Earlier this year, I made a formal complaint to the Guardian about what I view to be its consistently slanted and misleading coverage of Venezuelan politics. Click on the "Venezuela" label at the bottom of this post if you're unfamiliar with my views about their reporting, and you'll see what I've written previously on this.
After several months, and much prodding, the Guardian responded to me personally, and in a “Reader’s editor” article in the main paper itself. Much of the response I received either addressed points that I hadn't raised, misrepresented points I had raised, or gave answers so absurd that I began to question whether the "Reader's editor" herself believed what she was writing, or whether the exercise was designed simply to say anything to contradict me.
I wrote back, saying that I could not view my complaint as having been dealt with satisfactorily. I attached a marked-up version of the Readers' editor’s reply to me, with my comments in bold (reproduced here, below). That was two months ago. No substantive response has been received, and the reasons for that will become obvious to you as you read further. The fact is that the Guardian has, in six months, been totally unable to deal with the concerns I've raised. All it has managed is a response which dissolves upon examination, and which it now fails to defend. Have a read, and decide for yourselves whether their defence of their reporter stands up.
I write in response to your complaint about the Guardian’s coverage of Venezuela. Your correspondence raised some interesting issues about the way news is reported and I've referred to it in tomorrow’s column on the subject of whether news reports need to be impartial (without, of course, identifying you as the complainant). As I’m sure you will appreciate it wasn’t possible, in the space available in my column, to address all of your complaints about the coverage. I will try to do so here.
My response is based on your emails to Harriet Sherwood of January 19 and February 4. In the course of considering your complaint I’ve also reviewed more than sixty articles about Venezuela published in the Guardian over the last 15 months.
In the next paragraph you describe my concerns. Let me then use this opportunity to clarify what they were.
You complain that: the correspondent fails to put his “obvious personal dislike of the Caracas government” to one side when he reports on events in Venezuela; the coverage is not balanced;
The central concern is that the coverage is misleading to the reader, and that, when noting this, one cannot help but also note the political views of the reporter, which are clear.
there are too many “sideways glances at the personality of the president”; some of the news reports mix fact and opinion;
I said from the outset that the correspondent is entitled to his views. The concern is that these views are distorting – through omission or questionable contextualisation - the factual picture that is presented to the reader; skewing it in favour of the correspondent’s point of view. This is distinct from presenting both the news and the reporter’s personal view of what is happening.
and the correspondent was wrong to call Chavez a “self-described communist”.
I do not know whether the reporter was wrong to do this or not. I’ve asked for an explanation as to why Chavez was called a “self-described communist” in January, and then, in September, as someone who did not describe himself as a communist. Both these statements could not be true simultaneously. I also continue to seek a direct quote supporting the former description.
The correspondent considers himself to be open-minded in his reporting of Venezuelan politics. His view is that the government has done some good things, as well as some bad things and some bizarre things. He points out that Chavez has had a difficult year: a referendum went against him, there have been defectors from his movement, he has closed down a television station,
This provides a very good example of what I’m referring to.
As you can see here, RCTV is not closed down.
I note that this description was also used in the “Open Door” article on Monday.
RCTV’s licence to broadcast terrestrially was not renewed upon expiry, but it continues to broadcast freely on cable and satellite. The licence was not renewed because the station actively participated in the overthrow of the elected government. Personally I disagree with the decision. But I’m not asking for reporting that adheres to my personal views – just reporting that gives a fair reflection of the facts.
Suppose there’d been a communist coup in the UK during the cold war, in which the Morning Star and Daily Mirror had played an active role. If the coup had then been thwarted, those papers would, at the very least, have been put out of business straightaway (Chavez has not even done this). Such a move would probably not have been described as a “negative” news story for the restored democratic government, except perhaps in Moscow.
In his reporting, the correspondent has either ignored or played down this context, even though it is a defining feature of the story. Clearly this misleads the reader.
and there is high inflation. In the circumstances there have, inevitably, been reports about the government, which might be classified as “negative”.
This is something of a red herring. I have not asked that the Guardian stop reporting the news. The very opposite, actually. If events reflect badly on the Venezuelan government then so be it. That’s not my concern in respect of the Guardian’s reporting.
At the heart of your complaint is the issue of whether news reports need to be impartial. Your view is that they should be “more or less neutral and balanced” and, if I understand your complaint correctly, you do not think that they should contain any opinion.
Not quite true, as I’ve explained above.
Your correspondent is perfectly entitled to opine, overtly, that RCTV’s licence should have been renewed on freedom of speech grounds (irrelevantly, I would have agreed with him). But the factual background needs to be properly represented so that the reader has the basis for their own conclusion, not in such a way that would steer them towards the view of the correspondent. Misrepresentations such as “Chavez closed down a TV station”, as noted above, will plainly have the latter effect.
