Now, as I’m sure you’re all very aware by now, I interviewed Jack Buckby (though at the time he requested that I use a pseudonym for him owing to the massive amount of abuse he was getting about his beliefs). I did my absolute best to maintain a neutral, factual stance on the way I wrote that piece up, and Jack was very happy with it. I’m not a columnist, so nobody wants to know my opinion. Therefore, everything you see there is exactly what Jack said, as he said it. I haven’t manipulated it in any way, and I specifically set out to give as unbiased a representation as possible. I spoke to Jack out of genuine curiosity, and because I knew a lot of people would want to read about him. And I was right: the day I published that post is STILL my most-viewed day to date, nearly a year on.
In the past few days, Jack has gained attention from a couple of other sources: Vice and The Telegraph. The Vice piece, as I write, has garnered more than 2,000 likes on Facebook, and when I checked the comments on the Telegraph blog piece, there were more than 1,000. So I was right! People DO want to read about Jack. For those of you who don’t know, Jack set up the National Culturists, who carry the slogan ‘Love culture, hate racism’. He is open about the fact he is a nationalist and a supporter of the BNP, but has always said he is not a racist.
What this got me thinking about is the way both of these publications tackled their articles. I feel like because it’s obviously pretty explosive territory, there can be a tendency to overimpose your own opinion, as a journalist, to make sure that the reader knows that THIS VIEW IS ABHORRENT AND I AM NOT A RACIST AND WATCH ME PROVE THAT. But what does the reader really gain from the journalist forcing their own opinion down their throats from the headline onwards? I think it’s pretty obvious that I, too, am not a racist. To clarify this, I stated it explicitly at the start and the end of my piece to clear up any trace of doubt. To be honest, I shouldn’t have had to. Reporting on something quite clearly doesn’t mean you’re prescribing to that school of thought yourself. Reporting that David Cameron is slashing benefits doesn’t mean you condone it. I really do think that there isn’t a place for this omnipresent style of reporting. These pieces shouldn’t have taken this structure:
- Background information
- I, the journalist, am not a racist
- Sarcastic comment about something Jack said
- Quote from Jack
- Gosh, isn’t it good that we’re not racists, reader?
- Explanation of the National Culturists
- Jack’s haircut is MUCH cooler than Nick Griffins
- Did I mention I’m not a racist?
I think we can safely assume that the vast majority of journalists, especially ones writing for popular publications such as Vice and The Telegraph, are not racist. I am not racist. However, that isn’t relevant to the interview. The interview was with Jack to find out his views and to let him explain. There isn’t a single person who wanted to read my blog on the 26th March last year who thought ‘This interview with a young BNP supporter looks interesting, but more than that: what the HELL does Kayleigh make of it?’
I am actually very interested in a lot of highly controversial topics. I want to interview an anti-abortionist. I’m firmly pro-choice. Do I need to qualify that constantly through the interview with barbed remarks about said interviewee’s dress sense? Of course I don’t. Do I need to intrude on my own piece of writing every paragraph just to remind people that I DISAGREE WITH THIS PERSON? No. I want to talk to a priest. Am I religious? No. Does that mean I couldn’t possibly find the views of someone religious interesting? No.
Some people see it as giving a platform to ‘the wrong sorts of people’. I very much disagree, actually: what state would the media be in if we only heard from ‘role models’? I truly believe that everyone deserves a voice, regardless of what they have to say. It is up to the reader to make their own decisions based on the evidence presented. This is why I don’t consider such biased pieces to be especially good journalism. I also write restaurant reviews, and people don’t necessarily read them for MY opinion, per se: it’s because they want to find out about THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE ARTICLE, i.e. THE RESTAURANT. Not the journalist.
In case you’re wondering, I’ve spoken to Jack about his views. I’ve told him I don’t agree with him, and that’s fine. Just as he doesn’t subscribe to my political beliefs, I don’t subscribe to his. And there’s no problem with that. I was happy to do the interview, he was happy to speak to me, we were both happy with the results. I just really don’t see any need for petty put-downs or the tiresome, relentless narcissism of this self-obsessed style of writing. Some of you may disagree and think that it’s a great idea to present the facts in a way that most people will relate to. It’s just not what I want to do, and that’s also fine.
Let me know what you think. Do you think that journalists have a tendency to give themselves too much of a voice, or do you like to know what the writer thinks about a story?
