I want to take you back to 9th November 2016. A lucky few of us are crammed into a hotel room in Washington that’s doubling as our Newsnight office.
It's around 9am. And we’ve worked through the night. An election show—which ended later than usual—in Times Square, New York. Followed by a mad dash headlong into the dawn rush hour of a traffic-clogged DC.
I am unslept, bewildered, frizzy haired and badly in need of a bath.
And Donald Trump has just won the presidential election.
London is fully awake—they have five hours on us. And from my editor, Ian Katz, comes an exhortation I will never forget.
“Do not normalise this moment,” he says.
This is—perhaps—where it all starts.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is a huge honour to be here tonight.
Thank you for bearing with the drop-intro. You’ll have to forgive me—the pent up broadcaster. I haven’t been on air for five months.
I said it’s an honour—but it’s also a responsibility. To get this right. What I’m hoping to share with you this evening is the result of thoughts that have been circulating in my brain for years—certainly pre-November 2016. Accumulated conversations with colleagues; arguments with friends; running commentary along the Thames towpath; and the excellent work of my peers and academics.
I have been extremely lucky in my career to have had the chance to hold power to account. Princes and prime ministers, presidents and policymakers. But here’s the thing. It’s got—and is getting—harder. And tonight I want to explore that. Because my suspicion—no, be braver, my thesis—is that the political actors have changed. Politics has changed. But that we as journalists have not yet caught up.
But back to the DC hotel room. And a closeup on the illegible scrawl in a dog-eared notebook. This is me grappling with my Newsnight introduction, my editor’s words ringing in my ears. He’s not doubting the result—or the democratic mandate. But he’s insistent we shouldn’t move on too quickly. We should stay—as it were—in the “fuck me!” moment. And so I start to spell out what I’m trying to say:
“To the names of Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Adams, we can now add Trump. Taste it. Roll it around your tongue—America's president-elect is Donald J Trump.”
But Washington is an extraordinary place: a well-oiled machine that uses power as its fuel. And within 12 hours of that shapeshifting election, it was doing what it did best: carrying on. The wheels of government had started back up. Barack Obama invited Donald Trump to the White House. Michelle Obama reached out to Melania Trump. We watched the mechanics of that transfer of power—the 44th president welcoming in the 45th president as if this slick political show could simply replace one protagonist with another.
We did not yet understand that it wasn’t replacing one man with another, but one set of rules with another. We didn’t realise we would have to change too.
That’s what I’m here to explore.
So first up, I hope I won’t disappoint when I say this is not a post-BBC ex-employee rant. I had two decades of opportunity that could not be bettered. I owe my success and my happiness to the friends, soulmates and work environment I had there and the endless talking we did. But this is in a sense an exhalation. A deep breath out. All the things that wisely could not be said then can be said more easily now. So I will try to do that. And whilst this is “a lecture,” it’s not meant to be “a lecture.” I must salute the incredible journalists who’ve been on this from the beginning—unafraid and undaunted. You know who you are. No, this is a way of owning my mistakes by sharing them—and hopefully of speaking to a generation of newcomers to journalism who won’t then make them.
I’ve called this lecture Boiling Frog: Why we have to stop normalising the absurd. Because my contention is that despite Ian’s laudable protestations all those years ago, we’re becoming anaesthetised to the rising temperature in which facts are getting lost, constitutional norms trashed, claims frequently unchallenged.
This surreal summer has been a prime example. A total disconnect between the dire warnings over energy and food bills that are massively hurting people in this country—and the SW1 power vacuum circus. We’ve followed potential Tory leaders on tour, assessing their views on the culture war, the price of their accessories—or a tax cut.
We’ve heard—not once but twice from the frontrunner—that a policy idea was “misinterpreted by the media,” and that—my favourite—a question was asked in a “left-wing way.”
We then saw that same candidate caught privately apologising to a presenter for attacking the media—as if it had been an indelicate comment about his tie rather than a staple of our democracy.
We only know because it was caught on hot mic. That conversation should have been said out loud.
