In Praise of Real Journalism and Shame on the BBC

Over the last few weeks, in the spirit of rediscovering what it is a journalist does when he wants to inhabit a world in which he doesn’t belong, I have been reading Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. He’s more famous for the subsequent TV programmes that came from the book, like Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire, but the book itself deserves high praise on it’s own terms.

For those of you who don’t know about it, Simon spent a year in the Homicide department of his native Baltimore, following around the detectives in Luietenant Gary D’Addario’s unit. For reasons unknown they allowed him to take notes on absolutely everything, from the dark banter of the detectives and uniforms and cameraderie and tensions of the squad room to the details of investigations into truly horrific crimes. One, the discovery of a young girl, raped, murdered and left in an alley, becomes the spine of the book, the moral compass around which all other cases hover and rotate. East and West side corner boys drop each other with a regularity that to the detectives almost becomes monotonous, domestic arguments turn into dead bodies and hidden evidence, while the cops make racist, sexist and any other kind of offensive joke you can think of (the use of ‘toad’ for black criminals is particularly odious) while standing over dead bodies. And yet for that, there is a hint of something noble about both them and what they do, and it’s captured perfectly in Simon’s prose. It really is an oustanding piece of journalism, and I read it in the same manner he wrote it; disgusted with so much of the job, and the way that balance and impartiality have become the ultimate goal, at the expense of searching for the heart and truth of the matter. In case it was the way his paper, the Baltimore Sun, had cracked down on unions and become the property of ‘carpetbaggers’ from Philadelphia, me with the way the current Israel offensive in Gaza has been reported, culminating in the BBC’s appalling decision to block a DEC humanitarian aid appeal for those who haven’t been left dead by Israel’s bombing campaign. Simon himself says in the epilogue to the latest edition:

There are many journalists who believe that their craft must burden itself with a nodding, analytic tone, that they must report and write with feigned, practiced objectivity and the presumption of omniscient expertise. Many are consumed by the pursuit of scandal and human flaw, and believe it insufficient to look at human beings with a skeptical yet affectionate eye. There work is, of course, accurate and justifiable – and no closer to the actual truth of things than any other form of storytelling.

Without engaging and analysing the facts, and – yes – coming to judgements based on them, how is it possible to come to any sort of valid decision? Just because everyone has the right to an opinion, that doesn’t mean all opinions are not equally valid, and nor does it mean that because a decision or opinion might favour one side, that it’s biased, or prejudicial.

In any case, to say in this instance that the BBC was keeping itself impartial and apolitical is a fallacy; to ban an ad (and if you’ve seen it it’s obvious there is no anti-Israel message in there at all) is in itself a political act, and it says that the BBC is more concerned with who they might upset than with helping some aid getting to people Gaza, the vast majority of who are just normal people trying to live, not rocket-launcher wielding bandana-wearing Hamas soldiers. It’s an act that says these people don’t matter like the people of Darfur, or Tsunami victims, and it goes hand-in-hand withthe idea that  framing all Israeli aggression as ‘retaliation for terrorist acts’ and to implicitly support the one true democracy in the area no matter what its transgressions – be they deliberately targeting schools to take out militants or the denying Palestinians access to the local water supply – is neutral, and impartial. It stinks.

Anyway, the book. Buy it, borrow it, nick it off your local drug dealer before shooting him in the back, whatever. Just make sure you read it.

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One Response

  1. This is a great post. Now I want to read it. I know what you mean about the nobility, too.

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