Therefore, the question of whether the Guardian is obliged to report like the BBC or whether the correspondent considers himself, to use his rather odd term, “a champion of impartiality”, is not of any relevance here. Hence the Open Door article did not properly address my complaint.
You suggest the paper’s approach to reporting events in Venezuela should be the same as the BBC’s. You may be aware that the BBC (like other broadcasters) is regulated by the state and is required to present news with “due impartiality”. Newspapers do not have the same requirement imposed on them. In fact there are few restrictions on the way newspapers present news. As well as a provision about the need for accuracy the Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice has this to say: “The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.”
I address these points above. Here I would merely add one further observation.
There is a difference between what one is technically allowed to do and what one ought to do. What the British press are allowed to do does not, perhaps, represent the highest standard one might apply to journalism. I think most people would expect the Guardian to exceed that bare minimum standard by some considerable distance. As indeed it does 99.9% of the time.
Newspapers mix factual reporting and their own political views in various different ways. Where the balance is struck is one of the things that distinguishes a quality paper from the others. Of course, the Guardian would be free, in regulatory terms, to descend to the level of a mid-market tabloid if it took that commercial decision. But neither you nor I would view that favourably.
Your correspondent’s reporting may not fall foul of any regulations, but that hardly makes it acceptable by itself. All in all, this is a strange, and rather weak line of defence.
I used the BBC as a direct comparison of how the facts, in respect of the same story, can be given in full, or with a particular slant that serves to misrepresent them. Actually, if I wanted to provide a more general standard for Guardian’s reporting from Caracas to reach, I would simply point to the reporting in the rest of the paper. Actually, the Guardian’s reporting from Venezuela does not meet your own standards, in my view.
I turn now to the article published on January 18 with the headline Cheap and cheerful: Venezuelans cling to right for petrol at 42p a tank. You object to the fact that a quote: “If it gives us nothing else, at least the government lets us have our own petrol this cheap,” is not counterbalanced by information about what the Venezuelan government has done for the poor.
In particular you think the article should have mentioned that the government uses oil revenues to provide free healthcare and education and subsidised food. Those other policies had been reported previously but this story was about the petrol subsidy and it was legitimate to deal with that issue in isolation. The article should not be taken on its own as an indication of a lack of balance or fairness in the Guardian’s overall reporting.
The point about balance across the broader scope of the Guardian’s reporting on Venezuela is a fair one in principle. However, this does not preclude the need for a minimal amount of balance within the article itself. An article that talks about the poor of Venezuela being harmed by a government policy, but does not set this in the context of the poor having been huge net winners under that same government, is obviously an article that misleads the reader.
But in any case, the correspondent has given remarkably little focus in his overall coverage to the 37.4% reduction in poverty caused by a tripling in social spending since 1998. These are things we hear surprisingly little about in the Guardian, given the paper’s long-standing concern for third world development. The fact is that my criticism was raised with the overall scope of the Guardian’s reporting – which I have closely followed - very much in mind.
Chavez’s personality seems to me to be an entirely appropriate subject for discussion.
Again, I’m afraid this is a red herring. Nowhere do I say that Chavez’s personality is off-limits for discussion.
I note you object to phrases like “self-styled revolutionary” and “self-styled revolution” but I’m unclear as to why you say that these are inaccurate descriptions.
I find it strange that you’re unclear about this because I explained my concern in the 19/1/08 email to Harriet Sherwood, to which you refer.
“Those who know Venezuela describe the Caracas government as the product of a broad and deep grassroots social movement born of the iniquities of Venezuela's history. I would hope to learn something about such phenomena in the Guardian. Instead, one is given the impression that the 'Bolivarian revolution' is simply the transient and unfortunate product of one man's eccentricities.”
It is a matter of fact that the political change occurring in Venezuela is not Chavez’s “self-styled” revolution. It is the result of a set of national circumstances which produced a broad political movement that Chavez happens to be at the head of. To call it Chavez’s “self-styled” revolution – as though it is his simply his personal property, and not the product of the efforts of many thousands of people - reduces and trivialises an entire nation’s politics to the point of caricature.
In addition, it should be noted that Tony Blair has never been described, in news coverage, as a “self-styled humanitarian interventionist”, nor George Bush as a “self-styled regime-changer”. I would suggest that these are insidiously pejorative turns of phrase that infantilise and diminish the person concerned. There is a certain cheapness about the use of this sort of language.
With regard to the point about dwindling support the correspondent refers to the referendum, which Chavez lost, unexpectedly, in December.
In my email to Harriet Sherwood, I cited “a recent Latinobarómetro poll [which] gave the Venezuelan government an approval rating of 66%, ranking the country 1st in Latin America, where the average was 39%.”
Surely it is not being argued that the term “dwindling support”, on its own, suggests anything resembling an approval rating of 66%, and number one popularity in the region?
