How the Media’s Fake Neutrality Undermines Journalism

The pretence of neutrality in the media serves only to disguise the politics that companies represent – and, increasingly, to police the opinions of young journalists who want to hold power to account.

When you live in a country whose press is dominated by the Mail and the Sun, it can be hard to trust journalists’ political intentions.

But even in its current form, the media – as a historical symbol of democracy – continues to attract those with an interest in emphasising marginalised experience and holding power to account. Joining a news organisation as a trainee journalist, I found that most of the others in my group held deep convictions about society and cited politics as a reason for their choice of work. 

That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me, however, were the teachers and mentors who made it clear from the earliest days that they believed the mutability of political values were key to journalism – not just party allegiances, but fundamental principles. We were given lectures on the need to avoid taking anything on as a ‘cause.’ Worse than that, we were asked over and over again about our preparedness to write for a publication that we disagreed with politically. 

The problem with this wasn’t the drive for neutrality. It was that the type of neutrality encouraged was not neutrality at all. When I told a mentor that I’d written for a popular left-wing platform, she warned me of the dangers of making my personal opinions known. Writing on left-wing politics is perceived as a political act, whereas working at a virulently right-wing paper like the Mail is not.

Perhaps one of the biggest threats to effective political journalism today is this denial of the reality that journalism is itself inherently political. Good journalism works on the assumption of the need to bridge the gap between those with power and those without to provide public knowledge, and as such, is grounded in suspicion of the elite.

The distinction between drawing attention to issues of overlooked importance and taking something on as a ‘cause’ is subjective. Refusing to be critical in one’s journalism is political, too. How many of the deep problems which plague our society today have been enabled by a passive media?

Naomi, one of the other trainees at my workplace, told me about a publication she worked at which dealt primarily with questions of mental health, and where political ‘neutrality’ was enforced. “We were talking about mental health issues, but we would never consider contributing factors,” she said. “I worked with a woman who had had a psychotic episode after losing her house because of the bedroom tax. People refused to see the correlation between the policy decisions and their direct effects.” 

Drawing these kinds of links is not biased: it is competent journalism. But instead of competent journalism, the pressure to be ‘neutral’ results in newsrooms which fail to interrogate their own politics and journalists who churn out corporate-line content while completely detached from its real-world implications.

At senior levels, this detachment becomes dangerous. Elle, another trainee, spent time at one national paper in the aftermath of the 2019 election and told me that Jeremy Corbyn was commonly referred to in editorial meetings as ‘everyone’s favourite anti-Semite’: not, she stressed, because the editorial team believed it, but as a blasé joke. 

The consequences of this type of sarcastic politicking are evident. “It was almost ironic to them,” Elle told me, “the casual way in which they could exercise staggering influence.” In fact, very few media outlets discuss their social responsibilities or even functions with their staff – manipulating public fears for financial gain with little concern about the side-effects has become the norm. 

Well-intentioned talk about ‘changing things from the inside’ is naive. Structural factors intervene to make change extremely difficult. One example of this is the influence that the constant pursuit of advertising revenue has on content. 

This tends to mean that right-wing sentiment enjoys a much freer rein in most newsrooms. Perhaps that is no surprise when Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and the Daily Mail Group between them own over 60% of the newspapers people read on a daily basis. But the space to raise questions about how these influences might bias the media is lacking – for young journalists, if you don’t fall in line your media company will find someone who will.

And, of course, not everyone is able to pick and choose jobs based on their politics. Naomi had a partner whose job at a culture magazine was replaced with an unpaid internship, and after months of unemployment, an offer from the Sun was received gratefully. 

The deepening deficit of media jobs has made principled avoidance of certain platforms more difficult, especially, and most painfully, for some of the groups particularly vulnerable to irresponsible journalism. Elle told me that recipients of funding schemes, like her, are offered experience on some of the country’s most right-wing tabloids. 

“Something about that just didn’t sit right with me for a really long time,” she said. “Some people see that as a brilliant opportunity. But people who feel uncomfortable about it might not have a choice.” Being able to turn down a job based on politics is a privilege – but so is being able to produce inflammatory content without worrying about the impact on yourself or your community.

At its starkest, the pressure on young journalists to remove politics from their work raises serious questions about whether corporate sponsorship and competent, critical journalism are fundamentally incompatible – and in that, whether what we understand as our ‘free press’ is worthy of that name.

Most journalists under present circumstances have to choose between work which fulfils its public duty, and work which enables professional success. In a country that truly valued its free press, these would be one and the same.

After discussing the professional risks posed by politics with the other trainees, one comment from Elle stuck in my head. “I never want the fact that I believe in social equality to be held against me in my professional life, but I think it probably will,” she said.

That statement alone demonstrates both the need for a radical overhaul of the operations and requirements of journalism in the UK, and the potential for a better media, which takes pride in the crucial importance of functions which are fundamentally political.