Is there an impartial media?

Mohamed Shuman
Thursday 19 Mar 2015

The decline in journalistic standards in Egypt can only be addressed when people stop saying that media the world over is biased and understand that professional ethics should be upheld

There are a number of notions that have become myths wrongly used, both politically and ethically. One of the most famous is the widespread notion in political and media discourse that there is no impartial or objective media, and that the media in the most established democracies is owned by individuals and run as enterprises aiming at profit, thus serving the interest of owners, or is controlled by advertisers or governments.

Of course, this is not true. At best it is half true because there are many regulations concerning the ownership of means of mass media and its role in different democratic models. Neglecting this reflects either ignorance or understanding with the intent of confusing issues. This is done by using half truths to claim that both the privately-owned and public media has the right to practice bias. Hence, it is the right of the owners of satellite channels and newspapers, who spend money on these means of media, to transform them into tools to serve their interests, and it is the state's right to use the Egyptian Radio and Television Union to defend its policies, right or wrong. This logic is to be refused totally and is far from the truth of the relationship between media and politics in any democratic society, or what it should be in one in transition, like Egypt. 

Democratic nations nowadays do not accept media partiality or its submission to its owners or advertisers. There are many studies that gauge the extent of professionalism in media performance and its closeness to impartiality and objectivity. The point of departure of these studies starts from a hypotheses that objectivity and impartiality of media are important and necessary but impossible to achieve. Therefore impartiality and objectivity in media are an ultimate objective towards which society and media personnel strive, though it may not be accomplished 100 percent because perfection is an arduous venture. It is necessary, however, to reach satisfactory levels in approaching perfection. For instance, it can be 70 percent, more or less. What's important is that we attempt, through a number of regulations and mechanisms, to ensure the realisation of the largest extent possible of professionalism, balance and objectivity in all media activities. The most important of these regulations are:

1. Laws that prohibit monopoly and spreading news that instigates violence, hatred and discrimination.

2. Professional rules and regulations monitored by independent bodies to organise the media, and permitting the creation of independent syndicates for those working in media.

3. Civil society organisations that take responsibility for defending the rights of the masses to receive accurate and balanced news and information, and that opinion is not mixed with news.

4. A democratically elected parliament that monitors overall performances in society and sets up laws and regulations that protect national security and media freedoms.

Egyptian media lacks most of these enabling conditions for various reasons. Thus, the performance of our media is in continuous decline, especially in terms of objectivity and impartiality, which are not realised more than 10 percent of the time, and maybe less. When we complain that impartiality and professionalism are in decline, some come out yelling, presenting examples of bias in American or British media. They are examples. However, they face criticism within their societies. In addition, these biased Western models should neither encourage nor justify our media bias.

The irony is that the climate of the January 25 Revolution allowed freedom of the media and opened the right of individuals and companies to issue newspapers and launch channels without developing mechanisms that regulate media along with self and societal censorship. Thus, we suffered from a decline in professional performance, the politicisation of media content, and unchecked bias. This chaotic climate resulted in the false notion that "there is no unbiased media," used then to justify partiality and granting businessmen and advertisers legitimacy to exploit media organisations to defend their interests.

The disaster lies in that those who propagate the notion there is no unbiased media philosophise and put the condition that every media organisation declare openly its editorial policy, implying its political or partisan leaning. This in order that audiences and those working in these organisations be aware of the stances and prejudices of it. On these grounds, the audience may decide to follow this media or that. The same goes for every journalist, whether he wants to continue to work in this newspaper or satellite channel or leave.

The proponents of this philosophy even assert the right of newspaper or satellite channel owners to terminate journalists who hold views different from their editorial policies and prejudices.

Here we must discuss such false notions that are situated in grey areas between truths and lies. The first of these lies is that the editorial policy of any media organisation does not mean a political and partisan bias, but rather an identification of general orientations towards issues and the challenges that face the country, and identification of general professional and ethical rules that this organisation commits itself and its personnel to while covering events. It also includes providing audiences with news and opinion, inviting them to participate in producing and circulating media content.

However, the most important rule remains the separation between news and opinion. Opinion is free while news is sacred, and a balance must be struck balance between providing news and presenting opinion while verifying news accuracy and not colouring it.   

Hence, commitment to an editorial policy does not contradict a diversity of opinion in a media organisation, nor its journalists' political and partisan standpoints, which the media code of ethics insists the journalist conceal during his work, because its natural place is in the party to which the journalist belongs as a citizen and not as a journalist.

In simple words, it is the right of every journalist to belong to any party he chooses outside his work and profession, and it is his right to express his viewpoint in what he writes as opinion. However, he must separate between his opinion and the news he provides.

Undoubtedly, this separation is very hard on the personal level, but the journalist had to train himself on this separation. There are well known and declared bodies within the media organisation, inside the media regulatory bodies, and in the journalists and media personnel syndicates and civil society that monitor to what extent the journalist can separate between his partisan affiliation and his commitment to professional rules, and they have full authorisation to conduct an investigation into any infractions and issue deterrent penalties against violators that may reach suspension from work to terminating the license to practice in the journalism profession.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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