Vol. 13 No. 9 · 9 May 1991
It’s ironic that journalists, who take great pride in breaching others’ self-protective barricades of denial, turn out to be such ardent stonewallers when it comes to their own activities. Lynn Barber (LRB, 21 March) is simply one journalist among many who, on behalf of their profession, earnestly but defensively deny all allegations of moral myopia – and then start bumping into the furniture with their inept apologias. To her credit, Barber avoids the usual flag-waving and question-begging platitudes about an utterly inviolable Freedom of the Press, but her argument is still cast in predictably all-or-nothing terms. Journalists’ conduct is not only morally defensible – it includes no deception whatsoever! We could change interviewing practices – but the only alternative is uncritical press flackery!
Is there really no deception involved, as Barber maintains, in gaining individuals’ confidences by pretending to be in sympathy with them, inducing them thereby to ‘give more of themselves away than they would wish’, and then using the resulting material in such a way as happens to cause them injury? Perhaps such behaviour can be ultimately justified, but is it really ‘straightforward’ that there is no ethical difficulty here to worry about?
Moreover, I suspect that most people would not see the same gaping moral gulf that Barber does between written assurances of friendship and belief in an interviewee’s story (as in the McGinniss-MacDonald case, which Barber agrees was a betrayal of trust) and similar assurances given in conversation – express and implied, verbal and non-verbal – as in the ‘normal’ journalistic practice that she seeks to defend. There may be a moral distinction here, but it is surely not between deception and a total lack thereof. It is apparently obvious to Barber, however, that interviewers are entirely excused from moral concern for their subjects as long as they make no explicit promises – a legalistic, literal-minded approach that doesn’t do justice to the realities of either moral responsibility or communication. In fact, in trying in this way to place the onus entirely upon ‘the subject’s self-deception, unaided by the journalist’, Barber is taking a page from the book of George Bush, who, slinking behind a veil of verbal hair-splitting, has huffily denied responsibility for stimulating Iraqi rebels’ hopes for military assistance, and from the book of the cock-tease, who, after knowingly arousing sexual expectations with blatant innuendo and body language, indignantly defends her refusal to meet those expectations with a disingenuous assertion of innocence: ‘but I never actually said I would – you just deceived yourself!’
As for possible alternatives to current practice, why shouldn’t interviewers be required to warn their subjects beforehand that, for instance, anything they say can and will eventually be used against them in print if that suits the journalist’s independent judgment? Yes, that might well have a chilling effect on the practice of interviewing. But if so, wouldn’t it indicate that many people now consent to interviews without being aware of the possible consequences, and that they therefore need and deserve precisely the kind of protection that a warning would provide? Perhaps celebrity interviewees need no coddling if they are as mercenary, calculating and savvy about the interviewing game as Barber says they are: but a defence of journalists’ interviewing practices as a whole cannot be built from such interviewees alone, despite Barber’s game attempts to do just that. Barber likens interviews to commercial transactions, so as to apply a form of caveat emptor to them, but seems unaware that contract law makes many emptor-protecting exceptions to the doctrine. She is also ignorant of the fact that the signal virtue of voluntary economic transactions is that all parties typically benefit: ‘one side is bound to be disappointed’ only in the event of fraud or mistake. The parallel Barber draws between the interview and economic exchange is telling – only not in the way she imagines.
It is telling in another way as well, for the business world is the major social sphere in which morality is widely – but benightedly – thought to be basically irrelevant, out of place. In actuality, ethical issues permeate business life, a market system of transactions is grounded in relations of trust – and thus, yoking journalism to business only emphasises its moral dimension, contrary to Barber’s intention.
Yale Law School
Vol. 13 No. 12 · 27 June 1991
Isn’t it a little odd to publish a small sermon (Letters, 9 May) against cunning, duplicity, insensitivity and legalism when it comes from the Yale Law School and is written, presumably, by an American lawyer? Of course, Lawrence Beyer may be being ironic; with his views and his address, he could be little else. Or perhaps he is arguing, from the vantage-point conferred by his admirable income, for yet another source of fees: a contract between interviewer and interviewee which could be endlessly disputed to the profit of the likes of Beyer. There are recorded instances of lawyers thinking like that.
The fact is that there is already a quite clear understanding in any contact between a working journalist and someone who knows they are speaking to a working journalist. You only have to realise that journalism is a proper job. Journalists observe, record and try to find out interesting things. The purpose of an ‘interview’, which is a very formal kind of contact, is at least as clear as a dentist’s appointment or a reservation at Bibendum. This being so, and assuming that the interviewee has not somehow been brutalised into eating lunch, then Beyer’s language seems to be buckling a bit under its load. ‘Anything they say can and will be used against them,’ he complains. But they’re not under arrest. Anything they do or say is being offered freely, specifically so that the journalist can use it. Interviewees expect an advantage – even American lawyers pause on the courthouse steps to boost their clients to the camera. Beyer must realise by now that despite the ‘signal virtue of a voluntary economic transaction’ and the notion that ‘ethical issues permeate business life,’ sometimes the car you buy is a lemon.
All this fancy talk about procedure and contract is hiding the real issues in the two current cases. Masson’s case against Malcolm is that she invented quotes, not that she enticed them (she admits this). Malcolm, being a psychoanalytic insider, attacked Masson when his decent edition of the Freud-Fleiss letters and his account of the abandonment of the seduction theory were embarrassing that establishment; the effect of her faking was to help people resist truth. These are worse offences than smiling while you ask a question. And in the McGinnis-MacDonald case, has everyone forgotten the evidence that MacDonald did indeed slaughter his entire family? Should McGinnis have honoured a contract which required him to lie? Beyerites seem to think so. They think the person interviewed has the right to control what is asked and written – journalism as advertisement. On their argument, it would be unethical to ask that nice Mr Hitler difficult questions, when he only wants the world to know about the catering at the upcoming Olympics. I can’t see that this serves any public interest, but it will wonderfully serve any number of private, privileged ones. Mr Beyer thinks just like a lawyer.
