to come in.

And as soon as I’ve had complaints from the fans of Malmö, Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Sweden, the former Yugoslavia and anywhere else you care to mention, I’ll know I’ve gotten it just right.

Two words that don’t sit well

US President Barack Obama lays a wreath at Ground Zero in New York City.

Language is a powerful tool, even when wielded by those unskilled in its use.

Strange then to see such an accomplished practitioner as Barack Obama learning the hard way that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword – and how easy it can be to cut oneself.

The “fog of war”/”blatant lies” arguments about the spin doctoring eminating from the White House are being done to death elsewhere, so instead I’d rather concentrate on the use of two words that are proving to be very subjective in relation to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The first is “hiding”. I think it’s blatantly obvious that, by living in the heart of the Pakistani military community, bin Laden wasn’t “hiding” from everyone -some maybe, but certainly not everyone.

To continue to use this term is to validate Pakistan’s ludicrous claims that they didn’t know where he was these past five years, when he was living cheek by jowl with some of their top military brass.

Whatever he was doing – being “shielded”, “protected”, “under house arrest” – “hiding” wasn’t it.

If the first step to wisdom is, as the Chinese proverb says, to call things by their proper names, then we must stop saying that bin Laden was “hiding” in Pakistan.

Only then will we be able to get to the bottom of who knew what, who was trying to protect him, for how long and why.

Then there is the second is the word that rang around the world as the echo of the shots that killed him faded away- “justice”. Just as George W Bush misused it in the aftermath of September 11, so did Obama now.

Feel free to go ahead and claim your “revenge”, or your “vengeance”, or even claim “victory” (eight years to the day prior to that, Bush leveraged his unique brand of audacity and stupidity to declare “mission accopmplished” in Afghanistan. The troops are still there), but don’t claim that “justice has been done” when you’ve just seen your troops shoot an unarmed man in the face in what amounts to an extra-judicial execution.

Justice implies a moral judgement- that one side is right and the other wrong. Our western democratic sense of what justice is and how it should be administered is what sets us apart, and it was roundly ignored in the the race to ice bin Laden.

There was no trial, no gathering of evidence for presentation “before twelve men good and true”. There was no attempt made to take the fugitive alive. There was a shot to the chest, another to the head and a speedy burial. That, according to President Obama, is justice.

But the president was not for turning, and in an echo of his predecessor’s Wild West rhetoric, he made his claim that justice had been served, and repeated them at Ground Zero.

In speaking directly to an American audience, Obama he said that “justice has been done”, and in that moment he unwittingly legitimised every illegal activity that is or has been undertaken in the war on terror, from Guantanamo and internment to the audacious breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty during the raid to kill their biggest- and by now most irrelevant – enemy.

But there is no “American audience” any more in these matters. The whole world was listening, and many of them didn’t recognise this “justice” he spoke of. Many of them felt ill at ease with how it was meted out too.

But as he mused over the release of the death photos of the most wanted man in the world, Obama was to discover the great advantage of the modern media landscape. There is no quiet acquiescence any more, and those around the world that felt ill at ease were about to make their voices heard.

Because nowadays, what you say and what you do in a position of power can be analysed and pored over and argued until its true meaning in the wider scheme of things becomes apparent.

And the more one looks at the massive amounts of material and statements and pictures, the harder it is to conclude anything other than that this is the first shots of the next US presidential campaign.

This is Obama trying to tell us and the American voters who he really is, even if he is not. But as time goes on, what should have been one of his finest hours as president is in danger of backfiring on him. He could actually have fixed the bad guy, only to find that the folks vote some other guy in as sheriff.

What he and his administration needs to do now is start telling the truth, so enough with the “hiding” and enough with the “justice”, and tell us what really happened, and why.

It’s time to start calling things by their proper names.