“The First Law of Journalism: to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
– Alexander Cockburn
If you look on the American Press Institute’s website you will find a definition for the purpose of journalism that is very difficult to argue with:
“News is that part of communication that keeps us informed of the changing events, issues, and characters in the world outside. Though it may be interesting or even entertaining, the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed.
The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”
Stirring stuff indeed. And such sentiment was obviously very much in mind when the following was included within the BBC’s charter:
“The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows.
(1) To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world…”
So much for the rhetoric. But what of the reality? How do we reconcile Cockburn’s First Law of Journalism with the noble intent enshrined within the BBC charter? Or should we just dismiss Alexander Cockburn as an incorrigible cynic who seems to have spent too much time associating with a disreputable enclave, existing within an otherwise incorruptible journalistic trade?
The Alexander Cockburn Legacy
Alexander Claud Cockburn was an Irish-American political journalist and writer who seemed to glorify in confounding observers who might wish to neatly categorise his ideological and political positions: An avowed Marxist who strongly criticised gun control laws; a self-identified anarchist who was highly critical of what he saw as the left wing’s obsession with conspiracy theories; and a passionate environmentalist who doubted the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming. If nothing else, he was a man who was not afraid to voice his opinions, cherishing the independence of thought that results from a lack of concern for causing offence.
So it was very much in keeping with the character of the man that he should be a co-founder of the prominent, left-wing website, Counterpunch; an online newsletter that he had intended to be the ‘best muckraking newsletter’ in America. Muckraking being what it is, one might also presume that Counterpunch should also be immune from the law by which (according to Cockburn) mainstream journalism operates.
Alexander is dead now, so Counterpunch lives on as his legacy. Given Alexander’s outspoken views and his penchant for raking mud, one would hope that this would be a legacy that was more than capable of exposing any ‘existing prejudice’ that might underpin climate change alarmism. Sadly, the truth is quite the opposite. Should you choose to visit Counterpunch you will be treated to an orgy of alarmist doom-mongering that makes the BBC’s efforts seem quite pathetic in comparison. Take, for example, the following quotes to be found in just one article that typifies the Counterpunch canon:
“Climate change is on a fast track, a surprisingly fast, very fast track. As such, it’s entirely possible that humanity may be facing the shock of a lifetime, caught off-guard, blindsided by a crumbling ecosystem, spawning tens of thousands of ISIS-like fighters formed into competing gangs struggling for survival.”
“However, what if the climate is not onside with the mathematical models of the consensus? Maybe 2C is already cooked into the books yet only a blip on the way to 3C, 4C much sooner than the consensus believes. Already, the Arctic is in ultra-rapid, turbo-charged meltdown phase, which could fry humanity to a crisp, burned alive, as gigatons of methane are released from under the ice. However, this occurrence is controversial within the scientific community. Nobody knows what’ll happen when!”
“According to Arctic News, April 16th: By 2026, temperatures will be 3.9°C on the low side or 10.4°C on the high side warmer “on land” since the start of the industrial revolution. Which adds up to a disaster on the low end. On the high end, a gigantic worse disaster, or total ecosystem collapse hits hard, as tribes of fearful humans huddle around the North and South Poles, scaling coconut trees to obtain sustenance.”
Wow! Coconuts! But there’s more:
“All of which is a poke in the eye at political rhetoric that mesmerizes audiences with assurances of anything other than the brutal truth that the prevailing tenure of political, economic neoliberalism, which revolves around profits, is screwing things up. Maybe there’s a better way.”
Ah! So now we get to it. It seems that rather than challenging the ‘existing prejudice’, the good-folk at Counterpunch are doing nothing more than using journalism to promote their own prejudice, based, as it is, on anti-capitalist, left-wing ideology. There is no oasis of integrity thriving here, just another bunch of journalists playing out Cockburn’s First Law of Journalism. The only irony is that it is Alexander who provided them with the outlet for their indulgences. So it seems that he really did know what he was talking about. His is a universal law, just as long as one appreciates the universality of prejudice.
The BBC and the First Law
The BBC’s espoused intent is to provide impartial and factual information, so much so that it now feels the need to embellish the titles of its latest climate change programmes with the postscript, ‘the facts’. Unfortunately, even if there ever were a time when the BBC was impartial, those days are long gone. In deference to the piety of its charter, the BBC has a notoriety for the advancement of values and opinions that not only reflect public attitudes but very much inform them. Unfortunately, its role as government-appointed adjudicator and communicator of sanctioned truth, leaves it more vulnerable than most to Cockburn’s First Law. It’s as though the very essence of the BBC charter sows the seeds for an inevitable failure to abide by it. Significantly, the confirmation of existing prejudices is pivotal to the advancement of any truth that is based upon the wisdom of the masses, or at least the wisdom of those amongst us who can see carbon dioxide with the naked eye.
