Let's find the story in the facts, not the other way around

Face facts

ALL journalism, arguably, is about conflict, because that's what makes mere facts into a story. Even the write-up of a freebie laid on by the makers of the Schlongmobile is, possibly, not mere puffery if it argues the competing virtues of the Ferrari Dong. But it still doesn't meet the other definition, attributed to any press magnate you care to name: no-one is trying to stop you writing it. Our speakers at the April Branch meeting, then, were certainly dealing with real news when they tried, by different routes, to cover the protests in Genoa last July.

Bill Hayton was there as a freelance and an established journalist. He'd taken time off from the BBC in order to cover the protests - around the summit of "G8" rich country leaders - independently. He treated the meeting to a discussion of why reports so often get protest wrong - "the most thoughtful I've heard on that subject," one member said.

The question he asked is fundamental: "Why do journalists allow facts to be fitted into narratives rather than finding the narratives in the facts?" When it comes to street protest, the overwhelmingly dominant "narrative" is "cops versus louts" - even when that's a very small part of what's going on.

People taking part in protests could, in theory, provide an opposing view. But finding them takes effort, whereas official sources fairly blare out. Many shun "the capitalist media" entirely. And that's perhaps not surprising when, as Bill said, journalists trust the official line and don't trust dissidents - and so misrepresent the dissidents by rewriting what they say to fit the preconceived story.

Why? "The answer," Bill suggested, "is to do with the hierarchy of the newsroom and the requirements of advancing your career." Freelances more than anyone know that one makes a living by coming up with the neat stories that editors want, not blatting out wodges of undigested facts.

And editors are subject to pressure from outside - as when, days before the meeting, the Israeli state threatened to close the BBC's Jerusalem bureau unless it pulled correspondents from Ramallah in the West Bank. Running a blank screen with a voice-over about censorship might be the honourable response to that, but it won't pull ratings.

But "the BBC has finally woken up to the fact that there is an alternative media," Bill said, "and is commissioning the occasional piece from them." Part of that alternative is Indymedia. Mark Covell told the meeting that he went to Genoa as a "dispatcher" - the equivalent of a page sub, posting news to the Web as it came in.

He thanked the Branch for "the support I received while I was in hospital in Genoa, accused of being a terrorist and facing 10 years in an Italian jail" That came after he was beaten up and arrested by Carabinieri outside the Indymedia building. Indymedia was formed shortly before the 1999 protests at the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting. At first, there "was 'warfare' between it and the corporate media." But by the time of Genoa, more traditional journalists were coming to Indymedia for information from the streets. They included Bill, who'd dropped by the office to visit Mark only to see him being kicked half to death on the street outside.

The trend continues. Mark came to London Freelance Branch in between stints posting news from Indymedia correspondents in the West Bank. At the time they were the only source of outside witness reports of the Israeli occupation - not least because they were as much trapped as the residents.

We wouldn't expect to answer the questions raised by all this in one meeting. There's a lot more to discuss: the way operations like Indymedia are changing journalism, and it them; what we mean by "objectivity" when so many objects are controlled by the powers that be; and how concerns for the safety of journalists sit alongside reporting from, say, someone who's decided to accompany ambulances under artillery as a human shield for human rights. For starters.

Last modified: 13 April 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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