Journalistic ethics ignored in Channel 4 News story

Jim Prevor

When PRODUCE BUSINESS UK published Tommy Leighton’s column, Industry should take collective perspective on C4 News allegations, and followed-up with Pro-Force responds to Channel 4 News allegations, I was reminded of the late, great, Yogi Berra’s aphorism: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Across the pond, reports about migrant farm workers in America and workers in Mexico who are supplying US retailers and foodservice operators have become common. Most recently, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece that we dealt with in PRODUCE BUSINESS UK’s sister publication, Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit in many pieces including these:

DAMAGING LOS ANGELES TIMES ARTICLE ABOUT MEXICAN LABOR, Though Incomplete And Unbalanced, Puts Retailers And Receivers On Notice: In A Transparent World, Retailers In America Are Now Responsible For their Supply Chains. A Big Question: Will Improved Conditions For Laborers Lead To Less Employment?

IS THE PUNDIT SCROOGE? IS FAIR TRADE AN ANSWER? The LA Times And Coalition Of Immokalee Workers Tell Us How To Solve Mexico’s Labor Problems: Are These Answers Real Or Just A Christmas Carol?

Understanding The Complexities Of Farm Labor Culture Gives Better Understanding Of What’s Happening In Mexico

There have been many more pieces – on child labour and on programmes to give Florida tomato pickers a “penny-a-pound” supplement to name just two.

This writing is also based on first-hand inspection. It is hard to count the number of growing and packing operations around the world that we have visited, but it is many hundreds. So when this columnist watched the C4 News report, he was outraged – not at the alleged working conditions but at the so-called journalists who violated so many of the rules in the book.

This is no small matter; we take great pride in our profession. We have been honoured with over 100 journalism awards, including one for Editorial Integrity, and to us, this was journalists disregarding proper journalistic procedures in order to win ratings and pursue journalistic prizes.

The piece was introduced by Jon Snow, an experienced newscaster at Channel 4 News. He starts out by not reporting at all. He decides to characterise the migrant workers as the people “actually doing the work” – as if everybody else on the farm is to the manor born and living off the collective sweat of these workers’ brows. He declares that the workers are working “in a highly pressured environment” – but provides no reference as to what this means, or what he is comparing it to.

Is it less pressured than harvesting apples in Romania? What about working as an executive at Amazon, as this New York Times report discussed, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big ideas in a Bruising Workforce, where a former executive reports that “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Snow claims the workers toil “for minimum wages,” which is a clever slight of hand. He doesn’t want to say they all work “at the lowest wage that would be legal” because that might not be true. So he leaves an insinuation hanging in the air. If he was interested in doing more work, he could explain what percentage of the UK median income for people without university degrees is earned by those doing these types of jobs, but that would both require work and diminish the story line that he was trying to create.

In the written article, instead of allowing readers to characterise what is being reported, C4 News decides to colour it for them. The things readers will learn are “Nothing short of shocking” – this is called editorialising and has no place in news reporting.

Siobhan Kennedy, Business Editor, is both the lead reporter on the TV programme and credited with authoring the accompanying article. She abandons all pretence at journalistic objectivity in her characterisations.

For example, one could say that the Romanians were offered jobs in England, whereas they had few opportunities back home. Not according to Ms. Kennedy. These workers were “lured” to England. One could say that in Romania, there are many employment agencies often working together to find people to harvest or pack fruit in the UK, but, no, not to Ms. Kennedy. She identifies these agencies as a “network” as one would discuss the spies working for the CIA or MI5 or Mossad.

Instead of simply showing the behaviour of management, which this columnist finds unobjectionable, she decides again to colour it for her viewers rather than letting viewers make their own judgements. She abandons the objectivity of a reporter and characterises managers’ behaviour as “intimidating”, although the only evidence presented to support this is a manager saying, “If you don’t want to work, I’m going to send this whole team home. OK? I’m going to get other people in.” One wonders what they would say at Channel 4 if its workers didn’t want to work.

Ms. Kennedy declares that the conditions workers live in are “appalling,” but she gives no indication that she has personally ascertained this to be true, much less typical. She doesn’t quote anyone willing to go on the record. She doesn’t say she saw, smelled or filmed any appalling conditions. Instead she allows a person she barely knows to show her a video, which is claimed to have been taken on a mobile phone – but does she actually have any first-hand knowledge this mobile phone video is accurate?

Perhaps the video is from a disgruntled employee. Perhaps it was filmed in an out of service caravan or portacabin. Perhaps the film was taken some time ago. Perhaps all of these things are true. Who knows? But we know this: Reputable journalists do not allow people’s reputations to be sullied and their livelihoods to be threatened on such a thin reed. Reputable journalists use claims of appalling conditions as a start. Having seen the allegations, they set out to confirm them, not rush to go on TV and give such allegations credibility.

Many things Ms. Kennedy says fail to express a coherent point of view. For example, Ms. Kennedy points out that “this isn’t some far flung outpost. It is happening right here, in this country”. The implication being what, exactly? That there is some aesthetic revulsion to poor treatment of workers if it occurs nearby, but if the same workers stay home to be treated poorly that is not a problem?