This isn’t normal. Or rather, it shouldn’t be.
Things that for many decades were givens—the checks and balances on the executive, the role of the judiciary or the civil service, a media free from interference or vilification—now appear vulnerable.
We are seeing politicians move in directions that are deeply and clearly deleterious to basic democratic governance.
So what’s changed?
There has always been scope for abuse in our constitution of course—but in recent times, previously settled questions around our democratic norms have been upended at a staggering speed. Hannah White of the Institute of Government observes that this is not about introducing change per se—which we’ve always seen—it’s about people in power who are prepared to test the very limits of the constitution to achieve their aims.
You don’t have to look far for examples: things that once would have shocked us now seem commonplace. The ministerial code violated with impunity, a blatant disregard for the principles of the Cabinet manual. The unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament for five weeks by an executive that wanted to remove parliamentary democracy from the decision-making process; the blink-and-you-miss it moment the governing party’s Twitter account changed its name to factcheckUK—in the middle of an election campaign—to coat party propaganda in a format that sounded objective. Or the admission by the then Northern Ireland secretary that he would be prepared to break international law —but only in a very specific and limited way (like murder, I’m not sure the breaking of international law gets off the hook for being limited and specific). We can go on—limits placed on judicial review, ministers’ failure to defend the role of the judiciary, efforts to increase political control over public appointments, the attempts made to change parliamentary conduct rules for cronies—you know all this, you can join in the chorus.
On the other side of the world, the former Australian PM Scott Morrison was discovered to have awarded himself the powers of five additional ministerial authorities. This autocratic indulgence—signed off by the governor general—was kept secret from his cabinet colleagues, from parliament and from the Australian people.
White believes the key dynamic here has been about privileging alternative sources of authority—the “will of the people” in the referendum, Johnson’s “personal mandate” to try and stay in power. The shutting out of ethics advisors or the Lords Appointment Commission when taking decision.
David Allen Green—the law and policy blogger—points to a failure of two safety mechanisms—the first being self-restraint of the executive, the second being the gatekeepers of Cabinet and the Cabinet Office who are meant to step in when all else fails.
The long-term effect of those trends I will leave to others. Today I want to look at where we come in. Journalists. Broadcasters. Specifically, the impact that populist rhetoric is having on the way we do our job.
Social media creates an arena that is exceptionally favourable to the language of populism because it benefits simplistic, emotional messages that suits the elevation of grievance. And ours is an industry that rewards speed, amplification and the intimacy of the anonymous “off record” briefing.
Many studies have looked at the impact the media has had on helping populists to power. But I want to ask the opposite question: what effect does ruling populism have on how we work?
One person who has studied this intensively is the Gates-Cambridge scholar Ayala Panievsky. She has looked at the way populist rhetoric has been used to discredit and disempower journalists. We got used to that “enemies of the people” vitriol at the height of the Maga days. Then came more subtle ways—doxxing of journalists, cyberbullying, the tweeting out of private journalistic enquiries to encourage a public pile on. She notes that even the “right of reply” can be—and frequently is—used as a way of airing claims that are meant to put journalists in their place, as they know a “fair and balanced” media will feel compelled to cover them.
But—and here’s where it gets interesting—apart from these methods of incitement of the public, there’s also, she says, the impact on journalists themselves. “The way populist rhetoric is used to discredit journalists turns into a sophisticated form of “soft censorship.” She uses a term I had not come across before—“strategic bias” to explain the way we may be inclined to respond to accusations made against us. Unlike other targets of populist criticism, journalists find themselves required to mediate that criticism to the public, which puts them in a particularly awkward position.
The outcome, she writes, is ironic: journalists under attack end up practising bias in order to signal their balance and impartiality.
It is, she believes, a coping mechanism. We do it to ourselves.
Populism—make no mistake—is not a traditional “ism” of ideology. It’s not Marxism or Reaganism—it has no adherence to a set belief or policy. The political scientist Cas Mudde explains it as the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another—"the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” Former editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy Moisés Naím goes a step further: “populism is best understood as a strategy for gaining and wielding power.”
