The quest for truth, fuelled by unquenchable passion

September 18, 2008

A Political History of Journalism

Author: Geraldine Muhlmann

Edition: First

Publisher: Polity

Pages: 296

Price: £55.00 and £17.99

ISBN 9780745635736 and 5743

Very little academic work on journalism deserves the attention of working journalists. Although competition compels practitioners to strive for excellence, journalism studies offers them meagre pickings.

Journalists aspire to serve democracy. They despise conceptual frameworks that deny that ambition and corrupt the history of journalism into one of abject failure.

British journalists are rarely jealous of their French counterparts. The Fifth Republic's rules on privacy and ownership have not made France an obvious home for editorial excellence.

So the suggestion that an inspiring and practical political history of journalism has been published by a French professor may provoke hilarity in many newsrooms. Her choice of case study, Liberation, the daily newspaper launched by Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris in 1973, may prolong the laughter. It should not.

Geraldine Muhlmann's background is not in acclaimed centres of journalistic excellence, but in political science and political philosophy. The rigour of these disciplines is plain in A Political History of Journalism. She sets out to understand journalism, not to insult it. In doing so, Muhlmann constructs an absorbing account of how it can improve modern democratic societies by facilitating self-scrutiny among their citizens.

Through a range of case studies, including journalism by George Orwell and Ed Murrow, she constructs her narrative around the conflict between what she defines as the "unifying" and "decentring" instincts in British, French and American journalism since the advent of the "new journalism" in the 19th century.

She recognises that the commercial instinct to use objectivity to create mass audiences that could not exist in the pre-industrial age has never been an absolute barrier to socially useful reporting. Her "witness-ambassador", as she terms the correspondent dispatched to provide "a true experience by proxy", is not a creature without bias, but he is more than a slave of his proprietor.

The alleged rupture between opinion-dominated and fact-led journalism that is deemed to have occurred as newspapers achieved mass circulations was nothing of the sort. The best journalists of opinion often proved to be excellent reporters, and their talent for description did not destroy their talent for advancing important arguments (Muhlmann cites Severine's insistence on the innocence of Albert Dreyfus in her reports for La Fronde).

That talent has not been lost. Muhlmann is appropriately sceptical about the value of wholly neutral, de-singularised reporting. She reaches, through analysis, a conclusion that excellent reporters from Martha Gellhorn to the BBC's Allan Little have reached through experience: honest passion clarifies truth rather than distorts it, provided only that the author's position is clearly and candidly advertised.

This is an immensely thoughtful book. It understands the honest reporter's need to portray news in a manner that is simultaneously comprehensible to a large audience but not devoid of challenging context and complexity. It brilliantly achieves the author's ambition to "have meaning for those who practise journalism or wish to do so". At the same time, it points to a conclusion that has long been apparent but remains contested.

Journalism is not a discrete academic discipline. It is an established profession, and it profits most from academic studies rooted in the established disciplines of history, political science and philosophy. The invention of new disciplines was not necessary. Journalism is best understood via traditional approaches, and it is best taught in an interdisciplinary context in which historians and political scientists provide the conceptual scaffolding, and professional journalists teach techniques and ethics.

This excellent book by an author who cares about journalism and believes in its most elevated ambitions points the way to an academic study of journalism that can engage the profession.

Who is it for? Editors, academics and students who admire journalism and seek a symbiotic relationship between modern journalism and democracy.

Presentation: Excellent case studies and index.

Would you recommend it? Very highly. It deserves to be read by all who care about the social contract.

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