Everybody has an opinion
by Arthur Weinreb
October 7, 2002
Can a person who works in the news media ever express their political opinions in public? The issue has arisen in England during the past two weeks when the BBC took issue with Rod Liddle who was the editor of Radio 4s Today program. In addition to his BBC job, Liddle also wrote a weekly column in the Guardian newspaper.
After a march that brought over 300,000 people to London to protest the Labour governments policies of banning the use of dogs in foxhunting, Liddle criticized the protesters in his Guardian column and wrote "You may
have forgotten why you voted Labour in 1997. But then you catch a glimpse of the forces supporting the Countryside Alliance
it might be that you remember once again."
This was an extreme case in the sense that not only was the BBC editor expressing an opinion on a controversial topic, but he was practically telling his readers that he was a strong supporter of the Labour Party. There were no allegations that the radio program itself indicated any bias in favour of the Labour governments position on the issue. In the view of the BBC, this particular column showed a "significant lack of judgment" and in an editorial in the Telegraph, Liddle was accused of "blatant bias, animus and even party allegiance." Ultimately the BBC told him to choose between his editors job and his weekly column and Liddle resigned from the BBC.
Liddles answer to the criticism was that it was absurd for anyone to think that people in the news media dont have opinions and he couldnt see anything wrong with stating his opinions publicly. Although holding more than one news position in the manner that Liddle did is not widespread, it does occasionally happen. One example that comes to mind is the late Colin Vaughn. Vaughn, while he was Citytvs "political specialist" also wrote an opinion column in the Globe and Mail. In his opinion pieces he would be highly critical of the Tory governments policies under Mike Harris and then go in front of the camera at Queens Park and report what the government did that day. Anyone who had read his columns in the paper knew exactly what he thought about what he was reporting on. The saving grace in Vaughns case is that although Citytv does a thorough job in covering local news in Toronto, it really cant be considered as a serious source of hard news and does very little to hide its biases. To Vaughns credit he could at least articulate his views and not just make a face during a story like so many of his colleagues did.
Liddle seems to have missed the boat when he claimed that it was okay to write about his opinions since everyone has one. It doesnt matter that people know that he has opinions on issues or that, given who he was employed by, what those opinions probably are. He should not have made them public. The situation was not unlike Raymond Chrétien, Canadas former ambassador to the United States, who prior to the 2000 presidential elections, got himself into hot water by publicly stating that the Canadian government would prefer to see Al Gore in the White House than George W. Bush. We all know that left-wing parties and right-wing parties have a commonality with their philosophical counterparts in other countries and the Liberals would naturally prefer a Democratic administration in Washington. But by stating the obvious in public, the ambassador created friction between Bush and Jean Chrétien. Everyone in the media has opinions--they just shouldnt announce them in public when they are acting as impartial newspersons.
Journalists should be held to the same standards that judges are when it comes to impartiality. Judges have pre-formed ideas and opinions about matters that come before them just like everyone else has. They just have to put those opinions and feelings aside when they are working and refrain from speaking about their views publicly. It is not too much to expect journalists to do the same.
Arthur Weinreb is a lawyer and author and Associate Editor of