Vol. 13 No. 6 · 21 March 1991

Lynn Barber of the ‘Independent on Sunday’ defends the indefensible

1835 words
The Journalist and the Murderer 
by Janet Malcolm.
Bloomsbury, 163 pp., £12.99, January 1991, 0 7475 0759 7
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I shall bite the next person who comes up to me at a party and asks if I’ve read The Journalist and the Murderer. It is not a well-intentioned question. It implies that Ms Malcolm’s book has dealt irreparable damage to me and my kind (journalists who do interviews for a living), and that henceforward we must hang our heads in shame. I don’t see it myself, but let’s begin with the book.

It is an account of the ethical issues supposedly arising from the MacDonald-McGinniss case in the United States. Jeffrey MacDonald was a Green Beret doctor who was found guilty of murdering his wife and children. Joe McGinniss is a journalist who, shortly before MacDonald’s trial in 1979, signed a contract to write a book about the case. (Books about murders were all the rage then.) Under the terms of the contract, MacDonald was to waive libel rights and give exclusive co-operation to McGinniss, in return for 26½ per cent of the book royalties. McGinniss interviewed MacDonald during the run-up to his trial and afterwards in prison. He wrote often to MacDonald assuring him of his friendship and belief in his innocence. But when his book, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983 it depicted MacDonald as a cold-blooded murderer. MacDonald, not surprisingly, felt betrayed. He then sued McGinniss, not for libel, the rights to which he had waived, but for breach of contract on the basis of an odd little clause to the effect that ‘the essential integrity’ of his life story would be maintained. The evidence was certainty embarrassing to McGinniss, but a hung jury resulted in his acquittal.

Ms Malcolm came late to the case after the murder trial and after the McGinniss trial – when, journalistically, the story was dead and buried. But, as we shall see, she had her own reasons for getting involved. Her book begins with a bold and now much-quoted contention: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’ Well! This is certainly what we journos know in the trade as a good opener – ‘UFOs land in Crewe. Official’ – but unfortunately nothing in the rest of the book lives up to the excitement of this paragraph, and, more seriously, nothing in the rest of the book substantiates it. It is a headline without a story; it is the journalism of Sunday Sport.

The rest of the book is a disjointed account of Ms Malcolm’s meetings with various people connected with the case. There are some nicely drawn vignettes (especially of a stubborn juror) and many witty one-liners, but nothing that adds up to an argument. Indeed, insofar as Ms Malcolm does attempt to follow her own thesis, she comes to the following conclusion, which, because sensible, does not have the high quotability of her opening; ‘What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s scepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.’ Exactly. This is something we all learn at our first editor’s knee. So why does it take Ms Malcolm 144 pages and a lot of hot air to remember it? Obviously she is unhappy in her work, but why?

The answer coolly emerges in an Afterword which apparently she only tacked onto the book after a certain amount of pressure from her publishers and colleagues. She is currently being sued by the subject of her previous book In the Freud Archives because, he claims, she misrepresented him by doctoring his quotes. Her defence of this is quite jaw-dropping. If you tape-record an interview, she says, the resulting transcript doesn’t read very smoothly or grammatically: so naturally, she says, you re-arrange it and tidy it and paraphrase it. ‘Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist.’ she maintains, ‘will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs.’ Oh really? Since when? Rule one of journalism is never make up facts; rule two is never make up quotes. Of course spoken speech reads differently from written prose – that is why we put it in inverted commas. If we wish to paraphrase what someone has said then we don’t put it between inverted commas, and if we do, we are perpetrating a lie. It is as simple as that.

No wonder Ms Malcolm has a problem with journalistic ethics. No wonder she worries about the fairness of the subject-journalist relationship. It would be a foolhardy subject indeed who would talk to a journalist who could so blithely confess to doctoring quotes. But just because she is ethically adrift doesn’t mean she has a right to blacken the whole profession. There are bad journalists, but ‘every journalist knows that what he does is morally indefensible’? Pish and tush!

Nevertheless, there remains a problem. Why has The Journalist and the Murderer caught on as readily as it has? The reading public is always happy for a stick to beat journalists with – we are used to being the most reviled profession after politicians – but why do journalists themselves seem to welcome Ms Malcolm’s strictures? Do we want to believe that we work for a morally indefensible profession? Is there some appalling moral flaw at the heart of the journalist-subject relationship, and if so, what is it?

