War and Peace

Peace Journalism is at best meaningless, and at worst a uniquely unhelpful and misleading prescription for journalism in general, and broadcast journalism in particular. Growing out of their Reporting the World series, Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick demand nothing less than a ‘revolution’ in journalism practice, using this definition in their new book:

“Peace Journalism is when editors and reporters make choices – of what stories to cover and about how to report them – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict.” The opposite of this, ie all other ways of doing journalism, are condemned as “War Journalism, biased in favour of war”.

This approach describes an active participation that is simply not the role of a journalist, and is based on a flawed notion that the world would be a better place if we did not report wars, or if we were to report wars in a certain prescribed way, encouraging peacemakers rather than reporting warriors. This prescription is the more dangerous part of Peace Journalism, as it tries to define itself as a new orthodoxy. The idea that most reporters currently  look only for the epicentre of violence, or are somehow addicted to conflict, is absurd. If anything, we under-report conflict in the world – certainly often failing  to expose it in the early days, before major violence breaks out.

What is proposed is a way of working that demands that reporters artificially seek out peacemakers. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the Peace Journalism case, its prescriptive nature alone should make it suspect. The searching inquiry carried out into BBC journalism by the former senior news manager Ron Neil in the wake of the Hutton debacle explicitly ruled out this kind of approach, saying ‘highly prescriptive rules inhibit good journalism’.

Much  of  the intellectual constructs under-pinning Peace Journalism are just statements of the obvious: eg the presence of journalists influences the events they cover; absolute objectivity is impossible; there may be more than two parties to a conflict. But the edifice built on this demands that every journalist becomes an active player in conflict, responsible for seeking out ways of ending it. This  is  simply not  our function. The theoretical constructs of Peace Journalism also bear very little relation to how actual conflicts can actually end, and the role of the press. Of course our reporting changes the things we witness – we become part of the debate. But if we go in with the idea that we should change things in a certain way then it is all over.

That is not to say that everything in journalism is fine. In a world where Fox News, with its comic-book view of foreign news, can try to patent the notion of being ‘Fair and Balanced’, and where most British newspapers take a strong ‘line’ one way or another on conflicts, there are problems. Seeing the Sun trying to find good news from Iraq has had a sort of black humour in recent months. The affair of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction raised searching questions in newsrooms on both sides of the Atlantic as it should have. Research findings showing that most of the British television audience believe it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are ‘occupying’ territory should set alarm bells ringing.

But the solution surely is a better application of known methods, not an attempt to reinvent the wheel. What we need is a fuller context in the reporting of events, using objectivity and impartiality to discover the truth. One respondent to an earlier piece I wrote on this online pointed me to the book Truth and Truthfulness by the philosopher Bernard Williams, who defines truthfulness as ‘a readiness against being fooled and eagerness to see through appearances to the real structure and motives that lie behind them’ – about as good a definition of the reporter’s craft as there is. Both the reporter and the audience need to know that there is no other agenda than explaining what is going on – that what you read, see on the screen or hear on the radio is an honest attempt at objectivity; that reporters treat any and every event with an informed scepticism, rejecting any attempt to co-opt them into involvement in bogus things like Peace Journalism. Conflict resolution is something we report on, not something we engage in.

In the world of press conferences and media opportunities which surround us, the only reporting that matters is off piste – finding out what is really going on. And there is simply not enough of it around. The business of reporting foreign news is under threat from many sources. The deep dives in commercial revenues and a drive for audiences make it harder to report a wide agenda on mainstream outlets. The collapse of serious documentary-making cuts away another prop for those who want to understand world issues. The tyranny of the satellite dish tends to encourage quantity, sometimes at the expense of quality, on live 24 news channels. These are the real challenges facing journalism, best faced by clear, consistent accurate reporting that attempts to be agenda-neutral, rather than having other expectations, such as conflict-resolution, loaded on board. Peace Journalism’s ethical checklist would fence us in to the detriment of understanding.