In this talk, TEDxHousesofParliement, film director David Puttnam asks whether the media has a duty of care towards the public. It is a good question. I was asked for my thoughts on the presentation by a friend of mine on facebook.
Certain sections of the media distort facts, either in the service of government to drive forward a given ideology or policy, or in the interests of a given corporation or social group. Press on the left do this too: it is not just a top-down affair.
Differing perceptions are of course grist to the mill of debate. Debate can only be informative and educational however, if the facts are agreed, or if that cannot be reached, at least as honestly presented and as available to scrutiny as circumstance allow. If this does not happen, then the result is sophistry, which often as not, is what passes for political debate and reporting nowadays. A shorter label for it is "spin".
Puttnam mentioned another aspect that informs action and that is morality. Now, let us say that the media has a duty of care to present the facts. Obviously there are a lot of facts to any given topic; a media outlet, be it the BBC, Fox News or a blogger, probably cannot know all the facts but should present a picture based upon the facts available. This is different from spin insofar all the available facts have to be distilled into the story, and not just the selection of those that fit a particular agenda. This is difference between balanced reporting and spin.
Balanced reporting is also not the same as current practice: allowing two (or more) proponents to take to airwaves and have at each other. This has the illusion of balance but in reality it is a collision of spins and thus far more difficult to get to the real facts. The most celebrated case of this currently on the British media circuit is BBC's Question Time: a show when up to six flavours of spin (plus audience participation) take part in a mass tourney. It is of course very entertaining, modern day bread and circus for the politically interested, and occasionally truth does emerge. Its most useful purpose as far as facts are concerned is that audience member may pick pointers to where further details can be found. It is in no way a presentation that allows the audience to impartially judge a given issue.
Still, BBC Question Time and similar shows are better than the media monocultures that are the real target of Puttnam: the uninformative and biased tabloids, whether in print or on air. They present politics and many other issues with the sensibility of soap opera writers: that the participants are either idiots or scoundrels. Of course, politics, like all walks of life have their share of both but by the relentless presentation of everybody involved as such, it dulls the sensibility of those nurtured upon such fare. It is popular for a very simple reason: most everybody likes to be able to look down upon somebody else and what gives the illusion of empowerment more than a feeling of moral superiority? That feeling literally sells tabloids by the truckload. It is not a factual picture though and thus fails Puttnam's duty of care test. It discourages political involvement and breeds nothing but cynicism.
One can already hear the screams warning of censorship and yes, in a democracy one must have the freedom to be wrong in the opinion of others, especially if that somebody is the government or other organs of the state. At its heart, Puttnam is calling for honesty in the reporting of facts. The democratic process lies in the interpretation of those facts. We can still disagree over what they mean but if the facts are skewed or completely absent, then the basis of our democracy and freedoms are not even on foundations of sand. They rest upon nothing at all.