On journalists taking sides

John Harris’ article in the Guardian today has sparked a discussion within the NUJ’s Ethics Council, of which I am a member. The subject is the line between journalism as impartial reportage and opinion. What follows below is a reworking of my reaction to Harris.

Harris raises some interesting points about the line between analysis and advocacy, but Labour MP Dennis Skinner (who is quoted in the article) is right about the impossibility of journalists being separate from that on which they report. You can see evidence of this in Harris’ own writing for the Guardian.

Harris has a huge talent for vox-pop journalism. He interviews far and wide, and his articles come across as representative samples of popular opinion in the communities on which he reports. At the same time, Harris is involved, and he wears his politics on his sleeve. Harris may not be an activist, in the sense that his is a card-carrying member of, say, the Brexit resistance, but he is not neutral. This does not preclude Harris from balanced reporting, but, as is so often the case, the ethical line is neither clear nor fast.

Harris’ reference to Times columinist Hugo Rifkind’s comments on the Canary/Evolve/Breitbart/Westmonster axis is a bit of a straw man, given that reasonable observers would, I dare to suggest, regard all of these publications as extreme, and clearly non-journalistic. And I say this knowing that the NUJ has members working for at least two of these activist outlets.

As for Harris’ conclusion, he himself shows that it is perfectly possible to be a proper journalist and not hide personal feelings. There are many other contemporary examples of quality, professional journalism, although it is possibly more difficult to be such in an age of clickbait wibbling and social media excess.

Harris follows in the footsteps of such journalistic giants as James Cameron and Neal Ascherson: respected reporters and commentators who looked (and in the latter case continue to look) outwards into the world, ask penetrating questions of its inhabitants, and then report honestly and comment on the answers received.

Journalists must ensure that personal prejudices do not cloud their professional judgement, but like all other citizens they have a right to free expression. Given that in practice this very often means personal opinions being shared in the public domain, the public will invariably associate particular journalists with specific political stances. For example, I associate former Newsnight and Channel 4 News correspondent Paul Mason with post-Trotskyism, and often disagree with his commentary, but I still rate him as a politics and economics reporter.

Skinner was being provocative, but he had a point, of sorts, and in this case I don’t think the journalist handled it particularly well by insisting “I’m just here to ask questions”. Personally, I would have engaged directly with the question, and then lobbed another challenge back at the Beast of Bolsover.

Journalists may be messengers, but not in the same way that posties deliver letters.