Jon Snow is being pilloried for being a biased broadcaster, after a Tweet from a reveller at the Glastonbury festival claimed he had heard the Channel 4 News presenter swearing against “the Tories” and expressing views in favour of Jeremy Corbyn. This on the day that the opposition leader addressed more than 100,000 people from the festival’s main Pyramid stage.
“Channel 4 has a duty to be impartial. So how can it employ Jon ‘Fuck the Tories’ Snow?” demanded Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, while his colleague Isabel Oakeshott took to Twitter to make the same point.
Simply by Googling “Jon Snow Tory remarks Glastonbury”, it appears that Snow is being widely reviled for his alleged anti-Conservative statements. He is accused of showing clear bias, something that – as a prominent journalist working for a publicly funded broadcaster – doesn’t look good. After all, Channel 4 is supposed to be strictly impartial, isn’t it?
Snow subsequently told the Huffington Post that he had “no recollection of what was chanted, sung or who I took over 1,000 selfies with”. But whether or not he said what he is alleged to have said, the storm surrounding the claim raises some interesting and important questions.
The principle of impartiality has been at the heart of public service broadcasting in the UK since the launch of the BBC in 1922. The impartiality was to act as a check on the possibility that broadcasting – given its power to reach mass audiences – might, at some point, be used by a government to sway opinion in favour of its people and policies.
The Office of Communications (Ofcom) is at present the regulator charged with ensuring that “news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”. When it comes to its journalistic activities, Channel 4 News journalists are bound by the same Ofcom rules that apply for the news operations of the BBC. Namely:
Reporting must be duly impartial, programmes or clearly-linked programmes must include and give due weight to an appropriately wide range of significant views and views and facts must not be misrepresented.
Ofcom can impose sanctions, including fines, for breaches of impartiality. But an alleged case like Jon Snow’s would likely be excluded, given that his anti-Tory remarks took place outside the context of his employer’s programming.
Fair and balanced
The ideal of impartiality in journalism has a variety of siblings in terms such as fairness, balance, neutrality and objectivity – and various codes followed by established news organisations around the world pay at least lip service to these ideals. But more recently the rise of blogs and social media has meant that for some time now audiences have been able to customise their intake of news content and political commentary.
People have therefore become more likely to consume journalism that resembles their life experiences and points of view. A lot of work has been done about the way this encourages individuals to live in news “bubbles”. When presented with information contrary to their beliefs, they are also likely to harden their views – even when these are based on demonstrably erroneous information and clear attempts to mislead and disinform.
No wonder then that developments such as fake news and the politics of controversy stoked by politicians such as Donald Trump and the champions of Brexit in the UK, are now exposing the unsuitability of traditional journalistic norms.
Objectivity is a red herring
While news organisations and experts struggle to solve the challenge of what US academic Danah Boyd describes as the hacking of the attention economy, the discussion about partiality may be tackled from the more obvious premise that such values as neutrality and objectivity are a red herring.
To find common ground on the paradigms of journalistic practice, one would do well to draw on Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, a book published in 2003 based on 21 public forums and interviews with more than 300 journalists.
Summarised here, the authors conclude that objectivity was not so much a condition to be embodied by journalists – but by their methods for news gathering and their transparency regarding questions about how and/or from whom they obtained their information. Thus:
Whether it is secrecy or inability, the failure by journalists to articulate what they do leaves citizens all the more suspicious that the press is either deluding itself or hiding something.
Which brings us back to Jon Snow. His views have long been known to skew on the side of progressive or “left-wing” politics and have often fuelled debate, like when he expressed his views against Israel’s bombing of Gaza in Palestine or when he became involved in an experiment to demonstrate the effects of cannabis on the brain, which was said, at the time, to be “very Jon Snow”.
And let’s face it, if Snow is a spin doctor for any particular political stance, he is not a very serious one. His contention that he has “no recollection” of the incident makes it all too easy for his critics to dismiss him as less than serious, or say that – at 69 – he is well past the age of retirement.
As far as I am concerned, Snow’s transparency about his politics suggests that the criticisms of what he may or may not have said at Glastonbury are just standard politicking. And there’s nothing impartial about that.