The point is this: If journalists from Counterpunch (no doubt believing they are kicking out against the establishment) can’t avoid peddling tendentious twaddle to help confirm their own prejudices, what chance does a journalistic pillar of the establishment such as the BBC have? The answer, of course, is none. As with all journalistic projects, the BBC’s portrayal of climate change science simply reflects the prejudice of the project’s own editorial board. As for what the BBC calls impartial and factual information, this can be identified as such only by those who share the BBC’s prejudgements. Above all, and courtesy of cognitive bias, the BBC’s journalists would be no more able to identify the extent to which their journalistic integrity has been prejudicially compromised as would the self-styled muckrakers at Counterpunch.
So, in answer to the question as to whether the BBC’s latest forays into the climate change debate represented a failure to abide by their own charter, I respond with an emphatic ‘yes’. By taking a position on a subject characterised by so much uncertainty and featuring so many conflicting values, how could it be otherwise? Consequently, the success of its venture must be measured not by the extent to which it remained impartial and factual but by the extent to which Cockburn’s First Law of Journalism was obeyed. And against that metric I declare the BBC’s efforts to have been a resounding success. Or perhaps Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, had it right when he said:
“People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true.”
Failure to abide is far too kind.
Excellent review of examples of just how un-self aware those presently in the consensus are.
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On the evidence of that article on climate change John, Counterpunch appears to be like a variant of the Onion (also a Marxist rag), one which takes itself a bit more seriously and doesn’t quite get its own jokes.
The BBC most definitely is bang to rights as far as contravening the terms of its own charter is concerned. I wonder do they even care? It seems not.
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So the BBC doesn’t meet its charter. What’s new? That is almost saying the blinding obvious. It clearly serves different interests whilst at the same time attempts to demonstrate to the party in power that, as far as is possible, it does not favour any political party (even this is difficult as shown by accusations of prejudice in the selection of participants on political talk shows). Yes its stance on climate change is abysmal, yet they defend it , ascending what they feel (and are constantly reinforced by) the highest moral ground. If, as they are given to believe, climate change is a future threat, then their behaviour in shutting down opposition is understandable. The BBC is commonly pictured as reflecting the population that it serves. I’m sorry to say that in that reflection we sceptics make up the tiniest of glimmers. The overwhelming majority of the BBC reflects the newsworthy activist side.
Much of the sceptical blame gets cast in the BBC direction, yet other organisations have mission statements full of similar lofty statements, which similarly are not kept to. In fact try to find a news organisation that does not slant the news in some way. And don’t try the early BBC, when the charter was conceived. The BBC was, if anything, ever more biased than it is now.
Here is today’s Climate Crap from the BBC (there’s something almost every day – maybe this is a new policy).
The answer is of course, not that they are ill or more perceptive, but that they are more susceptible to the flood of exaggerated alarmist propaganda from the BBC and the rest of the media.
Many thanks for giving Alexander Cockburn his due. Anyone wanting to understand the social and political roots of the AGW movement should have his “Al Gore, A User’s Manual” on their reading list despite its age.
The notion that The Onion is in any way “Marxist” is too absurd to take seriously but what fascinated and dispirited me in equal measure about the post-Cockburn degeneration of Counterpunch was not that it happened but how quickly it happened.
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Yes, Alexander Cockburn would probably be turning in his grave if he could read what is being printed in Counterpunch nowadays. I haven’t read his biography of Al Gore but I note well the following review it received at Amazon:
“Find out in this book how Al Gore while vice president helped companies loot millions of acres of our forests, fastened the extinction of the spotted owl, blocked efforts to make companies pay more than little or no royalty fees to loot taxpayer owned resources…supported drilling off the coast of Mexico and in the National Petroleum reserve in Alaska, supported stripping mining, especially that of the mountain top removal variety, supported the setting of emissions standards well below that of the Kyoto protocol which were never met, helped George W. pollute Texas by his support of Nafta, helped strengthen fossil fuel producers… supported what will perhaps one day be the destruction of the U’wa people in Colombia through his very extensive relationship with Occidental Petroleum and support for the death squad government there… The list can go on and on.”
Aw! And I though Al was supposed to be one of the good guys.
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“And I though Al was supposed to be one of the good guys.”
From memory, the Amazon reviewer’s comments are correct so far as they go but do not discuss Gore’s record in determining US foreign policy. Arguably, that’s even worse than his “environmentalism”.
Which is saying something. You’ve got me going now – I need to re-read the book.
I believe – mebbe this is irrational – that the sceptics are a not-insignificant proportion of the thinking population. At the moment we are essentially voiceless – witness the Climate Change Act and its few bold nay-sayers. We do not have the likes of Greenpeace to chew the ears of the elected. No MPs asked their electorate whether they ought to destroy our country to save the world. This has been decided by fiat, not democracy. Like Brexiteers, climate sceptics have been damned by the company they keep and cast into the outer darkness.
I would welcome a referendum on some of these issues, e.g. “Should the UK ban internal combustion engines?” On that particular question, I think a resounding “NO” would be the answer.
The late Alexander Cockburn on the new heresies including global warming scepticism at the Battle of Ideas in 2007. Interesting to hear his views on the left’s descent into malthusianism, and other green orthodoxies. He was a bit anti-nuclear, though.
