Idea of 'letting the facts speak for themselves' is balderdash

The media is itself an institution of power and it reflects the ethos of the elites of power. The idea that it is 'objective' or 'impartial' is a mirage. By Vincent Browne.

Leo Varadkar thinks RTÉ has a “liberal” bias, by which I think he means a “left-wing” bias and that it is promoting a “particular agenda”, presumably a “left-wing” agenda.

I cannot imagine with what spectacles Leo watches RTÉ, which, through my spectacles, is suffused with a right-wing perspective, but the idea that there is a uniform agenda pursued by RTÉ is crazy. That’s not needed anyway; the right-wing reflex comes naturally.

This underscores the struggle the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) will have to undergo as it seeks to define over the next while (deadline for submissions is today) the idea of “objectivity” and “impartiality” in broadcasting, required by the 2009 Broadcasting Act.

The BAI might find amusing an attempt by RTÉ to grapple with the subject of objectivity back in 2000. The attempt was the “RTÉ programme makers’ guidelines” and in the section headed “legal framework” there is the following elucidation of the idea of “objectivity”: “There is a philosophical debate about the possibility of objectivity. Some philosophers argue that everything is subjective and that there are no absolute truths. However, in the practical world of broadcasting the important consideration must be that programme-makers strive to achieve objectivity.”

In other words, RTÉ was saying that there may be problems with this idea of “objectivity” but we will ignore that and insist that programme-makers must strive to achieve objectivity, although we don’t really know what that means and we couldn’t be bothered teasing it out.

That same RTÉ document in the same section states: “News should be strictly factual.” Later on in the section dealing with “accuracy” it cites a cliché, which, it claims, is worth repeating: “Let the facts speak for themselves.” It goes on to offer another cliché: “Do not underestimate the ability of the audience to understand the facts without embellishment or comment.”

Happily, from the perspective of RTÉ’s own audience, its programme-makers have ignored this.

Audiences require facts to be contextualised to understand their significance and contextualising inevitably requires the application of values to the facts at issue, the discernment of what is important and what is of less importance, and the significance of those facts.

This exercise was done brilliantly by two RTÉ correspondents at the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, George Lee and David Murphy. Unavoidably, they mixed fact with opinion and they brought their own values to bear on those facts. And because of the complexity of the facts concerned, the audience required such analysis to understand what was going on and to appreciate the significance of facts presented to it.

So this thing of “letting facts speak for themselves” and not underestimating the “ability of the audience to understand the facts without embellishment or comment” is just balderdash.

More than ever at a time of a profusion of technical, complex information, we citizens need people with expertise to contextualise facts, to explain their significance and, unavoidably, this involves subjective decisions on the part of the commentators in identifying which facts are the important facts and the significance to attach to these facts. And this necessity involves the tortured idea of ideology, an affliction we all share, however unconscious we may be of that affliction.

For people with the perspective of Leo Varadkar, for whom incidentally I have a lot of regard, this ideology stuff is just bonkers. But Leo is chock full of ideology himself and it is likely he shares with most programme-makers in RTÉ a settled ideological position on the Irish financial crisis.

It probably goes somewhat like this: There is no alternative to the austerity now, an austerity that – however, unfortunately – impacts most on the most deprived, for if we fail to rectify our fiscal deficit, we will fail to get the support from beneficent strangers and, ultimately, from the dispassionate markets, and, if that happens, it is a catastrophe for everyone. The suggested alternative of having the rich pay for the crisis ignores the necessity for incentives to create jobs and additional wealth for society generally.

But there is a different construction, arising from a different ideological perspective and it might go along the following lines:

We are asked to accept that the primary concern of the masses must now be the contentedness of the privileged and wealthy, lest they cease to lend us the finance to fund our deficits, lest they cease to create wealth or delay doing so and lest the trickle down of wealth to the masses be shut off. But why should we go along with a system that is so spectacularly unjust even to the extent of imposing on the mass of the Irish people tens of billions of debt that was never theirs and that distributes wealth socially created in such a socially unjust way?

The idea that the media is independent, impartial, objective, committed to the discovery of truth and the holding to account of the persons and institutions of power in society is a mirage. It is itself an institution of power and it reflects the ethos of the elites of power.

Without an acknowledgement of this reality, rules governing broadcasting can only domesticate the manners and style of news and current affairs compilation and presentation and enforce the settled ideological consensus, under the guise of objectivity or impartiality.