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24 January 2024

Censorship does not work

Shielding audiences from the lies of Donald Trump and other difficult subjects is a betrayal of what journalism is for.

By Hannah Barnes

I have never believed that it is the role of journalists to tell people what to think. We are not the arbiters of truth. Our job is to help make sense of the world we live in, explain things fairly and accurately and allow people to make up their own minds. That doesn’t mean presenting facts and opinions as having equal weight; where there is mis- or disinformation we should highlight this, explain why something is untrue and provide evidence to counter any false narrative. A free press plays a vital role in any properly functioning democracy.

So, when I learned of the decision by two of the largest US television news networks not to broadcast Donald Trump’s winning speech from the Iowa caucuses in full, I felt deeply uneasy. Historically, censorship has been more often the preserve of the right. It is unsettling that others are now following that path. “At this point of the evening, the projected winner of the Iowa caucuses has just started giving his victory speech,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow told viewers, not even mentioning the former president by name initially. “We will let you know if there is any news made in that speech – if there is anything noteworthy, something substantive and important.” But MSNBC would not be showing the speech live. This was because, Maddow argued, the network believes in telling the truth. “It is not out of spite, it is not a decision that we relish, it is a decision that we regularly revisit. And honestly, earnestly, it is not an easy decision… But there is a cost to us, as a news organisation, of knowingly broadcasting untrue things.”

On rival network CNN, Trump’s remarks were interrupted after ten minutes by anchor Jake Tapper. Reports have circulated about tensions within the CNN news team over its coverage: some were appalled at the decision not to air the former president’s speech live in its entirety, others disappointed that the network chose to broadcast any of it.

These are not easy decisions to make. But their underlying message is that the American public cannot be trusted to make up its own mind. Blatant untruths should not be given an uncritical airing, but there seems to be something fundamentally different about censoring the front-runner in the US presidential race, and, say, not platforming a marginal internet conspiracy theorist. Surely it is more powerful to allow Trump to speak and then offer a robust fact-check of his words, as these and other broadcasters have done in the past? By not airing his comments at all, MSNBC and CNN are in danger of playing directly into Trump’s hands. As John Stuart Mill famously wrote in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”

News judgement is not an exact science. In the UK, broadcasters are bound by tougher rules than the print media, set by Ofcom; they are required to “provide adequate protection for members of the public from harmful and/or offensive material”. The British broadcast media also has to report accurately and with due impartiality. The BBC holds itself to an even higher standard, bound by Ofcom’s code but also led by its own set of guidelines. Journalists must be mindful of who might be viewing or listening at a particular time of day and what channel the content is being broadcast on, as well as how much information is needed to achieve accuracy and avoid unnecessary offence. This is something I struggled with at times during my decade and a half at the BBC. I believe many journalists there have. In the most awful of criminal cases, broadcasters do not include graphic descriptions of the crimes. There are very good reasons for this, but sometimes the truth is awful. And sometimes people need to know.

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If you say too much, you will fall foul of regulation; say too little and you may not convey the seriousness of the story you’re reporting or open yourself to criticism.

When my former colleague Sima Kotecha and I worked on a story about a WhatsApp group used by ex-police officers containing racist, homophobic and misogynistic content, we explained we had seen dozens of messages but many were too offensive to show. There was much discussion about what we should include to prove the story’s worth while not causing unnecessary offence. We thought about it deeply. The BBC generally does not broadcast the most offensive of racial slurs, which many of the messages included, but they are not banned outright. Some content was ruled out immediately: one video shared showed a young black man jumping from height into a swimming pool. On his way down, he hits his head, and dies. The footage is shocking. The group jokes in response.

When I first saw this, I felt sick. But because we were unable to show the full extent of the group’s conversations, some on social media accused us of wanting to censor free speech – that there was nothing wrong with “banter”. Ultimately, six men were sentenced over their messages.

The media must perform a delicate balancing act; sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. Decisions about what to say and what not to say are made in newsrooms every day. But the choice of the US networks not to air Trump’s remarks in full tipped this balance too far. When news organisations censor, they risk losing the trust of the public and failing in their duty to help us better understand the complicated world we live in.

[See also: The Tory media wars]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars