In the film, The Matrix, we explore the threat to our humanity by forces seeking to create a perfect world. It is a world in which men and women have been distorted beyond recognition into characters in a computer programme devoid of any real human qualities. With a little adjustment it is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In our own media-driven world we are already distorting the truth in an alarming way. Ireland’s national broadcaster has just incurred damages rumoured to be in the region of €2,000,000 for ruining the life of an innocent man, a Catholic missionary priest whom it portrayed as a rapist through the medium of its investigative flagship, Primetime Investigates. It all serves to remind us that we have a dangerous capacity to create something which at first serves our best interests and then allows it to become a distorting and all-consuming monster.
The television programme was presented last May and for most viewers it was simply driving another nail in the coffin of the battered reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Gross and unjust allegations were presented to the viewing public as journalistically verified fact and allowed to feed into and feed on a prejudice which has already been created by the constant focus of the media on the crimes and misdemeanours of a minority of Catholic priests
A few weeks ago the Iona Institute, an Irish think-tank focussing on religion and family in the Irish context, found that the majority view among Irish people now is that Catholic priests and religious are responsible for one in five instances of child abuse in the country. The reality is that one in 30 of such cases are perpetrated by this group. Now that is what we call distortion.
But the really alarming thing is that we seem to be quite prepared to live with this distorting mirror and fail to recognise the lethal nature of this cancerous growth within our society. There may be people who consider that the Roman Catholic Church is an institution that we would be better off without – but getting rid of it on the basis of a gross distortion of public opinion is probably not something even the liberal intelligentsia would advocate. Houston, we have a problem – and it is not just a problem of distorting the public image of the Catholic Church. It is a problem which distorts most of the things it touches and it is a problem endemic in the culture of news, news-gatherers and news organisations.
The now defunct Irish Press newspaper had as it motto, placed right under the masthead of the paper, The Truth in the News. I was very proud of that motto when I had the pleasure and privilege of training with and working as a journalist for that paper. Newspapers have a tendency to give themselves some rather meaningful if sometimes pretentious titles – The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, The Examiner, The Inquirer; Ireland even had The Impartial Reporter. At one time those certainly represented the good intentions of proprietors and journalists who tried to live by their implicit mottos of guarding the truth, reflecting the truth, examining and inquiring and impartially reporting without fear or favour. But to live and work by those principles of operation involved more than just reporting isolated facts. They were seen as expressing a commitment to present society with an honest and balanced view of itself. To do that the facts which were presented had to in some way be balanced within the context of a bigger picture. It is in this that we are now failing abysmally.
Essentially it is a “story” problem. News is gathered in the form of stories and without some story there is really little news. But the story is not an end in itself. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is the objective. When this is lost sight of then the story itself can become dangerous and distorting.
All this was brought home to me very recently on a very personal level when I had to spend eight days in the care of a big – very big – Dublin hospital to undergo surgery. A week before I was admitted I heard reported on television that the hospital was having big problems. Managerial decisions had to be imposed on it from outside by the Health Service Executive which runs the Irish health service. This, a little like the broadcasting debacle above, simply fed into a sense of the overall state of dysfunction which daily and nightly news reports of health service disasters has created among Irish people. We shrug our shoulders and ask ourselves why can’t these people get their act together and organise a decent system of health care for us?
Eight days in Dublin’s Adelaide/Meath Hospital in Tallaght gave me an entirely different perspective on Ireland’s much-maligned health service. News bulletins on Irish radio and television are seldom if ever without some damning report of another mal-function in one or other of the country’s hospitals – missing files, mis-diagnosed illness, and patients on trolleys for days on end – all giving an impression of near total systemic failure of the institutions entrusted with the care of the nation’s sick and sickly. The end result is an abiding impression of a health service from hell.
The truth is very different. In fact the hospital is a miracle of effective administration, of superbly professional nursing and medical care, of warmth, kindness and dedication. Except that it is not really a miracle. It is a perfectly natural phenomenon where good people go about their work showing a wonderful range of human qualities and virtues, day after day, week after week and month after month. What appalled me – to a point of anger – was the fact that out in the wider world there exists this parallel public impression of a health service in disarray. Saying this is not to deny that problems exist and are sometimes not dealt with as they should be. They do. But the distorting effect on public opinion which the emphasis these problems get in news reports is not just something regrettable, it is a travesty. In pursuing “the story” in the way they do news organisations are not mirroring reality at all, they are not guarding anyone’s interest, and they are fooling themselves if they think they are being impartial in what they do.
The solution to this injustice is not, of course, to ignore the problems. They must remain in focus. The solution is to widen the angle to bring in the bigger picture. Journalists must resist the inclination to spice up their stories by giving the impression that something terrible has happened, is happening or is about to happen. That clearly is part of the journalist’s instinct. But they cannot pursue it at the expense of the wider truth, the lives and integrity of ordinary people who dedicate themselves to something as beautiful and noble as this particular field of human endeavour is. It is not enough for the journalist to say that providing the bigger picture is not my job. Everyone is responsible for the truth.
The problem is a much wider one than just the health service and its institutions, or the churches and their institutions. For example, the constant reporting of crime and criminality without any attempt to give the public a feel for the overall context of the general level of well-being in our societies is another distortion and one with all sorts of consequences – creating fear, anxiety, depression and distrust – which can undermine the values by which we try to live.
The integrity of the world’s media organisations has taken a severe battering in recent times. News International’s phone-hacking scandal now being investigated by the Levenson enquiry in the UK, the Irish state broadcaster’s destruction of an innocent man’s life and reputation, are but two instances of a sorry saga. There will be more until such time as the culture surrounding the news industry begins to identify the deeper values which must underpin its service to humanity.