The role of reporter

This morning, whilst eating bran flakes and drinking tea, I was listening to Radio 4 between intermittent discussions with Rich. I heard them say ‘Mantel’ and ‘The Duchess of Cambridge’ and ceased conversation with Rich to give my full attention to the mention of two, seemingly antithetical, women in the limelight.

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What I heard was something along the lines of:

Mantel said that Katherine was a doll, a mannequin and her only purpose is to reproduce.

I turned to Rich and launched into a tirade about cruelty, demeaning others, women pitting against women. I wondered, out loud, whether Mantel was envious of Kate’s pregnancy – she has talked openly about suffering from severe endometriosis, which rendered her infertile and caused huge weight gain. Is she jealous of Kate’s svelte figure and ability to rock out figure-hugging fashionable clothes? I wondered.

And then I decided that before I continued to berate Mantel, who I admire as an intellectual writer, I should do some more research. It began to seem strange that an intelligent woman would feel it necessary to insult another woman, purely on her looks and ‘role’.

On Twitter I found a link to a London Review of Books article (see here), which puts the fragmented comments I’d heard on R4 into context. Mantel was asked to choose a famous person and a book to give them. She chose the Duchess of Cambridge and historian Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.

She discusses her choice of book, and receiver of book:

‘It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.’

It is clear from this article that Mantel was referring to the media’s portrayal of Kate as a doll/ mannequin/ mother-to-be-and-nothing-else. It is not necessarily her view. And she goes on to discuss the difficulties Marie Antoinette experienced while being defined by her attire: ‘She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade.’

The article continues in this vein: discussing the media, and society’s, perception of the Duchess of Cambridge. Of course, Mantel’s opinions are buried in there, too, but as part of a wider understanding. This is how I read it, anyway.

When comments are heard in the context of the conversation/ talk/ book, a decidedly different reaction may ensue. This is why impartiality is so important in reporting, as is offering the truth – rather than the more entertaining alternative.

When writing news articles, it’s tempting to side with the ‘innocent’ party and demonise the ‘wrong-doer’. But that’s not the job of the journalist. The job is to write up the story accurately, and to remain unbiased. The problem is that all humans have instincts and opinions. National papers lean politically left or right, celeb magazines decide who’s right or wrong (in the way they dress, behave), films offer the vision of one production team.

Kathryn Bigelow’s most recent hit: Zero Dark Thirty, has been criticised by some for condoning torture; being pro-military. It is Bigelow’s understanding of the search for, and execution of, Bin Laden. It is fiction based on (some) fact.

Articles, films and books can all be persuasive; sway readers/ viewers. Out of context, the comment I heard this morning made me judge Mantel unfavourably and prematurely. The role of reporter (in documentary, print and online journalism…) is to report truth, but the role of reader is to research the subject further to make sure they are seeing the whole truth, not the edited, probably somewhat – perhaps unintentionally – biased truth offered by the reporter.

Even then, it remains the prerogative of the reader to conclude, from her research, what the real truth is and to report her findings to friends, family and colleagues. But this might be delivered in a manner akin to traditional story-telling where tales are passed on and subjected, throughout the process, to alteration, disfigurement, stretching, morphing, censoring.

And so I conclude that we are all reporters, all sharing our understanding of the world and each other, and the best thing we can do is attempt to remain open-minded and base our tales on what we believe to be truth, rather than assumption.

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