Sunday, July 20, 2014

The fog of television and truth - the Daily Show

It is seen as the harbinger of truth, the deliverer of objective and impartiality news, illustrated by innumerable research. 

The most recent UK survey shows television news to be the most trusted; 75% of those surveyed rely on television for their news, compared with other media.

In the US television's trust quotient also runs high.

Any news transmitted across television screens invariably reaches a sizeable percentage of the population, and forces its content to be  taken seriously, to be believed, irrespective of the territory.

It is the reason why in the event of military coups, agents head straight for the television station, and why influential figures with media interests want to own one.

America's television news comes under scrutiny in US satirist Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Stewart lampoons, amongst other things, but mainly, the current reporting of the Israel-Hamas-Palestinian people story.

Stewart prods the coverage finding satire in an incendiary situation. The modus operandi mirrors what the alternative comedy scene started in the UK in the 1980s, with Tony Allen and Alexi Sayle, leading to shows such as Spitting Image.

I digress, however.

Looking to post on Stewart, I couldn't find a clean feed of the show at the time of writing, but did come across liberal viewer's  (LV) take on the show, which has amassed more than 700,00 views.

Now, this post isn't about LV per se. It seeks to provide necesssary context behind that thorny issue of impartiality.  In part, as you'll see it's a conflict between television, as an organ of truth and ownership by private individuals.

Using Stewart's Daily Show, LV also compares Fox News' coverage questioning a Palestnian legal advisor and an Israeli government official as a motif for impartial reportage. 

But there's a layer of explanation that should precede this, which is often absent from debates.

By dint of anything being shown on the television, the audience is inclined to believe what they see and hear. It is after all television, but it was crystallised by the regulators in the US (Federal Communications Commission) and the 1935 Selsdon Committee on behalf of Ramsay MacDonald's UK Labour governement.

Television was new. In her autobiography, Britain's pioneer of Television at the BBC Grace Wyndham Goldie writes of this new medium,

"The governed, in their millions could, at a single moment, see and judge the governors; the governors could appear to millions of individuals simultaneously and sway their emotion not only by their voices but by whatever personal magnetism and visual authority theiy possessed".

The BBC imported its doctrines of fairness and impartiality from radio to this new medium.  Its charter and licence was designed so that the 'BBC should not broadcast its own opinions in the matter of public policy'.

In the UK the 'impartiality rule' holds for UK broadcasters at the BBC, and Independent Television via the regulatory body OFCOM.

As explained by a former BBC senior executive, now Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University, Richard Sambrook notes,
'Impartiality means acting fairly because you are not personally involved or have to put to one side of your personal views or feelings. The elimination of bias'.

In effect, notwithstanding the regulations, impartiality it is an aspired to quality, as in reality impartiality as a utopian ideal is impossible. 

It lies in the eye of the beholder. But the regulatory framework in the UK exists, to hold the BBC and ITV to account, when concerns are raised by viewers, politicians and academics.

Today, in the US, no such regulation exist that prescribes broadcasters, such as Fox, ABC or NBC that they must adhere to the principles of impartiality.

A year after Fox was launched in 1987, the FCC ruled that its fairness doctrine, created in 1949, should be dropped.

There is no legally-binding obligation for Fox or otherwise to be fair or unbiased. Like a newspaper that can show its political affiliation, US networks are free to show their colours too.

Fox, that LV analyses, is merely producing the sort of television news it is free to do.

The issue appears to be the misconception that US networks, and Fox in particular should be impartial because the audience defers back to the issue of televsision as a truth, fairness and balance organ.

They have to do no such thing. Comparing Fox TV's output then with a standard for impartiality isn't necessary.