I had coffee with him and another Marxist writer, who, despite which I still have a lot of time for, shortly after (or possibly before). However, over the next few years, it became obvious to me that climate change is a symptom of the contemporary left’s terminal decline. I think Mike Hulme (not the climate scientist), alludes to new political coordinates emerging in his argument at the same event. Things have moved on a lot in the last 12 years, though perhaps not in the climate debate, which still feels like 2006.
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Jit how do you convince the BBC that the sceptical position upon climate change (now by common assent known as climate chaos or the climate emergency) is a not-insignificant proportion of the thinking population? Everywhere you turn (and the everywhere the BBC looks) are the drowning voices of the converted, convinced that, unless we emasculate our society we will be doomed. The BBC has learned other lessons, in particular that unless it strictly follows the party line it will suffer. Allowing other voices is a decided no-no.
@Alan I don’t know the answer to that. (Rose-tinted spectacles maybe) science programs at least used to be outside of politics. Then again they never used to major on talking heads and swelling music. Sometimes it almost seems that we are living in a parallel universe where the bleedin’ obvious is suppressed by some kind of alien ray (like in They Live by John Carpenter).
As it stands the status quo can persist so long as the pain is not too severe, or is well hidden enough to be disconnected from the causes (e.g. blame energy price rises on the cost of oil or some such), or else is otherwise seen as inevitable and that opposition is pointless. We’ll see.
I think an organisation with membership, modest subscriptions, and a dedicated aim to save at least the country might be a start. Whether one could exist in such a climate as we have is another matter.
… and here is today’s example of the BBC breaking its own impartiality guidelines
Thanks for that link. Did you note how someone within the article’s comments was bemoaning the answer they had received from the BBC after they had complained about the lack of impartiality in ‘Climate Change- The Facts’? They provided an extract from the BBC’s response, to which someone else then commented:
“That is very similar to the answer I received from the BBC when I queried an item in the news. It’s almost verbatim.”
It seems that, irrespective of subject-matter, any complaint regarding lack of impartiality is being rejected by the BBC with the same boilerplate. Surely, once a publicly-funded organization’s public complaints procedure has been exposed as a sham it is time for that organization to be disbanded.
John, Thanks, no I hadn’t noticed that. I will see if I can insert a link there to my post about that…
Thanks for this. Alexander was the son of Claud Cockburn, a Marxist journalist who produced a well-informed rag called the Week in the thirties. When the posh public schoolboys at Private Eye discovered that he was still alive in the seventies, they gave him a column. Those were the days, when dissent meant, well, not having to always agree with everyone. Alexander’s brother Patrick Cockburn still reports from the Middle East for the Independent. He’s been in Baghdad for about 20 years and may possibly know what he’s talking about.
About ten years ago Alexander expressed his climate scepticism at Counterpunch, and George Monbiot took him to task in a famous exchange of articles which you can find at Monbiot’s website. George’s criticism was laser sharp, as usual. Apparently one of the sources cited in Cockburn’s article had once sat on a chair warmed by the bottom of an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan, and Monbiot took Cockburn apart.
Counterpunch, like many leftwing sites, takes articles from anyone who vaguely fulfils their criteria of political correctness. A number of mad green freelancers can be found everywhere to the left of the Telegraph spouting temperature records like geysers on steroids. I wasted years of my life trying to give the old finger in the dyke signal at the Guardian and the Conversation to no avail. If the left dies, it’ll be because no-one with an ounce of intelligence will support these loonies. It’s tough for the people of Venezuela and Cuba (and it may become tough for people everywhere) but you can’t solve all the world’s problems at once. Let’s concentrate on the BBC.
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Thank you for your contributions. I think they provide a useful background.
To avoid being misunderstood, I hasten to point out that my post was not intended as an observation of the sad demise of left-wing journalism – I do not really have the required background or insights to comment. The real purpose of mentioning Counterpunch was that it purports to be a ‘muckraking’ newsletter. If such a rag cannot see that the alarmist narrative has been fertilised by muck prime for raking, then I see no hope that the likes of institutional bodies such as the BBC would do their job properly. But there are two important points to be made here. Firstly, the Counterpunch journalists genuinely think that, by being alarmist, they are exposing the cant of the consensus; it’s just that (for their purposes) they choose to define the consensus as those scientists that are not being sufficiently alarmist! Secondly, it is in the very nature of journalism, that charters alluding to impartiality are doomed to share the fate of all empty rhetoric. They are just pious incantations designed to ward off the evil spirits of subjectivity. I think nobody, least of all we sceptics, should be taking them at all seriously.
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Aha, didn’t know that about the progeny of Claud Cockburn, coiner of “The Cliveden Set” in the 1930s – a phrase that became synonymous with the worst forms of establishment appeasement and was eventually used by Roosevelt, no less. Cockburn’s influence on what Private Eye became was also profound, from what I’ve read, no less than Peter Cook’s. One learns something every day.
The BBC’s extreme bias, not just on environmental issues and climate change, but on politics too, is now widely accepted general knowledge. I don’t see how Ofcom can maintain legitimacy by not seriously censuring their blatant disregard for the terms of their own charter. I don’t see how the BBC can even continue in its present form as a publicly funded organisation. Either the government abolishes the licence fee or millions more people are going to stop paying it. They’ve stepped well over the mark, way past the point of no return.