Comment is free, but facts are sacred

The same time the media must not fall into the same trap as politicians and divide itself into camps. It should remain focused, vociferous and impartial

CP Scott, the founder of what today is The Guardian newspaper in the UK, once said that facts are sacred, but comment is free. I wish that in this country we understood this better.
CP Scott, the founder of what today is The Guardian newspaper in the UK, once said that facts are sacred, but comment is free. I wish that in this country we understood this better.

In days gone by a newspaper journalist had all the time in the world to write an article. If you asked them, they’d tell you that deadlines were extremely tight. But compared to the reality of today their deadlines were plush and comfortable.

Today as a press conference progresses, you can see the journalist writing the article there and then.

Often, it is uploaded before the press conference is even over. Two hands on the tablet and two ears on the press conference, that world revolves around sound-bites and the juice of what was said.

It doesn’t involve analytical analysis or depth. It’s just throwing content into the internet with the basics being right. This is the modern media and I do believe that it is distancing itself from the important fundamentals and values that governed the media for decades.

CP Scott, the founder of what today is The Guardian newspaper in the UK, once said that facts are sacred, but comment is free. I wish that in this country we understood this better. Too many commentators write as if their opinion is fact, and too many journalists write as if their reporting is commentary. This distinction is crucial. If you’re a journalist there has to be an unbiased viewpoint, at least in relation to the factual analysis of a story. This doesn’t mean that journalists don’t have a viewpoint or opinion. All journalists ought to. They should, if they choose to, pursue the facts and the focus of their story based on their beliefs or opinion, but ultimately facts should be treated as facts, and opinion as opinion.

A recent speck of self-awareness came in Tim Diacono’s article on Lovin’ Malta, where he reassessed the environment that the Egrant saga had developed in and how it skewed the reporting on that portal, and others.

Other prominent media houses doubled-down on their call. Others who weren’t sucked into the saga, such as this newspaper, called for reflection in the local media landscape. It was a sensible thing to do in my view.

As a former journalist, and now a politician, I have lived on both sides of the divide. A newspaper, portal or any other respectable medium knows that it takes a long time to gain a reputation and win readership. But it also takes very little to destroy it. The role of the media is to join the dots, not create them. Often, the rationale is publish first and be damned with the aftermath. There isn’t that lucid reasoning of facts that you would have had in the past.

Everyone gets things wrong. Over the past few months the New York Times and CNN made some serious blunders, but the fact that they admitted they were wrong, or partly-wrong, is what enhanced their credibility.

According to the Eurobarometer, the reputation of newspapers and online portals among the public in Malta is among Europe’s lowest. The days following the Egrant magisterial inquiry did little to improve that. But not all is lost. We need the media in this country because it strengthens our democracy and society.

But at the same time the media must not fall into the same trap as politicians and divide itself into camps. It should remain focused, vociferous and impartial. Reason should be its guide, not toeing the line of one political grouping or another. This is especially important if you’re one of the so-called ‘independent’ media-houses. It should treat facts and opinion as two different beasts, far away from each other. If facts were indeed treated as sacred, we wouldn’t be in this mess today.

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