Monday, June 22, 2009

Should a local newspaper really be neutral?

When I posted a couple of weeks ago about the way we intended to cover the BNP, @goodfella66 posed this question:
Interesting blog but in terms of a supposedly, neutral local paper don't you think it would be better just to report the interview as is & then let the reader make their mind up on whether he is racist, fascist, bigot, general good guy etc?
And, this morning, I received a letter from a reader who said that they had never written to a newspaper before, but that they were outraged by a 'so-called neutral' local newspaper taking a stance that allowed one of our feature writers to 'ridicule' our new BNP county councillor.

It's interesting that both questioned the neutrality of the newspaper and yet I'm not sure that local newspapers make a claim to be neutral, other than in the sense that we tend not to be political in terms of supporting a particular political party. It's clear from our leader columns that we take a stance on all sorts of issues - we, for example, support Leicester's bid to bring the world cup to the city. Does that affect the way that we cover that issue? Well, yes and no. Yes in that we tend to look for positive articles to write about the bid and give them prominence; no in that it does not prevent us from asking questions (and writing articles) about the downside of the bid. Perhaps a better example would be the Special Olympics which are taking place in Leicester next month. The paper supports the bringing of the games to the city, but it does not prevent us from reporting that the sponsorship efforts for the game have failed and that local taxpayers are left with a bill of up to £1million.

In general, we would want to be supportive of things that we thought were good for the city and we would be anti those things which we thought were bad.

So, we would not support - or indeed publish - views that we thought were divisive. Sexism, racism, terrorism, crime etc. I don't think you'd expect any different.

The problem comes when you get to something like the BNP which is attempting - and, in some people's views, succeeding - to legitimise itself. At this point, there are those who don't accept that it's ok for us to unilaterally decide that the BNP is not acceptable and that we will not treat them in a neutral way.

It's a difficult area and it is, to a large extent, a subjective decision. It's not that long ago that many papers treated Greenpeace as if they were a bunch of tree-hugging left-wing loonies intent on bringing down the capitalist state ... but in more recent years they have become a sort of media darling whose statements are not only actively sought, but accepted almost without question. They are often now portrayed as the heroes of many issues.

I guess, when it comes down to it, this is a decision that I have to make as Editor of the paper - get it right, and most people are happy; get it wrong, and we'd lose a lot of readers!