Thursday, May 11, 2006

Independence is not Impartiality

From The Times of Malta
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Independence is not impartiality
by Ranier Fsadni

"Which opinion-maker in Malta," the Malta Labour Party's general secretary once asked on Bondiplus, "is really politically independent?" I did not hear any one in the studio answer his question. I wished I could have been there to say: "Quite a few of us. Being politically independent is no great intellectual or moral achievement."

Jason Micallef's question carries an assumption that independence implies neutrality; or that at least one cannot show consistent partiality. The assumption spouted up again a few days ago, when Alfred Grixti, editor of the MLP's online newspaper, criticised The Times (according to the report carried in The Sunday Times) for "giving more space to Nationalist-leaning articles in its editorial content than those favouring the MLP". That is, the newspaper was not being true to its declared independence.

I suspect the assumption is shared by the majority in Malta, and that most people follow Mr Micallef in reasoning that few, if any, people in Malta are therefore truly politically independent, since most people have a preference for one party over another. So it is worth spelling out why both assumption and inference are mistaken.

But first, an observation: on the foregoing grounds, virtually all serious opinion-formers in Euro-America cannot be considered to be independent: general political preferences are one factor usually governing their selection. And it is a rare, good opinion columnist whose political outlook is unknown. How could it be otherwise when political philosophy is central to political appraisal?
William Safire, the former New York Times columnist, was (and was meant to be) the libertarian conservative voice on the mostly liberal (in the US sense) newspaper. Most Guardian columnists are fulfilling their role, and not compromising it, by individually representing one of the various positions that is encompassed by the liberal left: George Monbiot is the green liberal, for example, and Polly Toynbee the libertarian social democrat. It would be difficult to find a major European newspaper or political magazine whose columnists and editorialists do not have an established political profile.

Yet, no one seriously questions their independence on these grounds. Independence is not confused with partiality or bias. Nor is it confused with intelligence. One can be independent and bigoted, as well as independent and stupid. What is so impossible about being an independent elitist, racist, homophobic, male chauvinist bigot without two intelligent ideas to rub together? Independence simply means not being dependent on a person, organisation or institution, which usually means being in a position to take no orders and no money.

In practice, Maltese newspaper readers recognise the character of independence. Much (by no means all) of the interest generated by the columns of Lino Spiteri and Alfred Mifsud arises because they give readers that rare thing: a Labour viewpoint that is free from MLP control. Their political independence is not just a result of their state of mind: when they were active within the MLP, they were respectively the same person, with the same mind, but not independent, because they had to keep within the limits of party discipline; and it showed.
Independence does not mean that one has to steer or tack between different sides of the political debate. Indeed, over-caution can be the sign of fear, caused by a lack of independence.

A journalist can show complete partiality and still be independent. Does it follow that l-orizzont, the General Workers' Union newspaper, could qualify as politically independent even if it poured scorn on the Nationalist Party (PN) in each edition? Yes. I doubt that newspaper's independence not because it is virulently anti-PN but because it gives me the firm impression that it is not independent of the MLP leadership.

Sometimes a news organisation is both independent and impartial. The BBC, for instance. But the distinction between the two characteristics is clear within the Beeb. Its former political editor, Robin Oakley, who came over from The Times, was known to have Conservative sympathies. His successor, Andrew Marr, had a long paper trail of liberal opinions: he had been editor of The Independent and a columnist (he called the Catholic and Anglican bishops, on one occasion, a bunch of silly fools). But no one questioned their independence. Some questions were raised, in Mr Marr's case, about his ability to be or appear impartial - but he succeeded, and was a popular political editor.

The distinction also emerges when one considers organisations that are impartial but not independent - the PBS newsroom, for instance. The MLP questions its impartiality, of course; but an outbreak of PBS newsroom independence would unite the political parties in their opposition to the outrage.

Understanding the nature of journalistic independence is not the same as practising it. But it is necessary to understand if one is to value and defend it.

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