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Dave Witherow

Something Else

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We hear a lot about balance these days, especially as it applies to the media. Soon, no doubt, it will be a legal requirement, further eroding our freedom of expression. Things were not always thus.

Twenty or thirty years ago I used to write letters to the Otago Daily Times. The editor in those days had liberal leanings, a sense of humour, and liked a bit of argy-bargy. Controversy was his meat and drink, and many a roiling argument would enliven the Letters columns, drawing in more and more participants and extending, sometimes, for months. It was democracy in action, and a lot of fun, exposing the wider readership to pages of dissension, good sense, and occasional outright lunacy. All sorts were afforded a platform, extremists were balanced by moderates, and readers could, in their own sweet time, take it all on board and make up their minds for themselves.

That fine era came to an end. New editors came along, less liberally inclined, and there was even a quasi-Pravda period when it was a waste of time writing anything that was at all contrary to the paper’s favoured position. You could say what you like about the price of tripe, but anything contentious, if published at all, was “abridged” to the point of irrelevance.

A genuinely free press is hard to sustain. It is a perennial pain to the right-thinking majority and the upholders of the established order. It is disruptive, rather than emollient, and as that old newspaperman Ambrose Bierce once said: “If we’re not offending twenty percent of the readers every day, we’re doing a lousy job”.

Bierce, of course, was talking about the kind of paper that, in presenting all opinions indiscriminately, is an irritant to everyone sooner or later, whatever their position, right, left, or centre.

But a press like this has never been much more than an ideal. Few people, never mind the owners and editors of newspapers, are willing to provide a free pulpit for notions they think might undermine their own privileged situation.

The ODT – apart from its Gulag period – wasn’t too bad. Strict censorship might have been tempting, but it would never work. The result would be too boring, for a start, and no-one, unless forced to, would continue buying a newspaper filled with unrelieved propaganda. And there was the awkward matter of freedom of speech – a founding principle of the press, no less, and still respected in some media quarters. So, while legally-actionable views could rightly be excluded, the rest of the Opinion columns were allowed reasonable latitude, and managed mainly by the old standbys of selection, abridgment, and balance.

There’s not too much to be said for abridgment; it was usually justified on very flimsy grounds, or no grounds at all, but was invariably used to blunt the edge of a powerful argument. Selection – the cherry-picking of correspondence – was more devious, for by selecting the less persuasive stirrers, and suppressing the really effective ones, the same end could be achieved. Balance, however, was more subtle, and more honest.

The concept of balance, as traditionally understood in the media, was based on the idea that publishing all propositions and points of view, even the most disruptive ones, was no serious threat. Given enough time, this theory went, the wide canvas of comment would have a moderating effect – extremists would be reined in by their more sober compatriots, and, after some therapeutic venting of steam, the status quo would be undisturbed.

 And, indeed, this was generally what happened. But it did require a certain amount of nerve on the part of the editor. He (they were all He on the ODT) could never be entirely sure how the weight of opinion on a controversial topic would go. It might take weeks and he could only wait, trusting in the native conservatism of his readers. He had to hope that by exposure to all aspects of an argument, by thinking about things at length and balancing them carefully, they would come to the right conclusions.

 This kind of balance was democratic, but risky. Things could go wrong, get out of control. So, starting a decade or so ago, the concept of balance in the media was rebooted.

Here’s how it works.

Some malcontent, often a serial offender, sends in a letter. The editor would like to toss it in the bin, but, reluctantly recalling that he’s running a newspaper, he decides to let it appear. He can still chop bits out, softening the impact of the piece – but now he has another weapon: Balance, Mark 2, new and improved.

In the old dispensation, once an inflammatory letter was published, it would be up to those who disagreed to compose and submit their rebuttal, and wait for its publication. The original letter would thus enjoy a brief space of its own – an undisturbed focus, as it were, from whence its subversive influence might ripple out, like a stone thrown in a pond.

But the danger in this, obviously, is that susceptible readers might be influenced, seduced, contaminated. They might even be tempted to question some vital aspect of the conventional order.

This dire possibility, to the swaddled mind of the right-thinking editor, could be the beginning of the unraveling of everything. So, mindful of his duty to the status quo, and uncertain that the weight of spontaneous response will sufficiently hose things down, he arranges for damage control, effective immediately – and specifically tailored to contain the potential problem. He has done this before: it is now standard practice, and he knows exactly which Quango, accredited “expert”, or Departmental flack, will produce the required wodge of sophistry. The waters are deliberately muddied, and ripples swamped before they begin.

This doctrine of balance, you will note, applies only to matters of real significance. Produce a piece on poodle-training, tree-surgery, home-brewing, billiards, macrame, or any one of a thousand anodyne topics and – assuming there is room on the page that day – it will appear uncut and unchaperoned. Trivia enjoy complete freedom of the press, and the facade of balance, basically, is bollocks.