Let's find the story in the facts, not the other way around
ALL journalism, arguably, is about conflict, because
that's what makes mere facts into a story. Even the write-up of a
freebie laid on by the makers of the Schlongmobile is, possibly, not
mere puffery if it argues the competing virtues of the Ferrari Dong.
But it still doesn't meet the other definition, attributed to any
press magnate you care to name: no-one is trying to stop you writing it.
Our speakers at the April Branch meeting, then, were certainly dealing
with real news when they tried, by different routes, to cover the
protests in Genoa last July.
Bill Hayton was there as a freelance and an established journalist.
He'd taken time off from the BBC in order to cover the protests -
around the summit of "G8" rich country leaders - independently.
He treated the meeting to a discussion of why reports so often get
protest wrong - "the most thoughtful I've heard on that
subject," one member said.
The question he asked is fundamental: "Why do journalists
allow facts to be fitted into narratives rather than finding the
narratives in the facts?" When it comes to street protest,
the overwhelmingly dominant "narrative" is "cops
versus louts" - even when that's a very small part of
what's going on.
People taking part in protests could, in theory, provide an
opposing view. But finding them takes effort, whereas official
sources fairly blare out. Many shun "the capitalist media"
entirely. And that's perhaps not surprising when, as Bill said,
journalists trust the official line and don't trust dissidents
- and so misrepresent the dissidents by rewriting what they say
to fit the preconceived story.
Why? "The answer," Bill suggested, "is to do with
the hierarchy of the newsroom and the requirements of advancing your
career." Freelances more than anyone know that one makes a
living by coming up with the neat stories that editors want, not
blatting out wodges of undigested facts.
And editors are subject to pressure from outside - as when, days
before the meeting, the Israeli state threatened to close the BBC's
Jerusalem bureau unless it pulled correspondents from Ramallah in the
West Bank. Running a blank screen with a voice-over about censorship
might be the honourable response to that, but it won't pull ratings.
But "the BBC has finally woken up to the fact that there is
an alternative media," Bill said, "and is commissioning the
occasional piece from them." Part of that alternative is
Mark Covell told the meeting that he went to Genoa as a
"dispatcher" - the equivalent of a page sub, posting
news to the Web as it came in.
He thanked the Branch for "the support I received while I was in
hospital in Genoa, accused of being a terrorist and facing 10 years in
an Italian jail" That came after he was beaten
up and arrested by Carabinieri outside the Indymedia building.
Indymedia was formed shortly before the 1999 protests at the Seattle
World Trade Organization meeting. At first, there "was 'warfare'
between it and the corporate media." But by the time of Genoa,
more traditional journalists were coming to Indymedia for information
from the streets. They included Bill, who'd dropped by the office to
visit Mark only to see him being kicked half to death on the street
The trend continues. Mark came to London Freelance Branch in between
stints posting news from Indymedia correspondents in the West Bank.
At the time they were the only source of outside witness reports
of the Israeli occupation - not least because they were as much
trapped as the residents.
We wouldn't expect to answer the questions raised by all this in
one meeting. There's a lot more to discuss: the way operations like
Indymedia are changing journalism, and it them; what we mean by
"objectivity" when so many objects are controlled by the
powers that be; and how concerns for the safety of journalists
sit alongside reporting from, say, someone who's decided to
accompany ambulances under artillery as a human shield for human
rights. For starters.