There is careless and sloppy journalism and there is cold calculated malicious journalism. Sadly both fit into the spectrum to which Janet Malcolm notoriously drew attention in a New Yorker essay thirty years ago when she wrote:
”Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
They were harsh uncompromising words, probably framed to get attention and not really meant to be taken at their literal value – no more than Lord Acton meant us to take at its face value his statement that “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But such exaggerated statements do make us think. There is good journalism but it is becoming harder and harder to find.
Malcolm’s hyperbole was written in the context of a famous crime reporter, Joe McGinniss, who won the confidence of a notorious murderer, accompanied him throughout the period of his trial and conviction for the killing of his wife and two children, and then allegedly deceived and betrayed that confidence by revealing details of the man’s life which he had never wished to be made public.
McGinniss protested Malcolm’s categorization of his as a deceiver: ”My only obligation from the beginning was to the truth.” Malcolm’s view was that McGinniss’s obligation to be truthful to the criminal, even though he was convicted, should have preceded his obligation ”to the truth.” Complicated.
But not so complicated is the patent betrayal and deception, followed by gross misrepresentation, of one of the voices of reason of our own time, Sir Roger Scruton.
Douglas Murray, writing in a recent issue of The Spectator, might see it as just one further splinter in what the late Bernard Levin once referred to as “the cracked mirror of our times.” Sometimes, he writes, a scandal is not just a scandal, but “a biopsy of a society. So it is with the assault on Sir Roger Scruton, who in recent weeks has been smeared in the media, fired by the government and had his life’s work assailed. Scruton is the latest, though far from the first victim of the modern outrage mob.”
When Janet Malcolm passed her judgment on our professional standards and integrity as journalists, she did not have to add into the mix the irreparable damage which the incendiary fuel of so-called “social” media now pours on to the bonfire. We do.
In January, we saw some of the most prestigious news media organizations in the United States pass summary judgement on a group of raucous but harmless schoolboys for allegedly surrounding and taunting a native American tribal elder. By the time the facts of the case became clear (there had been no taunting, the boys had done nothing wrong) they had been thrown to the anti-social mob and denounced as racists in front of millions.
In Scruton’s case, he was interviewed by a deceptively friendly and reassuring New Statesman journalist, joint deputy editor, George Eaton. Their conversation was then misrepresented in the magazine article which followed. Professor Scruton was accused of outrageously breaching every rule in the Canon of Political Correctness. Not long after the magazine appeared on the newsstands the thought police got to work.
As Murray says, “The hit job on Sir Roger can be seen as a classic of the genre: he was sacked (from a Government post) within five hours of the Twitter storm breaking. His fate offers a perfect case study in the art of modern character assassination.”
But in some ways Sir Roger may be classed as one of the lucky ones. The case against him unraveled and the New Statesman and its standard of journalism is in the dustbin. Murray managed to get his hands on the recorded interview and exposed the deceptive charade.
Before the interview had even hit the newsstands its author was on Twitter heralding its arrival and telling his followers that ‘the government adviser and philosopher Roger Scruton has made a series of outrageous remarks’, and included a link to the interview. Unfortunately for him the recording of the interview now exposes the deceit and misrepresentation – and all the idiotic public figures, journalists and politicians who responded with knee-jerk reactions now have egg all over their faces. Indeed a worse and more costly fate may await some of them.
Scruton was alleged to have talked outrageously about ‘Hungarian Jews’. He was alleged to have been racist about ‘the Chinese’. He was alleged to have described ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘a propaganda word invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue’. He had described accusations of anti-Semitism against Viktor Orban as ‘nonsense’ and talked of Muslim ‘tribes’. Outrage and resignation calls soon followed. The perfect Twitter storm had been started.
Eaton then gloated on Instagram with a photo of himself necking a bottle of champagne. His caption: ‘The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.’
The New Statesman’s public editor has now issued a response to the controversy but it is so hedged that it is unlikely to do anything to restore its reputation.
He admits that “Eaton was clearly at fault in his Instagram post. A journalist should not interview a subject and then insult him or her. One tweet – concerning Scruton’s comments on the Chinese as “replicas of each other” – was misleading. Both the published interview and the full transcript make clear, as the tweet did not, that Scruton was criticising the policies of China’s rulers (“they’re creating robots out of their own people”) rather than echoing racist stereotypes.
“The other tweets took words somewhat out of context as many (perhaps most) tweets of that sort inevitably do. Whether Scruton’s words were ‘outrageous’, as Eaton claimed, depends on who is reading them. MPs, former chancellors and present ministers can make up their own minds. Yet Eaton’s use of the adjective ‘outrageous’ suggested, as did the Instagram post, that he approached the interview as a political activist, not as a journalist.
“It is more difficult to judge the extent to which the published interview was misleading. Certainly, the full transcript shows that most of Scruton’s comments on Muslims, Orbán and anti-Semitism were more thoughtful and nuanced than those highlighted by Eaton. But all journalism is necessarily selective.”
All journalism may be necessarily selective but when that selection is as egregiously serving a political ideological bias as in this case, you have a totally different phenomenon on your hands. When your bias unjustly leaves the reputation of an author of more than 50 serious books on diverse subjects needing to be rescued from the rubbish dump, your lawyers would seem to have a mountain to climb to keep you from ending up in financial ruin. Spare me the cries about suppression of freedom of speech – freedom is not a license to hate.
Watch this space.