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We must ask to what extent unbalanced media coverage is fueling societies divisions?
Lee Fang is a US investigative journalist. At the height of the George Floyd protests, he dared to tweet an interview with a black man expressing concern about black-on-black crimes. Immediately Lee's outraged colleagues at 'The Intercept' judged him guilty of 'thought-crimes'. Then they extracted a written apology and self-criticism. Mao's Red Guards would be proud.
Lee's experience is telling because activist journalists are hi-jacking newsrooms and won't tolerate dissenting voices. The Tom Cotton saga illustrates the point. Cotton, a serving US senator, wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in June entitled "Send in the Troops". Young staff members at the paper, under the guise of health and safety, objected. They asserted Cotton's views put journalists at risk, although their motivation was more likely to suppress Cotton's opinions.
In response, the New York Times implemented changes. These mean its editorial line is now in the hands of the activists. Along the way, senior staff at the paper have undertaken self-denunciation sessions. And so it came to pass that the Marxist cultural revolution arrived in the US media.
Sometime in 2019, at the height of Hong Kong's social unrest, I started to realise an odd phenomenon. Much of the coverage in the Western press and watched on international TV was out of kilter with events on the ground. In particular, the extreme violence of the protesters went ignored or down-played. But, any action by the police drew considerable attention and a tone of accusation. Often the full sequence of incidents failed to get a mention, giving the impression that police officers acted unprovoked.
As an example, our local channel RTHK spun one story to portray the police as ruining Christmas, but only giving passing mention to the actions of militants throwing petrol bombs.
It's important to note that this is not about lying or manufacturing untruths. Instead, the process is more subtle and akin to the tactics applied in psyops. Experts in manipulating populations know that you can't completely change a person's mind. But by the judicial use of cherry-picked facts, you can skew a narrative. Thus, you feed on people's existing sentiments, stoking them to new heights so that you push a particular outcome.
It's easy to illustrate. You repeat the message that the protests were peaceful and then only show images of the police using force. Tie that to a few interviews alleging police brutality, and bingo, that is the focus. If you can conjure up a so-called 'expert' that's even better.
Meanwhile, the injuries to police officers get ignored. RTHK did this on many occasions.
That the 'China Daily' newspaper tended to provide a balanced account of incidents was perplexing. Surely these Mainland outlets, the mouth-pieces of Beijing, couldn't be trusted? Also 'Russia Today' didn't fall into the rote reporting of the Western media. At first, I took these distortions as unique to the context of Hong Kong with anti-China media twisting the narrative.
Yet, recent events in the US and UK, described above, suggest this is not isolated to Hong Kong. Across the whole of the mainstream media, well-established principles are breaking down. The emerging picture is of journalism losing its way as the entire medium fractures.
In the process, the activists are challenging the old-guard liberals, free-speech journalists, who are fighting a rear-guard action. It all came into sharp focus recently as Covid-19 and the BLM movement acted as a catalyst to widen existing fault-lines that evolved over decades. These fractures are shaking the foundations of the media business with consequences for how people access truth. As with all aspects of life in the postmodern world, the very idea of truth is under threat.
To me, this is alarming. We must ask to what extent unbalanced media coverage is fueling societies divisions? Is this driving polarisation and violence?
As a kid growing up in 1960s/70s UK, the BBC news was a staple and revered. We trusted that Richard Baker and Angela Rippon spoke the truth to us. Rarely would anyone challenge the BBC. That is no longer the case, with its very existence in doubt given many questions over its evident bias in recent years.
We know a sea-change is taking place as de-centralised networked reporting emerges, much of it on social media. Along the way, trust in traditional media outlets dissipates.
Thus, in this period of transition, as the old media crumbles, its replacement is yet to form or be credible — if it ever will. And this is dangerous because, in a complex world, we need clarity. Unfortunately, the institutions that helped provide that clarity are fast fading. We have compromised universities, discredited experts and now a faltering media.
Part of the problem is that the business models that sustained the old media are no longer viable. This week Next Digital, which publishes the 'Apple Daily', reported a full-year loss of US$53 million. In the UK, The Guardian newspaper is begging for donations on the proposition it offers "factual information, and analysis that has authority and integrity." That one makes me laugh.
Meanwhile, there is an ongoing discussion about whether "go woke, go broke" or the reverse "go broke, go woke" is occurring. The former has readers driven away by biased coverage. In the latter, the old-school journalists leave to expose newspapers to the activist reporters. I suspect a bit of both. Also, you can't blame young people for seizing the opportunity to drive change. There is nothing new about this as passionate and full of vim kids, they want to make a difference.
Nevertheless, there is some agreement that in the context of the Western media, the old-school types sought balance and fairness in reporting of events. They adopted a professional approach, anchored in evidence and reliable facts. While, on the contrary, the activists arrive in newsrooms with a campaigning stance plus a willingness to suppress voices they don't believe should be heard. Granted this is an over-simplification, yet its frames the trend.
Of course, you could argue that journalists have always had a bias or an angle, and that's true to an extent. But, these days, when a group of people seize control of a newsroom to dictate the editorial line, you have to agree the situation has escalated.
In the US several notable newsroom rebellions are on record with young reporters sanctioning their seniors. There is anecdotal evidence that RTHK experienced a similar situation until management re-asserted control.
Part of the broader challenge is that people are exercising power through social media that's disproportionate to the merits of their reasoning. What astonishes me is that these threats to free speech do not come from governments. It's a woke-generation seeking to shut down voices. No debate or listening — instead intimidation, exclusion and shut-down. Here's an example — moderate old-school journalist Peter Hitchens greeted by a howling illiberal mob at Oxford University. He needed a police escort to exit the campus.
People enacted the same blind adherence to dogma on Hong Kong's streets during the anti-extradition protests. A few brave souls prepared to stand their ground against the mob were burnt, stoned or beaten unconscious. In response, so-called pro-democracy politicians and their supporters in the West turned a blind eye to these horrors. Then when the violence arrived on their streets, it prompted immediate condemnation without a hint of hypocrisy.
In our complex world, we are running through a dense forest with our eye-sight failing. We need a clear path before a collision with something substantial is inevitable with awful consequences. To get through this transition, first we need clarity, open debate, all voices heard and less bile for holding different views. We may get there, although at the moment the omens are not favourable. So, in the meantime, the grown-ups need to start taking charge in newsrooms.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.