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Is the Leveson Inquiry missing the bigger picture?

14th June 2012

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In his articles documenting the 1972 US Presidential election, the pioneer of gonzo journalism Hunter S. Thompson claimed “there is no such thing as objective journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms”. This is an interesting theory, especially in the context of the recent Leveson Inquiry.

Numerous issues have been discussed in the ongoing inquiry, but the vast swathes of information that have come to light regarding press practices have perhaps clouded our individual and collective consciousness.

The media coverage of the inquiry has itself become bogged down in reporting ‘small’ factors such as the role and actions of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. Questions are being asked of Prime Ministers going back as far as John Major. By seeking to question and apportion blame to certain individuals and pore over minute details, any sense of the bigger picture is lost. Sometimes it may be a good practice to ignore the small details and try to look at the issue as a whole.  The bigger picture is maybe what the Leveson Inquiry is failing to address.

The conduct, practices, and output of various individuals and publications revealed in the Leveson Inquiry seem to imply that the media has no sense of objectivity. Rather than report events as they happen in an impartial manner, publications put a certain spin on their story. Many tabloid newspapers, like The Sun, have an unapologetic, self-confessed agenda – such as their support of the Conservatives in the last general election. Broadsheets such as The Guardian and The Independent also have their own agendas, despite being more subtle in their presentation. This is forgivable, as newspapers represent certain sectional interests. As Thompson said, there is no such thing as objective journalism – it is a myth.

However, objective journalism is a myth that seems to have given rise to a worrying fact. People’s opinions are shaped, consciously and subconsciously, by newspapers that claim subjective interpretations as objectively true. Most people receive their information about what is happening locally, and worldwide, from a small amount of news sources and therefore access to a wide range of different perspectives is severely restricted. If people didn’t take everything for granted from the small pool of news sources they consulted, it could lead to real changes. How many people’s voting inclinations and political standpoints are based on the ideas spouted by newspapers that peddle their own opinions as fact?

Instead of reporting events as they happen in a totally impartial manner newspapers are active political players, directly influencing not only what people think but what people do. Anybody who has ever read a newspaper, or watched the news on TV, has been influenced.  This is reflected in how people vote or what groups and policies they support.   

The Leveson inquiry could result in big changes; it must be admitted. It may encourage reporters and bosses in the press to rethink the methods in which they obtain their stories for example. However, this does not solve, or even come close to solving, the problem of our media. The current situation in the news-media is one where the subjective is presented as objective.

If one subscribes to Hunter S. Thompson's view that objectivity in journalism is impossible then the only solution is to take advantage of the current system which, despite lacking objectivity, does present people with a wide array of different news sources.

What could be beneficial is for people to widen the range of news sources they consult in both quantity and political leaning. Who has a better understanding of an issue – those who just read The Sun or those who consult a wide variety of newspapers, online blogs, websites etc?  You could take this even further, by encouraging people to consult publications that question their opinion, rather than cement it. Would it not make sense for a Guardian reader to occasionally read The Sun, just to see what people are saying on the other side of the fence? By reading from a wide variety of sources – even if they do have self-confessed agendas; at least it will give people a wider understanding of events taking place around them.

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