Frequently, it is a method of campaigning—often in the guise of the underdog. And once in power—in government—it continues to campaign. Picking imaginary fights to assert its struggle. Even though it is now demonstrably and undeniably the top dog not the underdog.
So what follows—just to be clear—is not a critique of left or right, Conservative versus Labour, Democrat v Republican. None of this has anything to do with policy. It’s why populist parties can shape shift between the right and left, attract voters of traditional parties or none. It’s not an ideology. It is a means to achieve and retain power.
And I speak from experience when I say it took us too long to recognise it for what it was. And find the journalistic tools needed to deal with it. I remember—to my shame—interviewing the Trump acolyte Sebastian Gorka on Newsnight in the early days of the Trump victory. Gorka would use up most of the interview time by screaming abuse at the BBC. He didn’t have any problem with the BBC. He quite liked the BBC. He was always happy to say yes to the interview. But he used our time on air—and that of many of my colleagues—as an effective conduit to sell a key populist message—that the mainstream media could be dismissed as “fake.” Once you understand how this works, it seems so obvious. You kick down belief in a trusted source of news, you make the audience doubt what they are seeing and you step in to the breach—a shameless play for power and dominance.
But in those days, I didn’t. As a journalist I was mortified. I would spend half our allotted interview time trying to defend our objectivity—and the rest bending over backwards to reconcile his strangled version of the truth, just to prove his criticism of me wrong. (In so doing, ironically, I lost the very objectivity I was seeking to defend).
When I was writing this, I looked back at an interview I did with him in 2018 to see if Panievsky’s words rang true. And I was horrified. In my opening question to him I say, “Dr Gorka, I know in our previous encounters we have spent a lot of time analysing whether Newsnight itself is fake news… etc so just for the sake of our viewers and moving the story on why don’t we agree to recognise that’s how you view things.”
It is insane. We didn’t spend “a lot of time analysing.” He levelled the accusation to get social media traction. And I allowed it to become viable debate.
You see where I’m going with this. Either way, Gorka won, and the BBC lost.
This was when Donald Trump was already finding his feet as president. But our mistakes started long before that. Let me take you this time to early 2016. The UK is beginning to debate the big questions around Britain’s potential exit from the EU. It is complicated stuff: we are trying to offer our viewers both sides of a fiendishly difficult debate. And that intention was right. But we still got it wrong. We fell into what we might call “the Patrick Minford paradigm.” In other words, it might take our producers five minutes to find 60 economists who feared Brexit and five hours to find a sole voice who espoused it. But by the time we went on air we simply had one of each. We presented this unequal effort to our audience as balance. It wasn’t.
I would later learn the ungainly name for this myopic style of journalism—“both sideism,” which talks to the way it reaches a superficial balance whilst obscuring a deeper truth. At this stage, I had never heard the term—or indeed the criticism—I just thought we were doing our job.
One year after the Brexit vote—shortly after the 2017 election had left prime minister May without a majority and in a particularly precarious position—I remember interviewing the prominent leave campaigner and former candidate for prime minister Andrea Leadsom.
The EU Council president had told the BBC of his concerns over Brexit relations. When I asked Leadsom what she could point to that was going well in the negotiations, she told me with some exasperation: “It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic. The country took a decision.”
Now, you could argue that my patriotism—at that moment—was shown in an attempt to do the job well, and interpret for our licence fee-paying public the state of government negotiations.
But I think that’s missing the point. It’s certainly missing the strategy. Because the way populism works—on us as journalists—is to seek to somehow divide us from the public. To make us feel that we are not “of the people.” That those in power are the only ones that can understand “normal folk.” And that we—the media—are somehow getting in the way of that relationship between the people and their government.
Back to Panievsky, who writes: “This professional failure is framed as the media’s grand conspiracy against the populist as the representative of the people.”
