In pursuit of balance, wingnuts get excessive airtime and big stories
don't make the newslist
Balance: it's a lovely thing. It stops us falling over and inspires manufacturers
of essential executive toys, and without it Disney-based ice spectaculars would
be only a longed-for dream. Balance in the media? More problematic.
TV balancing meant I recently spent an afternoon in New York watching a "scientist"
explain that dinosaur eggs are really small. All dinosaur eggs. Which means
dinosaurs must have started out being really small. Even the big ones. So Noah
could have fitted them into the Ark. Media balance dictates that if one wingnut
thinks gravity is caused by a rota of subterranean angels sucking, then he'll
get as much air time as all those dull, arrogant physicists.
Media balance leaves apparently helpless reporters reciting conflicting
statistics as if they were beyond interpretation. It provides the pseudo-factual
white noise between surgical dating makeovers and the soaps. It sets extensive
coverage of Condoleezza Rice's vacuous bleatings against non-specific mumbles
about protest. It means demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq aren't
covered by the BBC, leading to more demonstrations outside BBC premises, which
aren't covered. This is the most common form of media balance - balancing reality
Not that I'd suggest the British, or indeed the US, media is involved in government
conspiracies. That's barely necessary - they need only be lazy, broke and scared.
Even if media outlets aspire to be something beyond a kind of sophisticated
Xeroxing service for PR handouts and spin, they often don't have the money,
or the staff, to be effective.
Which is why papers such as the Washington Post hire semi-literate bloggers
as columnists. The New York Times still hasn't recovered from Judith Miller;
no source that hyped the pre-Iraq invasion bollocks has handed itself over to
The Hague as complicit in crimes against humanity (à la Radio Milles
Collines in Rwanda). The pre-Iran invasion bollocks is hyping higher; and increasingly
weighty suspicions over 9/11 are ignored.
This would be irritating even if our public servants weren't loan-grubbing,
lobby-fondling, expensively coiffured sociopaths, and their corruption and stupidity
were not so manifest that small children could summarise it in crayon for any
newsdesk near you. Sadly, our press faces Whitehall and White House regimes
that believe accepting, or even acknowledging, reality is a perilous admission
of weakness. So the lies of liars who love lying are propagated by people who
can no longer find the truth.
Which is why, for example, real action on global warming in the UK goes way
beyond rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic - it's much more like skipping
along the deck and claiming you're in Belgium. But at least we can mention it
pointlessly in passing - US global-warming researchers can't even do that.
And grown-up discussions about anything nuclear are off limits. So recent UK
coverage of the Chernobyl disaster concentrated on how wildlife is thriving
in the post-leak wasteland, while skipping the possibility that up to 600,000
people died as a result of the accident. And you won't have heard that amounts
of uranium in UK air samples increased in 2003, when we were dumping tonnes
of depleted uranium on Iraq, because weather travels. Or too much about the
fact that living with DU in Iraq (or Afghanistan, or the former Yugoslavia)
can make you very sick, if not dead.
This is because our governments like DU, so they don't want to hear about any
unfortunate repercussions. And, according to many reputable sources, death,
misery, pain, radiation and the consequences of any action will all go away,
perhaps quite quickly, if we only ignore them hard enough.
· AL Kennedy is the author of Paradise, Original
Bliss and Everything You Need