Who censors who?

If we write only the views that governments support, we are little better than propaganda machines; not journalists at all, says Jo Knowsley.

Has fear of being branded a conspiracy theorist affected journalistic judgment when reporting on the coronavirus?

We’re extraordinary beings, we humans – a bundle of contradictions designed to defy any attempts to define us.

Democracy – with our repeated and plaintive cries about how much we value our freedom, at least here in the west – is a great example. We demand the freedom to say what we like, do (almost) what we like, and to write/print whatever we choose.

But problems arise the moment other people say or do things we don’t like or even more marginal, things where we suspect we won’t like the answers. (Look at Trump inciting hatred and the violence that led to the storming of Capitol Hill because he didn’t win the election); and his earlier clamour to stop the election; or his bids, during his reign, to dismiss and censor ‘fake news’ – stories he simply didn’t like.

It’s usually despotic leaders and petulant children who behave like this. But this week I had a bizarre and uncomfortable encounter with censorship amongst journalists – those who are supposed to be wielding the sword of freedom in search of the truth, even if we rarely get it.

It seems Covid 19 – not to mention the increasingly heated vaccination debate – has made mini tyrants of us all.

Here’s the scenario: a Facebook group for and made up of, journalists, designed to help and support the trade and those in it. It’s run by a seasoned former BBC journalist and usually encourages debate.

But when a freelance health reporter posted that she was looking for case studies of people who have had adverse reactions to the Covid 19 vaccine all hell broke loose.

Perhaps it was because she mentioned she was researching an article for The Daily Mail – a ‘marmite’ publication even within the trade.

The journalist, let’s call her, Becky, was jumped on by a string of her fellow scribes who accused her of drumming up a scare-mongering piece which would only add to the current anti-vax hysteria. They wanted no part of it, they said, sometimes in rather rabid terms.

Others then stepped up to accuse the detractors of impugning Becky’s integrity and asking them to think again before expressing such violent views.

Spooked, the group host closed down the thread. But she also asked two of those who had stood up for Becky’s reputation and integrity to leave the group. The hysterical critics were allowed to stay. But the supporters of free speech had been treated like traitors.

Others waded in to accuse The Daily Mail of creating an article that stoked fear and loathing – before it had even been published. One member of the group even suggested it was a good thing for writers ‘to check up on each other’ in this way. Creepy.

Wow, I thought, as I read the thread in disbelief. Colleagues and writers were demanding to know, in future, how exactly any case studies or information would be used and the tone of the article on which a writer was working. It was the same as saying ‘we’re not going to help you if you write anything with which we disagree.’

One of the problems, of course, is that Becky wouldn’t have known what she was going to write until she had spoken to her case studies and had the results of her wider research. (I’m reminded of an idiot PR who not so long ago asked me what the headline would be on a published interview with one of her clients – before I had even spoken to the client).

In the end The Daily Mail published a well-balanced piece, outlining reactions to the vaccine, with experts saying mildly adverse reactions could be a good, healthy sign. The FB group’s host then posted the article saying how good and well-researched it was. But she went on to add that in future writers should specify what they were writing and give the ‘context’ to it. This would be helpful, she said.

The whole episode, though something of a storm in a teacup, made my blood boil.

Randolph Hearst, amongst others, has been quoted as saying: ‘journalism is printing what someone else wants to suppress; all else is advertising.’

Perhaps that’s a little extreme. But if we write only the views that governments support, we are little better than propaganda machines; not journalists at all.

I know the woman who runs this group, she has fought some long and distinguished battles to get to the truth.

But her censoring of her own members is a disgrace, and renders the group not one fit for journalists at all.

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Jo Knowsley

Jo has held senior staff writing roles on some of Britain’s leading newspapers including the Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, and is now a freelance writer. She has reported on major breaking stories around the world and has written for magazines and newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand in publications as diverse as Marie Claire, the Daily Mail, Metro, Saga and Grazia. In the past she focused primarily on news-lead reports and interviews. Today she writes across a number of platforms on subjects ranging from property and travel to theatre and features. She grew up in New Zealand and has made her home and career in London since 1990.

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