Remember Donald Trump’s admission to CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl on the campaign trail? She would later tell an awards dinner of the moment he admitted the real reason for continually bashing the press. I’m quoting Ms Stahl here:
“He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’”
The larger the gap in other words, that populists can create between recognisable media sources and the people, the less impeded they will be by any scrutiny—any attempt to hold them accountable for the decisions they make in power. Just last week Liz Truss told the host of the GB News hustings: “It’s not the BBC—you actually get your facts right.” It was an artful bit of flattery, which she used to evade a challenging question. In the earlier Leadsom example, her rebuke to my patriotism (which, if we are being generous, might have been completely unconscious) could be viewed as a way of stopping me being the conduit, the challenger, between government negotiations and the public audience, and casting me in the role of an outsider, or traitor. Someone who didn’t care enough.
When he was leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn could also be dismissive of what he would call—as Trump had done—the mainstream media. His supporters would argue it was not without good reason. Certainly, undeniably, the Murdoch- and Rothermere-owned papers made no secret of their contempt for the man who wanted to be the next Labour prime minister. Their attacks on Corbyn were relentless and vicious. But his distaste for a large proportion of the broadcast media—amplified by a small but dangerous group of hardened fans—would see the BBC’s political editor have to attend the annual Labour Party conference accompanied by a bodyguard for her own safety. Her press conference questions—and those of several of her colleagues—were met with boos. It speaks volumes that the editor remained irreproachable against an atmosphere of such hostility.
Our own Newsnight encounter of this kind was minor in comparison. But probably worth putting on record. In March 2018, after the Salisbury poisoning of the Skripals, the then-Labour leader told parliament he found the act appalling but angered MPs by refusing to directly condemn Moscow over its alleged responsibility for the poisoning—it involved the “military grade” nerve agent Novichok.
It was a story we put on Newsnight that night, with a large plasma of the Kremlin to symbolise the Russia context—and Jeremy Corbyn in the forefront—as the subject of the piece. That night, Twitter was alight with Corbyn supporters alleging our graphics team had “doctored” the image to make Jeremy Corbyn “appear more Russian.” The Canary website accused Newsnight of creating a “blatant visual association between Vladimir Putin’s 'red’ Russia and Corbyn’s ‘red’ Labour.” A Squawkbox blog stated that “The hat in the Newsnight composite has clearly been enlarged upwards for effect—and Corbyn’s coat darkened so he looks more like a Russian politburo member.”
Newsnight’s programme editor tweeted out a replica of the same screen used a month earlier—this time with then defence secretary Gavin Williamson—in the foreground. Curiously, it was Channel 4 who went to the effort of a full fact check, not the BBC. They found that the hat only appeared taller because of a perspective distortion caused by Newsnight’s curved background screen. In other words, our graphic designer had received a vicious social media pile on—by people attributing to the programme a malice or a bias—that could easily be traced to the shape of a TV studio plasma.
At the time we weren’t sure whether to find the episode farcical or threatening. Certainly we felt very alone—and rather caught in the headlights. But looking back I understand what Panievsky means when she talks about journalists’ strategic bias. By the end of the week we had invited on a Corbyn supporter—commentator—to explain to us what we had done wrong. She explains that the broadcasters’ desire to be seen as neutral agents paradoxically enables populists to further spread the claim that we are not. We were offering a platform to the very people trying to tell the public to distrust our news.
Sometimes, we tie ourselves in knots over the both sideism balance I spoke of before. My former editor Dan Clarke reminded me of the time we were granted an interview with Robert De Niro from New York. It was the height of Covid. New York had been decimated by the disease—makeshift morgues and a ghostly city abandoned by anyone with the means to leave. It was a sobering but equally an exciting time to have an interview with one of the world’s best-loved actors. And I wanted to know what it felt like for the archetypal New Yorker to see the city and its people so bereft.
As we began the interview, however, it was clear that De Niro had other things on his mind than New York. He wanted to rage about President Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic. He accused him of not caring how many died. It was—for context—three weeks after Trump had given the infamous “bleach” press conference where he was seen to be suggesting the use of disinfectant to fight Covid inside the body.