Ms. Kennedy is so anxious to make a point that she sometimes becomes incoherent. For example, she says things such as this: “The apples in these fields end up on the shelves of our leading supermarkets, yet how they got there is a very different story”. What in the world does that mean? A different story from what other story? Once again, it is an implication left hanging in the air, not an actual report.

The reporting and questioning seems to be very one-sided. Workers are interviewed as claiming they had been promised certain conditions that were not delivered, but all the logical questions are not asked: Did you work here last year? Do you have any friends or relatives who have done this kind of work? In other words, all the questions that would verify whether the claims being made actually make sense. Ms. Kennedy doesn’t appear to ask these, at least not on tape or in the article.

Ms. Kennedy likes to claim to be quoting people as to various horrors, but what she states is often not obviously a problem at all. So she claims workers have told her they are “forced” to work “long, erratic hours, often without proper rest periods”. Yet, she seems to not know the meaning of the word “forced” – she presents not a scintilla of evidence that the workers are not free to leave – that is the opposite of being forced.

These are all citizens of the European Union. They have the freedom to go anywhere and work anywhere in Europe. It is a very different situation to illegal migrant workers in the US. These people are not on special agricultural visas or part of a guest-worker programme. In fact, Ms. Kennedy specifically quotes a worker who claims what the employer demands, not that he is forced to do anything but that the managers “they push me, push me, push me all the time. They say only, that is the rules; you must work harder, if you don’t like, you can go”.  

As far as the hours being long, is that bad? Or is that an opportunity for poorer people to make a few extra pounds? That the hours are erratic? Once again, there is no quantification, but why would one expect anything else in the seasonal business of agriculture? When the fruit is ready, it has to be picked; when the weather is bad, it can’t be picked.

Once again, the normal questions one would ask if one were interested in really knowing what was going on aren’t asked. Why doesn’t she ask the people who, supposedly, are complaining what they thought they were getting into? Why they accepted work in agriculture? Maybe they wanted indoor work, with steady hours and no heavy lifting. It keeps giving the sense that she was not interested in the truth, just in some kind of “gotcha” journalism. Whatever the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize is, that is what she seems to be after.

No “proper” rest periods? Once again, a slight of hand.  Ms. Kennedy does not say they are violating any laws. This is just a subjective opinion, and note that Ms. Kennedy does not push. She is supposed to ask – how often do you need breaks? For how long? How many do you get? Instead she leaves this idea of rest periods not being “proper” hanging in the air.

There also seems to be a kind of obliviousness to the issues of Channel 4’s own ethical conduct. For example, Channel 4 sent an employee who applied for a job. The ethics of this are very questionable. Journalists are permitted to use things given them by workers or former workers who wish to complain about an employer. But when one accepts a job, one acquires an ethical obligation to act on behalf of that employer, not secretly photograph them or undermine them.

The language used is not objective. For example, Ms. Kennedy declares that “up to six people can be squeezed into each caravan” – the word “squeezed” is more editorialising. If she wants to be a reporter, she could compare how this square footage compares to army barracks, prison cells, university dorms or this London flat that rents for £895 week.

Is this objective reporting? They make their Twitter hashtag – #BadApples – that is, once again, editorialising, not reporting.

Oddly, Ms. Kennedy doesn’t actually seem to believe in reporting. She quotes one person alleging he doesn’t have toilets, but despite having a person on employment, there is no evidence of this and nobody else seems prepared to back this story. And when some workers say they have to work until 10:00pm, and report to work at 6:00am, something this columnist does most days, Ms. Kennedy is told that the law allows this during busy periods.  There it ends as an assertion. Doesn’t Channel 4 have access to lawyers? Can’t they confirm or deny this?

It is pointed out that there is a requirement to pack a certain amount each hour. Although Ms. Kennedy throws in the editorial that the rules are “strict” it is not clear that they are any stricter than at Channel 4 or elsewhere.

The piece lacks a certain sophistication because there is no industry knowledge. So it is alleged that retailers are tricked when they come to inspect, when quite obviously the conditions Ms. Kennedy speaks of are so awful that, if they are widespread at all, they could not possibly be hidden from these inspections both announced and unannounced. So Ms. Kennedy may not realise it but she is either alleging that retailers are complicit in these conditions or acknowledging that, to the extent they exist at all, they are not widespread or common.

Our experience is that these very poor workers are mostly pleased to have jobs at all. Our bet is that, having got to England to work, maybe some will use these jobs as jumping points to find new and better opportunities. Some will go home, some will come back seasonally, and some will learn English and build new lives, calling for their wives and girlfriends to come over and find a future in Britain far brighter than what was likely back in Romania. Someone looking to be fair would have created this kind of balanced account. That wasn’t what happened here.

There are a lot of investigations going on about this. The supermarkets are investigating, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is conducting its own investigation, but the one investigation that doesn’t seem to be happening is whether this duo followed proper journalistic standards in conducting this investigation and preparing this piece. Channel 4 should do such an internal investigation.

Journalistically, what happened here is just not right, and sadly, we have seen it all before.



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