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A pig's head, the national anthem, and good journalism

Which part of David Cameron’s anatomy did he insert into a dead pig’s head while at Oxford? Perchance this might provide new insights into the refugee crisis, anthropogenic climate change or the impact of economic policies on vulnerable groups. No? Then why is it hogging the headlines? (I know. Ouch.)

Other than being a sensationalist swipe at Cameron’s personal history and morality, it’s hard to tell what else this story is meant to accomplish. The only reason it’s in the news appears to be because it shifted from being an exposé by a disgruntled Tory-supporting billionaire to qualifying as fair journalistic game.

This is not a defence of Cameron or the Tory government, but it is about questioning the role of an independent press in a liberal democracy. One could make similar observations about right-leaning media channels ripping Jeremy Corbyn apart for not singing the national anthem during a Battle of Britain memorial service. Sure, it was a public relations disaster for Labour and further confirmed what many knew about Corbyn’s personal politics, but what other information was this coverage meant to convey about his concrete programme as party leader?

One could argue that in Corbyn’s case the media spotlight is relevant. What does it mean now that Britain has an openly Republican Opposition Leader and potential Prime Minister? Is he planning to move a referendum to abolish the monarchy? Is there room in British democracy to enable a public leader to maintain a Republican conscience?

But that’s not where much of the media debate took us – it became about whether Corbyn is some traitorous Leftie buffoon who is in way over his head.

In “The Elements of Journalism”, American journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel outline ten elements common to good journalism. Here they are, as summarised by the American Press Institute

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
    Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can assess the information for themselves. 
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens
    Ignoring certain citizens – especially those who lack social power and privileges – effectively disenfranchises them.
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification
    Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal transparency in gathering and presenting information. This is what separates journalism from propaganda, advertising, fiction, or entertainment.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
    While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform – not their devotion to a certain group or outcome.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power
    More than simply monitoring government, journalists have an obligation to protect their watchdog role by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
    Journalism should also attempt to represent varied viewpoints and interests in society fairly and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate.
  7. It must strive to keep the significant interesting and relevant
    Journalism overwhelmed by sensationalism and false significance trivialises civic dialogue and ultimately public policy.
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
    Journalists damage their own credibility when they inflate events for sensation or when they neglect, stereotype, or are disproportionately negative about other viewpoints.
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience
    Those who provide news have a responsibility to voice their personal conscience out loud and allow others to do so also. They must be willing to question their own work and to differ with the work of others in the interests of fairness and accuracy.
  10. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news
    Individuals now know where to find information, online and offline. The journalist’s job is “to provide citizens with the tools they need to extract knowledge for themselves from the undifferentiated flood of rumour, propaganda, gossip, fact, assertion, and allegation the communications system now produces”. 

To me, these are excellent standards to evaluate media coverage of Cameron’s pig-head scandal and Corbyn’s national anthem debacle. And if some media outlets accord more or even equal prominence to these issues than the refugee and climate crises and the experiences of vulnerable or marginalised sectors of society, then something is very wrong. 

Shanon Shah is a writer, researcher and educator on religion, gender and sexuality and has a doctorate in the sociology of religion.