I have been accused of being a “bullying, old, white man”. I emphatically deny the first but plead guilty to the remaining three charges as the truth stares back at me from the mirror.
The charges were laid when I called for less rigid interpretation of the rules I had helped to write for a social media page. No, you didn’t misread that: I called for a relaxation of moderation, not a tightening.
The accusation of bullying therefore left me confused but then a light went on in my head.
Of course! Bullying is when you say something with which someone else disagrees.
I was less confused about the use of age, ethnicity and gender as stinging rebukes because I’m getting used to it. Sticks and stones and so on. However, something about the way the four charges were laid has left me deeply worried.
I was going to say that I had become a victim of cancel culture, but I fear blood-stained Vladimir Putin sucked the legitimacy out of that indictment when he claimed the West was trying to “cancel” Russia and its history as it did to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling over statements on sexual identity.
I have been the recipient of a clear message that what I had to say has no value because it did not accord with the views of (I am led to assume) a majority, and I was out of touch with ‘reality’ because I conformed to unacceptable stereotypes. If that was insufficient to establish my unworthiness, I was also deemed to no longer be “a working journalist”.
Those stereotypes were based on assumptions that those over a certain age were stuck in the past, that being Pākeha (“white”) imbues an unassailable sense of social and cultural superiority, and that males are inherently domineering and dismissive. No longer being part of a newsroom assumed I knew nothing of “today’s journalism”.
I don’t claim to be perfect, but I am comfortable in the knowledge that I am not an exact fit for those stereotypes. And – through research, consultancy, and acquaintances – I know what is going on in today’s newsrooms.
So why should I be worried if I can satisfy myself that the collective stereotype is misplaced?
My reaction was borne out of the realisation that, although they have almost certainly never read the opening lines of L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between, there is now a generation convinced that the past is a foreign country in which things are done differently. The stereotypes with which I was associated were collectively a signature for a bygone age.
Unfortunately, because it was published seventy years ago, they are unaware that a central theme of the book is naivety.
It is naive to think that the past has no relevance to what we do today. As for journalism, it is downright dangerous to think that the digital age – in which the stereotypers grew up – swept away all that went before and reinvented it.
Yes, there are aspects of journalism that are a moving feast. They reflect society’s own changes and are carried along by them. Take language: Although we have been converting nouns to verbs for centuries, ‘to medal’ or ‘to podium’ would have had the sub-editors of my youth in a state of life-threatening apoplexy.
The tools of trade have changed. When I began my career in the 1960s, my tools differed little from those 30 or 40 years before me – pen and pad, typewriter, telephone and being teamed with a photographer using a black-and-white roll film camera invented in the 1920s. My mates in broadcasting weren’t much better off, weighed down by tape-recorders and film-based newsgathering.
We sat, however, on the edge of immense change and it would be irritating, to say the least, were those dismissive of old men (and women) to realise that we handed them their digital playground – developing it from cumbersome analogue/digital conversion to the fully-fledged Internet, news websites and digital news production.
Yet some things did not change. Most notably, the tenets of journalism – those principles and ingrained practices that define the craft – did not change.
In 1947 (coincidentally the year of my birth) The Hutchins Commission in the United States published a report that set out the standards for a free and responsible media:
- A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.
- A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
- The presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society.
- Free access to the day’s intelligence.
What has changed in the ensuing 75 years? Nothing. Those standards remain the central purposes of journalism.
Put simply, today’s “working journalists” are the inheritors, not the creators of journalism. So, as I said in my farewell to that particular social media page, they will be the poorer if they believe the knowledge, experience and (at times) wisdom possessed by their journalistic forebears is irrelevant.
That possibility saddened me, but it was not what worried me.
What worried me was the willingness to bring down a shutter on discussion that interfered with a particular world view.
That isn’t a generational phenomenon limited to millennials and Gen Zers. It is a current affliction that spans all demographics and many socio-political beliefs. In her book Fascism: A warning, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke of an unwillingness to listen to what others say and, in some cases, to even allow them to speak. Rather than thinking critically, she said, we seek out people who share our opinions and who encourage us to ridicule the ideas of those whose convictions and perspectives clash with our own.
Journalists should have no part of that sort of thinking. Yet I fear this generation of journalists is complicit in some of it.
Matters dealing with race, gender (old men excepted), image and identity are handled with kid gloves. Debate on some subjects – such as the mātauranga Māori letter to the Listener signed by seven scientists – has become one-sided. ‘Old-fashioned’ views have no validity. We can only guess at what subjects get no exposure at all.
This is fundamentally different from normal news selection processes. Journalism has always been selective. Limits of space and time and the testing of stories against sets of (often uncodified) news values have always determined that some stories make in into print or on air and others do not.
There are also limits to what the New York Times’ masthead describes as “all the news that’s fit to print”. Outside those limits are such things as hate speech but some sections of the boundary must be contestable in order to prevent their use to stifle legitimate debate. Nevertheless, any redrawing of that boundary must be done collectively, carefully, and conservatively if society is to preserve a meaningful public sphere. Without a shadow of doubt, it should not be an amorphous and arbitrary process but I fear it is heading that way.
When Adolph Ochs, owner of the New York Times coined the ‘fit to print’ phrase in 1897 he wrote it as a declaration that the paper intended to report the news impartially. That remains a central tenet not only of the Times but of journalism in general. It requires journalists to set aside their own opinions or biases and, by presenting multiple viewpoints, provide the fuel for discussion and debate that is implicit in the Hutchins Commission’s standards.
Those who would limit the course of such debate – or who would prevent the discussion from unfolding at all – might argue they are simply reflecting public opinion. Yet are they doing so? By what measure do they seek to know what most people are thinking?
Journalists should not use perceived majority views as some sort of selection yardstick. To do so risks falling into what German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann called a “spiral of silence” that stifles alternative opinion. The centrifugal force which accelerates the spiral of silence is fear of isolation and I wonder whether the prospect of falling victim to ‘cancel culture’ leads journalists – perhaps unconsciously – to become party to it.
We will be in trouble if journalists or media organisations start to condition their approach to the news by avoiding those things that might isolate them. It is a form of self-censorship that is little better than imposed constraints. And it, too, is a downward spiral.
Self-censorship by those facing intimidation and worse may be understandable. Populist authoritarian governments in eastern Europe, for example, use various coercive levers to keep media in line. It is another thing entirely to fall into line simply because one social trope or another determines the acceptability of a subject and limits or eliminates criticism of ‘protected’ topics.
Such acquiescence runs counter to what journalism should stand for and, in a perverse way, it takes us back almost 400 years to a time when presses were licenced to constrain what could be published.
The chains on the presses were weighing heavily when John Milton published an impassioned plea for their removal titled Areopagitica. One particular passage has resonated down the years as a compelling argument in favour of a free speech.
Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?
I would commend that to those journalists who see no wrong in limiting coverage or discussion of subjects around which they place a protective aura. However, despite the fact that Milton was only 35 when he wrote Areopagitica, I suspect he would now be regarded as an old white man (and a bully because Catholics were excluded from his plea). Thus stereotyped, his wisdom would count for nothing.