“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.”