We enter dangerous waters when we deem some subjects above criticism and those who invoke the topics to be voicing immutable truth.
Last week news media around the world found themselves navigating shoals and reefs in a Force Five gale created by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The Duchess, Meghan Markle, invoked not one but two topics from that growing list of sacrosanct subjects – racism and mental health – and, while I have no doubt that life in the Royal spotlight pushed her to the edge of stability, their choice placed her words above criticism or even analysis.
Those who did criticise those elements of the two-hour interview immediately found themselves censured.
Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain was brutally blunt: “I’m sorry, I don’t believe a word she said, Meghan Markle. I wouldn’t believe it if she read me a weather report.” It cost him his job.
The British press reaction was generally hostile, although for many it was a self-serving excuse for past coverage highly critical of the former American actress.
Her former Suits co-star Wendell Pierce, who had labelled the interview “insignificant’ in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, was forced to ‘clarify’ his comments. He said he hadn’t seen the interview and did not know she had spoken about her mental health. He added that tabloids had “manipulated” his words.
It was much safer to concentrate on go-zone topics such as who made who cry (Kate or Meghan?) and whether she had Googled Harry’s name before they met. A New Zealand Herald editorial put it mildly: “The current game of thrones between the House of Windsor and the rebellious Duke and Duchess of Sussex is a battle for believability and public support waged through the British and American media. It’s hard not to view it all with a sceptical eye.”
Indeed, it is. And like Martin Bashir’s Panorama interview with the duke’s mother, Diana, clips from the Oprah programme will be trotted out for years to come.
It’s a fair bet that, while the relationship between the Sussexes and the Cambridges or Harry’s relationship with his father will be endlessly questioned and analysed, the no-go-zone elements relating to mental health and race are likely to be taken as unchallengeable statements of fact.
Media should, without a shadow of doubt, support those whose mental well-being is under strain. And it goes without saying that journalists have a vital role to play in the fight against racism and bigotry.
However, that does not prevent an interrogation of what has been said in order to put matters in their correct perspective.
We all react differently to situations and I do not presume to know exactly how Meghan Markle reacts. However, let me use two personal examples to illustrate that there may be more than one perspective to any given situation.
Back in December I revealed that a hiatus in this column had been caused by an episode of depression that I had suffered (https://knightlyviews.com/2020/12/22/before-i-was-rudely-interrupted/#more-1683). It was as real to me as Markle’s anxiety was to her. She had suicidal thoughts and so do many people suffering depression. I consulted my doctor and the episode is now in the past. Is it not unreasonable to ask why she did not seek medical help rather than a Royal courtier? The outcome may have been a good deal more positive.
The Sussex’s son Archie is a wonderful product of mixed races. So is mine. His mother, my first wife, is part Fijian. When she was pregnant with our son, I was asked by two relatives whether he would have dark skin. I put it down partly to mere curiosity and partly to their outmoded pre-war British upbringing. Yes, it was insensitive, but I kept it in context. At no stage did I believe that our son would be loved any less on the basis of the hue of his skin, and I certainly did not label my entire family as racists. Was the comment to the Sussexes in similar vein? It’s a reasonable question, the answer to which might provide more context that a stark Racist label that inevitably is applied to the whole family.
There are a wide range of topics that should be treated with sensitivity by journalists: Race, mental health, cultural and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, personal relationships to name a few. However, journalists must not mistake sensitivity for blind acceptance. They must not be cowed by a supposition that invoking one of the labels creates a legitimate no-go-zone for journalistic enquiry.
To do so turns subjects of real public interest into victims of a form of cancel culture where there is only one accepted narrative. That cannot be allowed to happen if journalists are to follow the fairness, accuracy and balance mantras of their craft, and if they are to hold people reasonably to account.
There is, however, a caveat to that statement. It relies on media organisations applying all of the tenets of good journalism. It places high value on treating some subjects and those affected by them with due regard to vulnerability and wider effects.
That rules out a large swathe of the world’s tabloid press, raucous broadcasters and salacious online media.
British journalist Otto English offers a telling example of how to recognise them: “We’re getting to the point where if Meghan Markle were to take a posy offered to her, the press would report it as: ‘Evil Duchess steals ﬂowers from child’.”
I guess Covid-19 and its stay-at-home restrictions had to have its good side and here it is.
All of the country’s metropolitan newspapers have recorded year-on-year gains in readership, according to the latest Nielsen survey.
The biggest gains are in the upper North Island. The New Zealand Herald recorded an extraordinary increase of 157,000 readers during 2020. Its average issue readership now sits at 612,000. The Waikato Times had a proportionately greater gain, rising by 25,000 to 67,000.
The Dominion Post recorded healthy growth of 24,000 to sit at 166,000 while the Otago Daily Times rose 16,000 to 107,000. Only The Press in Christchurch bucked the trend. Its readership was up only 2000 to 136,000.
In the Sunday newspaper market, the three titles made strong gains: The Herald on Sunday up 37,000 (now 362,000), Sunday News up 32,000 (100,000) and Sunday Star Times up 29,000 (235,000).
Total regional newspaper readership was up 67,000 to a combined readership (including the Waikato Times) of 655,000.