De Niro told me: “It’s scary because everyone is sort of nonplussed and stunned at what this guy Trump is doing… You’ve got a lunatic saying things that people are trying to dance around—it’s appalling.”
In my ear Dan is urging me, as is his editorial job, to put the other side. But I am resisting it because—quite frankly—what is the other side? Do I say, “nonsense, bleach might work—we just won’t know until we’ve tried”? Or do I pretend he didn’t mention disinfectant when it’s there on tape? Or do I say, “You’re only saying that because you’re a liberal lefty luvvie Democrat’? Which doesn’t seem to capture the gravitas of this moment when he’s talking about the horrendous death toll America is witnessing.
As an attempt at pushback I begin: “Trump’s fanbase would take issue with that.”They would, of course—that’s why they are his fanbase.
But De Niro then bats this away by saying: “Trump doesn’t care for those people—the people he pretends to care about are the people he has the most disdain for.”Which I let hang in the air. Because—quite frankly—I’ve heard many within his own party—and own circle—say the exact same thing.
The reason I’m recounting this is not for the exchange, but for what happens next. We finish the pre-recorded interview—Adam Cumiskey is the output editor and he’s a big film buff. But as we are heading up in the lift I turn to Adam and say: “We can’t possibly put this out. It’s too anti-Trump.”
Adam looks at me to see if I’m joking. And I’m not. I am terrified that by putting out the interview as it stands we will be seen as biased. De Niro is a world famous actor—and a New Yorker—and has chosen our programme, Newsnight, as the place to land his thoughts quite carefully. So why do I feel unable to let him say it without trying to find an equally world-famous actor who that same night is miraculously going to tell us the opposite. And wouldn’t I be tumbling into both sideism—false equivalence—even if we had?
It speaks again to how forcefully even imagined populist accusations of bias work on the journalist’s brain. To the point where we censor our own interviews to avoid the backlash.
The coda to this story is that the De Niro interview did go out. Probably with more “but-his-fan-base” push back from me than was strictly necessary. And the sky didn’t fall down. Adam, at least, was very happy. And the news lines were picked up around the world. But it’s curious now to look back on our reactions because of what happened two weeks later.
The now infamous Dominic Cummings Newsnight introduction got way more attention than in truth it ever deserved. It was neither the best nor the worst opening we have ever done—and I say “we” because the scripts were as always written, modified, rewritten, edited and signed off by a team. The original story had been broken by Pippa Crerar and her excellent colleagues at the Mirror who then went on to report many more stories of rule breaking over the subsequent 12 months. We merely picked up the story the day after the Cummings rose garden press conference.
The intro stated bluntly and baldly that he had broken the rules. And it asked why the government—Boris Johnson—was standing by him. The introduction set out—as is often the case—the rest of the show. We had Conservative MPs explaining the PM’s loyalty, we had pollsters explaining the public horror on this issue, we had defenders, we had critics and we had a detailed analysis of which rules had been broken and when. In other words, the introduction was a precis of what viewers could expect of the whole show. And on the night itself the programme passed off with a few pleasant texts from BBC editors and frankly little else.
It was only the next morning that the wheels fell off. A phone call of complaint was made from Downing Street to the BBC News management. This—for context—is not unusual. It wasn’t unusual in the Blair days—far from it—in the Brown days, in the Cameron days. What I’m saying is, it’s normal for government spin doctors to vocalise their displeasure to journalists.
What was not foreseen was the speed with which the BBC sought to pacify the complainant. Within hours, a very public apology was made, the programme was accused of a failure of impartiality, the recording disappeared from the iPlayer and there were paparazzi outside my front door.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not standing here trying to pretend our intro was the Gettysburg address. When I hear it now, I think it was rather long winded, wordy and sounded a bit piqued. But I don’t think, “Wow what a shocking breach of impartiality because we called out the actions of one of the chief architects of the Covid laws.”