EDIT: Before anyone points it out, I’m aware the Telegraph’s article is a blog post, and as such is far more subject to the author’s opinion than a straight interview. However, I’m maintaining my point that the Telegraph’s post seemed too preachy in places. I want to be informed, not just bombarded with silly insults about someone. I’m all for opinion pieces, but when that opinion takes over at the expense of any sense of the matter at hand, it really starts to grate. While I like to hear others’ opinions (hence, I trained as a journalist), I prefer to make up my own mind rather than being told what to think.
10 Comments Add yours
Personally, I felt that your interview was pretty daring for this exact reason. In a world where supposedly unbiased reporters are clearly inserting their own spin on things where it isn’t needed. I will admit that when you posted it, my reaction was initially “wait, does she agree with all this?” and got kinda shocked, but in the end, it seemed more like a balanced argument and I saw what you were trying to achieve with it.
You said it yourself; we only hear about the role models, and those with less popular views have snarky comments aimed at them, but for truly balanced reporting, why not let these people take the spotlight without judgement for a moment and let people make up their own minds?
But then, it seems like opinionated reporting sells better, unfortunately…
That’s exactly what I wanted to do! Strip away all the bias and let the other person speak. Unfortunately it puts me in a bit of a shaky position because it’s easy to infer something from my silence. ‘Wait, she’s not making it clear at every possible moment that she doesn’t agree with this? WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?’
Obviously I’m no revolutionary and certainly not an expert being a 21-year old fresh out of journalism school with ideas above her station, but I think it’s a shame how prevalent the journalist’s voice has become.
It was very easy to infer that, and it wouldn’t be surprising if there are still people who missed the references to you being a non-supporter and still believe you support the guy’s views.
Admittedly, I think controversial topics like this do present an opportunity to challenge those views, but that should still be done from a neutral position, such as challenging the interviewee with a question like “what would you say to those who disagree?” or something along those lines, rather than the journalist letting their own views slip into the piece.
For example, in the Vice piece, I felt it was appropriate for the interviewer to challenge him on his comments about “Muslim paedo gangs” but presented it in an almost confrontational way that showed his own disagreement. If the question had been more neutral-sounding “why do you believe that it’s an exclusively Muslim problem?” I wouldn’t have had a problem. It’s delving deeper into the mindset and confronting the views for the reader, but it’s not accusing or judgemental in my eyes.
Unfortunate though it is that people might miss my references, I’ve been very careful not to say anything in support of their beliefs either, as that wouldn’t reflect my true feelings, but even if it did I wouldn’t want that to seep into the way I present it. Likewise, if I interviewed a Labour member, I wouldn’t want to let my support for the party get in the way.
I do agree that it’s best when questions aren’t confrontational in tone though. I was thinking about this earlier and if I’d just emailed a standard set of questions to young Labour supporters, Tories, Lib Dems, Greens etc then I wouldn’t have put a different spin on each set of responses based on what I thought of the party.
In a roundabout sort of way, I guess what I’m saying is that while I could quite easily put my opinion into a controversial piece, I feel like it might detract a bit from the point of the writing. I really hope it doesn’t ever have to get to be stage where I have to make constant, explicit reference to the fact I do or don’t agree with the subject at hand.
I do see what you’re saying though, and I agree that in the right context and the right sort of article, the writer’s opinion might be warranted.
I think primarily it is a question of what makes good and responsible journalism and what platform we choose to give topics such as these. If Jack’s ideas, or indeed any newsworthy subject/opinion/idea, is to succeed in it’s own right, then it should be trying to reach out to people, and people should have an ability to question/challenge it. If I held Jack’s views, or wanted to know more about them, I could seek them out. If he wanted me to know about them, he should be trying to promote them. This is fine. Everyone should have the right to air their views.
At the point of the journalist reporting the story though, things become more complicated. By doing so you are actively choosing to say you think your audience should hear these views. Now this is also fine, and clearly the point of journalism. However, if all you do is put forth the view of the subject, which in this case is clearly controversial, and in the case of say Nick Griffin or Marine Le Pen, or for an even more extreme example – the Greek Golden Dawn party or Hungarian Jobbik, which are essentially modern incarnations of fascism – you are not only giving these people/ideas a platform and saying your audience should hear them, but are widening their scope of influence, which is essentially promotion of their views.
