News­room bosses should have said no

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Bob Wake­ham

A few days af­ter Cathy Ben­nett con­ducted her women-only press con­fer­ence to draw at­ten­tion to cy­ber bul­ly­ing (a goal she cer­tainly ac­com­plished), I re­ceived an email from a now re­tired, for­mer col­league who was crit­i­cal of the de­ci­sion by news­room man­agers to al­low the fi­nance min­is­ter to de­cide the gen­der of those re­porters in­vited to pay heed to her de­nun­ci­a­tion of vile and ob­scene at­tacks on so­cial me­dia.

More to the point, he won­dered how I would have re­sponded if I was still in charge of the “Here and Now” op­er­a­tion, and such a re­quest (or de­mand) had come across my desk.

My an­swer would have not a trace of am­bi­gu­ity: I would have re­jected such an over­ture, and, as high­fa­lutin or dog­matic as it might sound to some, es­pe­cially those not versed in, or have no in­ter­est in, the nu­ances and prin­ci­ples of jour­nal­ism, would have ar­gued that per­mit­ting a politi­cian — or, for that mat­ter, any­one in a po­si­tion of trust or au­thor­ity — to dic­tate the at­ten­dees at a press con­fer­ence or the in­ter­viewer in a one-on-one ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion is a de­cid­edly un­healthy sce­nario.

The dan­ger, of course, is that jour­nal­is­tic in­de­pen­dence can be se­ri­ously com­pro­mised once the po­ten­tial news maker or the in­ter­vie­wee is given the free­dom to pick and choose to whom he or she will talk, a stip­u­la­tion ob­vi­ously be­ing made while in search of a sym­pa­thetic or an oblig­ing (the lat­ter just a shade clear of co-opted) ear.

Granted, the is­sue to which Ben­nett was fo­cused, and one which had af­fected her greatly, was not ex­actly your run-ofthe-mill po­lit­i­cal story, not her bi­ased spin on the deficit (although I no­ticed she couldn’t help at one point but make a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally par­ti­san com­plaint about the fi­nan­cial predica­ment she and her gov­ern­ment had in­her­ited from the Tories).

This was her very per­sonal take on the vul­gar­ity and bile that all too of­ten punc­tu­ate the var­ied meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­ploited by anony­mous poltroons, cow­ards with the guts of a jel­ly­fish.

And I get that, be­lieve me, I do.

I’ve been sub­jected to some nasty, per­sonal at­tacks and threats through­out my ca­reer, much of it, I’ve con­cluded, that has come with the ter­ri­tory, but still has been, on oc­ca­sion, hard to take, and has pro­voked in me a Dirty Harry dream to con­front my at­tacker face-to-face.

Ben­nett, of course, be­lieves that the ma­jor­ity of fright­en­ing at­tacks on so­cial me­dia are di­rected to­wards women, and that, I pre­sume, is the rea­son why she felt it was only fe­male re­porters who would have em­pa­thy with her de­sire to give this cause as wide a jour­nal­is­tic hear­ing as pos­si­ble.

And that was her pre­rog­a­tive. She would be far from the first soul with a laud­able cause to seek out me­dia types thought to have a philo­soph­i­cal bent that would help spread the mes­sage. Or the first soul with per­haps a less laud­able cause or with po­lit­i­cal goals (these are some­times very sub­jec­tive mat­ters) to try and con­vince a news­room to as­sign a re­porter he or she could ma­nip­u­late.

But that’s why it’s so crit­i­cal that news­room bosses not sur­ren­der that in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant as­pect of their jobs.

For what it’s worth, and as the risk of sound­ing de­fen­sive, I’ve cov­ered what many would think of as “women’s is­sues” over the years — abor­tion, do­mes­tic abuse, sex­ism — and have been heav­ily in­volved in the as­sign­ing of re­porters to such sto­ries, and although I’m hardly flaw­less, I would think I’ve brought a pro­fes­sion­al­ism, in­tegrity and ob­jec­tiv­ity to that jour­nal­is­tic process.

And, in my day, I would have en­sured that the story Ben­nett was telling re­ceived le­git­i­mate cov­er­age (with or with­out her co-op­er­a­tion); af­ter all, it was one that de­manded at­ten­tion. A no-brainer, as they say.

But I would never have al­lowed Ben­nett to de­cide who should or who should not do the story. That’s an aw­fully slip­pery slope.

I cer­tainly ac­knowl­edge that this was a rel­a­tively un­usual sit­u­a­tion, this Ben­nett press con­fer­ence, aris­ing, as it did, by her ap­par­ently sin­cere de­sire to tackle a pro­foundly con­se­quen­tial sub­ject, a sub­ject that has af­fected her di­rectly.

And, as my col­league and friend Pam Framp­ton noted in a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally thought­ful man­ner re­cently, it placed fe­male jour­nal­ists like her in a con­flicted po­si­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, though, if in a po­si­tion of au­thor­ity, as I once was, I would have given the re­quest from Ben­nett the thumbs down.

There would have been hell to pay, from cer­tain quar­ters.

But worth it.

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