We show our impartiality when we report without fear or favour. When we are not scared to hold power to account, even when it feels uncomfortable to do so. When we understand that if we’ve covered rule breaking by a Scottish chief medical officer or an English government scientist, then journalistic rigour should be applied to those who make policy within No 10. The one person—ironically—who understood this was Dominic Cummings himself, who texted me that very evening to offer his wry support.
So, back to the speed of response. Why had the BBC immediately and publicly sought to confirm the government spokesman’s opinion. Without any kind of due process? It makes no sense for an organisation that is admirably, famously rigorous about procedure—unless it was perhaps sending a message of reassurance directly to the government itself?
Put this in the context of the BBC board, where another active agent of the Conservative party—former Downing Street spin doctor, and former adviser to BBC rival GB News—now sits, acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality. According to the Financial Times, he’s attempted to block the appointments of journalists he considers damaging to government relations, provoking Labour’s deputy leader (among others) to call it “Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC.”
The UK correspondent of German public broadcaster ARD—Annette Dittert—goes a step further when she writes: “Public service broadcasters must always act as the corrective, should always hold governments accountable—and must never end up becoming the megaphone. That is the whole point of publicly owned broadcasters in a liberal democracy.”
Panievsky has a warning for what happens when we avoid rebuffing populist accusations. She believes journalists become complicit in the debilitation of their own status and authority. Paradoxically, she writes, their attempts to protect their professional objective facade may contribute to the public’s belief they are in fact biased (“we are doing it to ourselves.”)
We—journalists, management teams, organisations—are primed to back down, even apologise, to prove how journalistically fair we are being. That can be exploited by those crying “bias.” If it suits those in power to shut us up—or down—they can. Critically, it’s lose-lose for the audience.
And there’s the rub. Because whatever our journalism does, it must earn the trust of our listeners, our audiences, our readers. Otherwise we are mouthpieces, mere clients of those in authority—cosy with those in command, disconnected from the very people we are trying to serve.
A lot of the examples I have used here have been from my own experience. Neither meant to be my greatest hits nor my walk of shame. It’s the stuff I have found easiest to revisit with questions of how we should be doing our job better.
I apologise to anyone who came thinking this would be about the Prince Andrew interview. That will have to wait till next time.
And to those of you wondering why this still feels stuck in the Brexit and Trump days, I’ll say this. We are. Those two seismic shifts have not been and gone. They’ve come and stayed. Eighteen months after an attempted coup on the Capitol—and on the democratic functioning of America—the architect behind the lie that brought the rioters is considering another run for president, with the backing of millions of Americans.
Here in the UK we spent early summer watching the havoc at Dover customs meet with a wall of silence around Brexit. Those who promised to get Brexit done can’t mention it—because it clearly isn’t. Their insistence on third nation status has meant passport checks and horrendous waiting times. Labour avoids talking about Brexit because it’s decided—rightly or wrongly—to distance itself from Remainer tags. And large sections of both the BBC and government-supporting newspapers appear to go into an automatic crouch position whenever the Brexit issue looms large.
Many broadcasters fear discussing the obvious economic cause of major change in this country in case they get labelled pessimistic,
anti-populist, or worse still—as above—unpatriotic. And yet every day that we sidestep these issues with glaring omissions feels like a conspiracy against the British people—we are pushing the public further away. Why should our viewers, our listeners, come to us to interpret and explain what is going on when they can see our own reluctance to do so?
So that’s why I believe we have some catching up to do. Journalism isn’t a dry academic study or a polished set of rules—it’s a connection we share with our audience when we are helping them to understand things better. The behaviour I describe here—much of it my own—was not a solution but a coping strategy. So how do we move on from that? Where are the solutions?
First, I suspect, it’s about sunlight: we need to show our workings more. We need to be braver about explaining the pressures under which we come—and our own responses. And in that spirit I will admit—without getting too meta—that as I speak to you here I am conscious of an internal self-editing. I am still thinking what the headlines of this speech will be. Will they make me look bad? Or dull? Or preachy or reckless? Will everyone fixate on the one line about Corbyn, or Cummings or Trump? Will it turn large parts of the press against me?