Incidentally, I don’t want to get stuck with defending McGinniss. His behaviour sounds pretty bad as related by Ms Malcolm, though in the light of her Afterword I am not prepared to take her word for anything. She argues that the MacDonald-McGinniss encounter was ‘a grotesquely magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter’. I would say that it was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different, and that journalists do not normally, or even occasionally, perpetrate the degree of deception that McGinniss perpetrated.

But is there even some deception at the heart of the journalist-subject encounter? Yes – but it is the subject’s self-deception, unaided by the journalist (by this journalist anyway). Honest journalists make no promises. Subjects agree to see them because they believe they can charm or persuade the journalist to their point of view, and sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t. Both sides hope to get something out of an interview: in the journalist’s case, a story; in the subject’s case, money. The money can either be direct, as in the MacDonald-McGinniss contract, or when the tabloids pay for a kiss-and-tell story, or it can take the indirect form of ‘publicity’, which, after all, equals money if it brings more readers/viewers/listeners to the subject’s work. Thus when Kirk Douglas or Richard Adams or Melvyn Bragg ‘agrees to see me’ shortly before their new book comes out, they are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts but in hopes of a socking great plug. And even if I say their book is lousy, their publishers will still reassure them that ‘it’s column inches that count.’

Thus the interview seems to me a perfectly straightforward, if perhaps rather cynical, transaction. As with any commercial transaction, both sides hope to get slightly more than they give, and one side is bound to be disappointed. If the journalist is disappointed, though, he/she can simply dump the interview – a fact sophisticated subjects are aware of, so they try to give good tape. They try to make themselves interesting but in a way that does not give too much of themselves away. The journalist’s task is to get them to give more of themselves away than they would wish.

The ethics of interviewing seem to me perfectly straightforward. Nevertheless it is a fact that many journalists seem to feel uncomfortable doing interviews – men more than women, I suspect, and eminent journalists more than unknown ones. There is a telling passage early in Ms Malcolm’s book when she goes to see McGinniss. ‘I had never interviewed a journalist before,’ she writes, ‘and was curious about what would develop between me and a journalistically knowledgeable, rather than naive, subject. Here, clearly there would be none of the moral uneasiness that the naive subject all but forces the journalist to endure as the price of his opportunity to once again point out the frailty of human nature. McGinniss and I would be less like experimenter and subject than like two experimenters strolling home from the lab together after the day’s work, companionably thrashing out the problems of the profession.’

Now this is a feeling that every interviewer will recognise. Sometimes you wish it didn’t have to be an interview; sometimes you wish it could be a conversation. And most journalists make the mistake of trying it once – usually much earlier in their careers than Ms Malcolm – and find it doesn’t work. It never can work, because a conversation is not an interview; it doesn’t write up, the journalist’s participation seems, to the reader, pathetically vain. (John Mortimer has occasionally brought off the celebrity duologue, but he is the exception.)

But many journalists (including, I suspect, Ms Malcolm) are reluctant to endure the denial of ego that interviewing entails. ‘What about me? Don’t you want to hear my views?’ they clamour, wasting good interview time and blowing their whole interview stance, which should be one of studied neutrality. Secretly they often resent the idea that the subject is more interesting than them, and feel that they should be giving the interview. Some interviewers try to console themselves by comparing the interviewer’s role to that of the psychoanalyst – a tempting comparison but a false one. The psychoanalyst is paid by and working for the subject. The journalist is not.

The journalist is working for the reader and therein lies, for me, the solution to all these supposed ethical dilemmas. If the aim of my interview with, say, Melvyn Bragg were to please Melvyn Bragg, then I would be a bad interviewer. But it isn’t. It is to please the readers, and to convince them that I have reported back truthfully, so that they can feel they have met him themselves. I am amazed when journalists, journalists! say to me: ‘Oo but aren’t you embarrassed meeting Melvyn Bragg now at parties?’ The truthful answer is; ‘Yes I am, but so what?’ Journalists should expect a bit of embarrassment in their lives, it shows they are doing their job. It infuriates me that Ms Malcolm has tried to translate this embarrassment – which is only a social embarrassment – into an entirely bogus argument about principles. I suspect she knows it is bogus herself – and that is ‘morally indefensible’.

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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.

Lawrence Beyer
Yale Law School

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.

Lawrence Beyer
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.

Janet Gezari
Connecticut College,

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.

Michael Pye
New York

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