Now I am not advocating a 100% no-platform policy, as I agree that it is important to hear the views of those we disagree with so we can beat them with rational argument. However, what I would argue for is a no-UNCHALLENGED-platform policy. This is the difference between balanced journalism and a party political broadcast.
It should be the case that no view, especially of a fascist nature, should be published unless it is to be challenged in some way. Now you clearly don’t think this challenging is the domain/responsibility of the journalist, and that they should simply report. However I disagree. Journalists should frame a debate, and provide critical and interesting analysis in my opinion. Furthermore where fascists/racists/homophobes etc are concerned they have a duty to challenge the views they are putting forward. If I heard someone saying racist/nationalist things in the street I would challenge them on what they were saying. And if I later came to tell someone the story of that event, I would not reproduce the entirety of what the other person said and omit my own criticism. Because like it or not , that is what makes people think you agree. In many ways we do not define our views as entities of their own , but as part of a dialectal opposition to another view.
Let us consider this article regarding Jack as a national news story as it is on the verge of becoming. If all journalism was of the type you seem to advocate, then what would be the reason for me to read the guardian or the morning star article on it as opposed to the daily mail’s – surely they would all report Jack’s views on this topic equally and uncritically?
You raise some very interesting points, particularly when you talk about the different views of different publications. I do definitely see what you’re saying and take your point, but in my view (and this really is just my view), I’d prefer to be presented with all the facts in a neutral context so that I can decide for myself. I fee like if I’d written the BNP interview in the context of my own political views (which don’t remotely resemble those of Jack) then it wouldn’t have improved it at all. On a similar note, it’s again just my view, but I don’t think that any amount of the journalist’s opinion will change the mind of the reader, and that whether someone reads a neutral or biased piece about the National Culturists, it probably won’t change how they feel about them as a group.
Of course, some people might argue that a good journalist should be able to change the mind of the reader if they write persuasively and write well enough, but I’d just rather not. I’d be happy to write neutrally on a topic I felt passionately about (as in, strongly supported) for the same reason. I know it’s not for everyone, but I’d prefer to present the bare facts and present what was said as honestly and accurately as possible.
I’m aware I’m getting a bit preachy and I apologise, because I do understand that there are a hell of a lot of people who would call me irresponsible for not framing the issue in my own moral terms, BUT I can’t help but think that if someone finds themselves agreeing or disagreeing with Jack, then that should be based on what he said, and if people think it’s wrong for me not to influence people towards the more popular viewpoint in case my article ends up leading people to agree with what a lot of people consider to be a morally reprehensible attitude, then I can’t help but feel like they’d agree whether I’d given my own opinion or not.
I really appreciate you taking the time to read this post, form an argument and comment though, it was a very interesting reply to read and I do think that opinions can be appropriate sometimes 🙂
I’d say it comes down to the fact that you know that your audience is fairly smart, and won’t assume you’re a racist or anything like that just because you wrote an article about topics that some people may see as a grey area.
The Telegraph blogger has not only their own reputation to protect, but the reputation of the Telegraph itself. And considering that there is a huge variety of people reading the Telegraph, it’s fair to assume that some of them may jump to conclusions are bit more quickly than your audience would. If they were to start getting hundreds of angry calls and emails saying “You’re a bunch of racists and you should be ashamed”, then that wouldn’t do their reputation any good.
They know the dangers that controversy can bring – they don’t wish to be compared to the likes of Fox News over in America for example.
At least, that’s my best guess.
Hi Simon 🙂
I think it’s a real shame that it’s so hard to talk about anything controversial with any sort of neutrality without people reading something into the fact you’re not launching into an attack.
I know what you mean about the Telegraph having a reputation to uphold, it just amazes me that it’s easier for people to assume the worst about a writer who just wants to present the facts. Clearly that particular writer was going for an attack on Jack’s beliefs, and wanted to make crystal clear that nobody could ever accuse him of being racist. Maybe I just want to have my cake and eat it by wanting to present it factually AND expect everyone to be able to figure out that I don’t necessarily agree with the views of the other person?
I can see exactly why so many people seem uncomfortable with the idea, but to be honest, I’m more than happy to explain why I don’t want to colour my writing with my opinion, so hopefully people will realise that I have no hidden agenda!