Vol. 13 No. 16 · 29 August 1991
How silly of me not to realise that association with a law school disqualified me from commenting on ethical issues and rendered my ideas worthless! In my boundless arrogance, I had actually forgotten that the misdeeds of lawyers excuse those of journalists. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Pye (Letters, 27 June) for his gentlemanly instruction on these fine points of argumentation. (He should be forgiven for incorrectly presuming that I am a lawyer and that my income is ‘admirable’ for its magnitude.)
I do have a quibble or two, however. Pye thinks ‘Beyerites’ too eager to insulate journalists’ interviewees from harm: ‘sometimes the car you buy is a lemon,’ he reminds us. Agreed – and usually no blame is called for. But when the seller knows it’s a lemon, and that the buyer is depending upon him to divulge any major problems (due to the nature of their personal relationship, the unavailability of a mechanic, or mere innocence), then we have conduct that is unethically fraudulent and exploitative, if not also illegal.
Journalists, that is, ought to acknowledge that interviewees come in more than one morally-relevant variety, that not all can reasonably be expected to be as cagey as Pye conveniently assumes (like Lynn Barber before him). How many times have we heard journalists, when put on the defensive, inflate the canniness or intelligence of the public (thereby in one shrewd move explaining away their ethical nonchalance toward the common folk while promoting themselves as their comrades and champions?) The reality is that many people are naively trusting of journalists, due to unfamiliarity with their methods and to the heroic public-servant image that they skilfully cultivate. If one of these people is interviewed, in an atmosphere of informal geniality and without being warned that he is engaged in a partly adversarial activity, he may well – despite knowing the encounter to be an interview – be seduced into behaving as incautiously as if it were an ordinary conversation between friends. Pace Pye, it is simply not very clear to most people what the stakes are in an interview. By contrast, a visit to the dentist (Pye’s example) is not nearly as likely to be misconstrued. Nor does a dentist try to extract from people more than they would have him take: he subordinates his interests to theirs. And when he does hope to override their wishes, it is out of concern for their welfare, and he proceeds by advising them and asking their consent. This is a far cry from the interviewing relationship defended by Pye.
Even the law, Pye’s bugaboo, puts journalism to shame on this score. The rules of legal ‘interviewing’ take great pains to prevent deceit and coercion in the eliciting of information. Witnesses in court are apprised of the gravity and adversarialness of the situation explicitly, and also indirectly (by the robes, oaths, bifurcated courtrooms, lawyers’ objections, and other legal trappings), while those in police custody are given express warnings to put them on their guard. Far from these precautions being arcane devices serving only specialised legal ends – indeed, legal process might be more efficient were interrogation conducted without them – they spring from an elementary moral concern for individual autonomy, the right to speak freely or not at all.
Pye’s notion of freedom is, by contrast, an impoverished one. He says of interviewees that ‘anything they do or say is being offered freely, specifically so that the journalist can use it.’ But if they have been misled by the journalist about how he will use the results, and their ‘free’ co-operation has thus been obtained under false pretences, then surely their participation (or the fact that it may be motivated by self-interest) does not exempt the journalist from moral condemnation for his deception or betrayal of trust.
Pye tries to rationalise such conduct by suggesting that journalists could honour their understandings with interviewees only if they were willing to ‘lie’, or in effect cede control of reporting to them. This is a red herring. It overlooks the option of scrapping an interview (or its contested portions) altogether, thereby not having to betray either the interviewee or one’s own journalistic integrity. Worse, it neglects the option of eschewing irresponsible, ill-considered arrangements with interviewees in the first place. When a person is made genuinely aware that his responses will be used however the journalist sees fit, then neither journalistic independence nor the interviewee’s rightful expectations are compromised. Now, are there situations in which tough, probing reporting cannot be done by these rules, and where the unusual importance of the stories – and I don’t mean celebrity exposés, or ‘true crime’ tales like the Jeffrey MacDonald case – justifies some ethical corner-cutting? Very likely. But extraordinary cases do not a general warrant for ethical insensitivity make.
Yale Law School
Vol. 13 No. 18 · 26 September 1991
Unfortunately, Lawrence Beyer (Letters, 9 May) raises questions about his own alertness to ethical difficulties when he associates journalists who pretend sympathy to extract disclosures from those they interview with George Bush and women who are cock-teasers. For Beyer, Bush figures as the wimpy male who is monstrously feminised. He is at once the seductive female like Salome or the demon Barber of Fleet Street, ‘slinking behind a veil of verbal hair-splitting’, and the seductive male who, after ‘stimulating Iraqi rebels’ hopes for military assistance’, keeps his weapons to himself. The attack on Bush soon gives way to an attack on the woman who, ‘after knowingly arousing sexual expectations with blatant innuendo and body language, indignantly defends her refusal to meet these expectations with disingenuous assertions of innocence’.
Beyer, who asserts that Lynn Barber is being defensive in defending journalists, is himself defensive, claiming to be infallible while being at once quick to take offence and covertly aggressive. Is there really no ethical difficulty to worry about when Beyer so self-righteously assumes that interpretations of what constitutes ‘blatant innuendo and body language’ are not themselves open to question, or that the feeling of sexual arousal can so easily be correlated with seductive behaviour on the part of the person who is herself more properly the object of sexual attack? Can innuendo be blatant and remain, all the same, innuendo? Fortunately, sexual exchanges are more various than military ones, and having spoken softly ought not to prohibit a woman from defending herself against someone who thinks she ought to ‘meet’ his expectations because he carries a big stick.