The Only Way is Ethics: Being independent does not mean giving every perspective equal weight

In the general run of things, journalists should endeavour to present the views of all the main players in a particular story

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Phil Collins is a wise man. He could feel it coming in the air tonight when the rest of us still assumed the Sahara desert was incapable of leaving Africa. But was he right to suggest that we always need to hear both sides of the story?

It sounds like a simple question (and, OK, an awful pun) which deserves an equally straightforward answer. But if there is a shade of grey to be found, this column will unearth it.

In the general run of things, journalists should endeavour to present the views of all the main players in a particular story. If Mr Smith says Mrs Jones stole his car, it is incumbent on us to set out Mrs Jones’ position that she was given the keys by Mr Smith and told to enjoy her new motor.

But what about matters of historical debate? Last week, one reader expressed anger that an online celebrity story had referenced the early-20th century Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman authorities as an established fact. This, he said, was anti-Turkish propaganda; many have not recognised the events as genocide.

The deaths of an estimated million or more Armenians during and after the World War I are a source of considerable controversy. In an unrelated piece last week, Robert Fisk presented an interview with one of the last survivors of the tragedy. He left readers in no doubt as to the veracity of the anti-Armenian brutality but he did point out, witheringly, that modern-day Turkey still disputes the label “genocide”.

So, should we make this point every time we mention the subject? The item under complaint was a fairly brief report about reality star Kim Kardashian’s comparison of today’s turmoil in Syria with the history of her Armenian forebears. It was not a treatise about Turkish-Armenian relations.

In any event, given the weight of academic opinion and the recognition of the genocide by many governments, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and others, there seems sufficient justification for asserting it in a newspaper article without endless caveats. There is, after all, such a thing as false balance. The BBC has recently been accused of misleading the public by allowing too much airtime to unqualified climate change sceptics, for instance.

The Independent lives up to its name, but being independent does not mean never taking a position on a subject. We will not give equal weight to two sides of a story if we do not believe they have equal validity.

To print, or not to print...

Just as there are occasions when it is alright to leave something out, there are times when the inclusion of material which may cause offence can be justified.

Last Thursday’s Independent included a feature about the decision by Vogue Italia to focus its latest edition on the subject of domestic violence against women. The images in the magazine are provocative and some have argued that they glamorise or trivialise the topic. In that context, should we have included some of the photographs in our own pages?

There is always a danger of being accused of having our cake and eating it in this type of scenario. If we believe that material is beyond the pale or is likely to cause widespread outrage, we might decline to use it. No British newspaper, for instance, printed the cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed which caused such controversy some years ago.

But such cases should be the exception, not the rule. If there is a real and proper debate to be had – and if we are discussing it in the newspaper – then readers should be equipped to have it too.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore

 

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