The government lost a referendum on a set of specific proposals (I’m glad it did, incidentally). It did not lose a popularity contest or a general election. Plainly the term “dwindling support” leads the reader away from the true picture of the government’s support.
As I indicated earlier, news stories do not have to be impartial and they may contain comment. What is crucial is that the facts (including the facts underlying any opinion) are accurate. It is also important that readers are able to distinguish between fact and opinion in stories. My assessment of the Guardian’s coverage of Venezuela is that, where the articles contained comment, readers were unlikely to have had trouble identifying it.
With regard to your complaint about the January 11, 2007 article, it seems to me that “dogmatic anti-globalist” and “US-bashing” are statements of fact rather than opinion.
George Bush is never described, in the Guardian’s news coverage, as a “dogmatic anti-Islamist” or as the “Iran-bashing” US President, for obvious reasons. Again, these are insidiously pejorative turns of phrase that infantilise and diminish the person concerned in a manner that is inappropriate in the context of broadsheet news reporting.
I don’t agree with you that the question posed by the correspondent is rhetorical. [continue reading to see the question I was referring to, which appeared in the January article linked to above]
I have to say that I find this astonishing.
The article compares the President Ortega of Nicaragua with Chavez, two presidents “separated by 1,314 miles, a late flight and an ideological time warp”. Chavez is “a social democrat turned US-bashing communist revolutionary” while Nicaragua’s Ortega is “a US-bashing communist revolutionary turned social democrat”. Chavez has "tightened his grip on power", "accelerating radicalisation on the principles of Trotsky's permanent revolution", moving to "clip his allies' dwindling autonomy". "Turning to look into the camera he saluted and said "Hello, Fidel", probably correctly assuming that his mentor, the ailing Cuban leader, was watching."
The question the correspondent then raises is this: “Whether Venezuela is moving ahead towards an innovative leftwing economic model, or moving backwards towards Cuban-style authoritarianism, is a question for ordinary Venezuelans to answer”.
If this is not rhetorical, then please let me know which part of the article suggests that “Venezuela is moving ahead towards an innovative leftwing economic model” and not in any way “backwards towards Cuban-style authoritarianism”.
It seems strange to take the line that the correspondent is not obliged to be a “champion of impartiality” and then to deny the most unambiguous examples of his introducing opinion into his news reporting. It does rather seem like trying to have things both ways.
In relation to the December 10 article, about Venezuela’s adjustment of its time zone, I cannot see that there is a problem with the tone.
I think the concern here is fairly straightforward. One article portrays the policy as (again) the product of one man’s quixotic eccentricities. The other [cited in my complaint] to gives a sensible, rounded explanation of why the measure was introduced. One informs, the other trivialises.
As far as your complaint that it was wrong to call Chavez a “self-described communist” is concerned, the correspondent’s position is that he did not claim you would find the evidence for this in a transcript of the president’s inaugural speech and his email to you of January 12 does not appear to suggest this.
The allegation was made in an article about the January 2007 inauguration speech. When I asked for a quote the correspondent said, “fish around and you’ll find a transcript”. It seemed reasonable to assume that he was referring to a transcript of the speech that his article was about. However, this is beside the point. The fact remains that, to this day, I have seen no direct quote of Chavez calling himself a communist, after two requests to the correspondent, and email to the foreign editor, and now a complaint to the reader’s editor. It is a claim that contradicts what is known about Chavez’s politics, it is something that Chavez has apparently never said about himself before or since, and it is used as the basis for the rhetoric the correspondent employs in a highly opinionated and critical article. It seems reasonable enough to expect the claim to be supported, so I would therefore repeat my request for the precise quote to be given.
The correspondent maintains that he heard Chavez describe himself as a communist in the run up to the election. His explanation for ceasing to use this description is that Chavez has not used it since.
Please confirm my understanding of the response here.
Chavez did not renounce his “self-declared” communism, to the correspondent’s knowledge. The correspondent simply did not hear Chavez explicitly describe himself as a communist in the period between January and September 2007.
It is on this basis [nothing happening] that we have gone from communism being Chavez’s defining political characteristic to his not being a communist at all, in the space of 8 months.
Please let me know if my understanding of this correct.
I have not dealt here with your complaints about the correspondent’s coverage of Colombia set out in your email to me of March 3 as this concerns a different allegation. If, after reading this response, you still wish to pursue it please let me know.
My concern was the overall nature of the correspondent’s reporting, and I have supported my concerns with a range of evidence. In bringing the Colombia/Ecuador/Venezuela story to your attention, I sought to add to the evidence supporting my complaint. I should therefore like it to be seen as part of that complaint.[no response to this, two months on. Nor to any of the above points].
Labels: Media, US Imperialism, Venezuela