Sunday, 13 February 2011

On censorship II

First, thanks to all those who responded to yesterday's post through various channels. I thought every one was well considered and relevant; you can judge for yourself from the comments section underneath it.

I headed yesterday's post with the ideal that argument should always dominate personality in any discussion of conversation. Alright, this is a vain wish when John McCririck is involved, but any point made ad hominem is only falling into his trap - one intention of his self-styled reactionary caricature may be to divert attention from the analysis of his words.

Whether McCririck is sensationalising Evan Williams' quote or not, he is at least guilty of a paradox in his opening and closing remarks.

"It is very, very disturbing...," he says initially of the strictly implicit notion that Tarkari was not trying. "...That is apalling for a trainer to say."

But, as the counter arguments of his colleagues progress, the conversation turns to the focus of censorship: whether the journalist Patrick Weaver should have even reported the incendiary quote.

"Well, censorship, I don't agree with that," McCririck concludes. But, the disproportionate vigour of his ealier reaction provides one reason why censorship takes place - the variance in context from the moment of reported speech to the point of its interpretation.

By any reasonable measure, Williams' quote at most provides ambiguity over his intentions for Tarkari, but surely it is not "very disturbing" or "apalling". In order for it to assume this status, it would have to betoken a wanton disregard of the rules.

Yet, as Jim McGrath points out to McCririck and as several of you seem to agree, no corresponding impression can be gained by reviewing Tarkari's performance independently, either visually or by means of rating.

McCririck's unbounded outrage provides evidence of the reason that censorship is sometimes justified. Outside of their original context, bare words can be enough to provoke a firestorm of undeserved controversy.

As the reader of a newspaper article, we can't be sure of Williams' intended meaning because we were not there when he spoke.

Crucially, we did not see what might have been explicit from the look on his face, the tone of his voice or his mannerisms. While these considerations are irrelevant where flagrant racism, sexism or similar affronts are concerned, without them a vast number of other statements belong in the realm of ambiguity. So, they should be presented with care.

The trainer's reference that Tarkari "only went for a gallop and a good school" might indeed be evidence of licentiouness and was no doubt accurately reported. Taken at face value, they carry such serious implication about the trainer's motives that further clarification was surely needed.

While journalists cannot ponder too much why people say things, it is clear what would be the result of always applying a verbatim restraint to nuanced conversation: the rupture of unspoken trust between journalist and subject that dialogue will be represented fairly - not just accurately.

Paul Ostermeyer made neat reference to this on Twitter, thus: "Taken to its base level there will always be "censorship" by journalist, editors, policy etc. We all know of spiked stories."

In his rebuttal of McGrath's curious take on the responsibilities of the journalist, Nick Luck said:  "Your concern as a journalist is to accurately portray what somebody said."

His choice of the verb "portray" is particularly apposite. Portray - "to draw the likeness of" or "to convey" - exactly describes my own interpretation of the journalist's moral responsibility in these cases.

Of course, this latitude also gives the morally corrupt individual the license needed. He or she may gain the confidence of a desired contact - and sometimes much more besides - by subsequently withholding potentially damaging information which may be in the public interest.

It is this presumption about journalists in general which fuels comments such as those may be McGrath. So typical of the prevailing attitude is his scornful rejoinder to Luck's outline of good journalistic practice: "Never let the facts spoil a good story".

But racing journalists, in particular, have been deserving of this reputation down the years. For all that we have not exactly cost lives by institutionalised overfamiliarity with our subjects, the conduct of some has been ruinous to any general reputation for integrity and objectivity.

Fortunately, I believe that the modern crop of racing journalists comprises a good few who have a clear idea of journalistic propriety and are determined to observe it.

Sitting on the sidelines, I can see more clearly where the sensitivities of some journalists may lie. And I can certainly appreciate how many of you have been able to see the same.

Ultimately, what a journalist omits and includes from reported conversation is a matter of intelligence, judgment and, most of all, integrity.

And that's why it is hopelessly facile to say: "Censorship, I don't agree with that."

Thanks for reading.