And will that stop me from going further than I should if the goal ultimately is to explain to the public how we do our job?
I’m telling you this so you know.
We also need to find a shorthand—a glossary if you like. We—the frogs—have to give names to the populist playbook tricks we encounter. The Infowars host Alex Jones (shortly to be 4m dollars poorer) is not a “conspiracy theorist” in the sense he believes the rot he peddles. That doesn’t appear to be the case. He peddles it to make money from subscribers to whom he then sells dietary supplements. Let’s not intellectualise and debate the merits of this as “free speech” any more than we would fake medicines.
This is just a business model.
When we hear Donald Trump or Zac Goldsmith or Nadine Dorries or Marjorie Taylor Greene talking about “a witch-hunt,” or Boris Johnson going the way of “deep state” chat, our senses should be primed. This is often a precursor to the rejection of legitimate checks and balances. We should ask why they’re so afraid of scrutiny.
We should beware the “parallel that is not remotely parallel.” The FBI search on Trump’s house at Mar-a-Lago this month was re-imagined by Trump for his supporters as equivalent to Richard Nixon’s burglary of the Watergate office building. It wasn’t. It is a trope.
See false equivalence.
Just as we now understand that when we hear the phrase “fake news,” we should see it through Trump’s own definition—a conscious attempt to discredit and demean.
Let’s not turn ourselves inside-out wondering if it’s true.
The more we recognise these tropes as old—slightly sad and malign—friends, the better equipped we are to call them out.
Thirdly, perhaps the style of our reporting can change too. I’m excited to see how the podcast we are launching next week with Global—The News Agents—will allow us room to move away from cellophane wrapped formality—to lift the curtain on why things happen, how we choose our stories and how we book our guests. Instead of the clichéd stagecraft of supporter X versus supporter Y, we might choose nuance as we did on Americast. There, a conversation might go like this:
Us: What do you think of politician A?
Member of public: He’s a liar, a charlatan and a hypocrite.
Us: You voted for him last time. Would you again?
Member of public: Yes, probably.
Because people are complicated, not cardboard cutouts. And an exchange like that might tell us more about—say—Trump’s appeal to the Latino gay Floridian businessman, or Johnson’s appeal to the Cheshire mother and fitness instructor in a way staunch advocates cannot. The News Agents podcast offers us a chance to build loyalty with people who like something with its edges on display. Daily news now accounts for 10 per cent of all podcast downloads and crucially is attracting newer, younger audiences. So it is imperative—for both them and us—we get this right.
Fourth—tweets: The professor of political communication Claes de Vreese asks: “Would a news organisation publish a corporate press release in full without offering context or asking questions? And yet we do so with tweets. He believes we should hold social media messages to the same standard even if they come from, say, a head of government. “Tweets need the same level of scrutiny in terms of whether they should even be considered for publication.”
We are, at our most basic, the mediators between the actions of those in power and the public. So, fifthly—most excitingly—the challenge for us I think is how we live up to that responsibility in a way that is both fair and robust. Either without the other is useless. Let me finish up with an example my colleague Lewis Goodall threw in the path of ideas as we mulled over the voyage of the poor boiling frog.
Let’s imagine, he said, provocatively—the Supreme Court in America has overturned Brown v the Board of Education. That 1954 landmark ruling that would forever end racial segregation in public schools. What would the media do then? Would we just document it as settled fact? Would we call it racist? Would we offer up “both sides” and leave people to decide if they like it? Is it enough—in other words—to report things that might radically change the very fabric of our democracies and our societies as if they were merely a weather update? Leaving no discernible impact on the lives of those we address? It’s a big leap. And I’m not—by the way—suggesting anything of the sort is going to happen in America.
But I ask the question here, because it scares me. Because whilst we do not have to be campaigners, nor should we be complacent—complicit—onlookers.
Our job is to make sense of what we are seeing and anticipate the next move.
It’s the moment, in other words, the frog should be leaping out of the boiling water and phoning all its friends to warn them.
But by then we are so far along the path of passivity, we’re cooked.