Blair’s mad eye and British censorship

WHAT IS objectivity? Two London Freelance Branch members - Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell and broadcast journalist Bruce Whitehead - pondered that difficult question at the Branch meeting in November.

Steve Bell (left) and Bruce Whitehead at the meeting

Steve Bell, NUJ member since 1979 and with the Guardian since 1981, sees himself as a journalist, and resents "cartoonist" being used as a byword for sloppiness. He described New Labour sultan of spin Peter Mandelson coming to a Guardian meeting. "Mandelson said he didn't bother trying to 'spin' to Bell as I was 'a mere cartoonist'." Steve took that as "a great accolade, a badge of honour, I'm in the one branch of journalism he couldn't hope to spin to."

Steve admitted that political cartoonists "do exaggerate, bend, ridicule". But "we do also write, to some purpose, in pursuit of a greater or hidden truth about the subject." He reminded us that the concept of objectivity has its origins in objectif, "French for a lens - one that distorts. Caricature doesn't work unless it has some truth about it."

Steve gave an example of a hidden truth in cartoons: "Blair's mad eye, inherited from Thatcher". He built his "caricature on the fact that Thatcher has one staring eye and one hooded eye: I observed it (in the flesh, I never saw it in photos, until a picture of her on the day she was kicked out - in the Financial Times. If you stalked her (Thatcher) with a hide you wouldn't see it. The strange thing about Blair is that he has it too, that mad eye. You see it in a flash, and more so in the last few years when he gets a bit wild."

Steve once had a cartoon censored. One word in a speech balloons of Dr David Owen's - of whom the Guardian were "very fond at the time" - was changed. As Steve pointed out, this meant forging his handwriting. The Guardian's reason for subbing his cartoon was that he had "traduced what the man had said... well, it's my job!"

How can we achieve objectivity? Steve believes this will not come through "any amount of fact-checking - loathsome bloody concept - it's to do with integrity and the fact that one trusts a journalist."

Bruce Whitehead has witnessed threats to objectivity in reporting. A former producer at ITN, the BBC and CNN, he joined British Satellite News (BSN) in Riyadh, believing it was "a bona fide news service".

Reporting on a visit by Bill Rammell, then UK Minister for Lifelong Learning, to the Saudi Parliament, Bruce was censored not by the Saudis but the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Rammell challenged the Saudis on their democracy and human rights record, at which point "our" ambassador immediately dismissed the Saudi translator for "not being up to the job". Rammell continued with another interpreter whispering in his ear.  Bruce was able to get a translation of the exchange in his report, which went out to the Arab world. But by then, the script had been heavily subbed, with all the "critical stuff replaced with 'areas for democracy to be developed'."

Bruce gives the story in more detail in the September-October 2007 issue of The Journalist, although he said he pitched it to Matt Wells of the Guardian, who told him the BSN was "not a story."

Bruce described another event he covered for BSN at foreign affairs institute Chatham House. Sections of the UN report on Internally Displaced Persons were censored by the Foreign Office. Bruce lasted a year at BSN. He quoted Seymour Hirsch, who said that there is "a certain point at which to write honestly is to write critically."

Bruce found objectivity hard to define. "When you do it, you know. Treating subjects apart form one's own personality: that is objectivity. If it comes from your own ego, it's subjective." Objective reporting is "based on fact and evidence and not feelings or opinion... Report what you see or believe to be true from trusted sources. What is trust? That's a question for another time."

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