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It’s not just ice sculptures that melt


By Giles Croot, Managing Partner

Emily Maitlis broke the rules. The country can see that, and it’s shocked that she cannot.

She was the woman, remember, who always got to the truth. She tagged people with lazy labels if she disagreed. She should understand that public mood now. One of fury, contempt and anguish.

A statement of fact or an opinion?  An appropriate opening statement for an article in an apolitical newsletter?  Something you’d expect to read as the opening to a comment column in a newspaper?

The answer to the first question, given the BBC has reminded Newsnight staff about the requirement for due impartiality following Emily’s controversial monologue on Tuesday night, is that you can make a case for either.  To the second – whilst we try to make our articles thought provoking and interesting – we wouldn’t be so strident in a view on something so contentious.  To the third question, absolutely.  But Newsnight is not a column in a newspaper.

So why does it matter if occasionally a highly intelligent, well informed TV anchor crosses an invisible line?  Doesn’t it make it more interesting for the viewers, engage an audience – perhaps even get more people watching news if it’s more exciting?  Surely that’s a good thing.

Except… back in 1992 when John Major unexpectedly beat Neil Kinnock Britain’s most popular newspaper claimed the credit: “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”.  But did they really?  How much do (and did) newspapers lead the opinion of their readers as opposed to being experts at reflecting the interests (and prejudices) or people who buy them – making us feel good and affirmed in our views when we read them back?

Successful newspapers – like The Sun and the Mail – have adapted their political stance as the views of their readers have flexed.  The Sun supported Tony Blair – and dumped Gordon Brown – as their readers’ perceptions of them rose and then fell.  The internet – and our ability to click the headlines of our choice, in any order rather than receiving curated information – has accelerated that process.  We all like to read things which reassures us that our instincts are accurate – and dislike being told we are wrong.  The unconscious bias of media selection.

Then we have the double-edged sword of social media which spreads and distorts news in equal measure.  As any marketeer will tell you – we tend to most believe things which come from people we know.  So your friend sharing a link, a meme or a “quote” is a powerful influence.

Social media has removed the curator - the news editor – from the mix.  The journalist who would question or challenge.  Politicians across the spectrum have understood the power of this tool.  It’s impossible to write this article without recognising that President Trump is amongst the greatest surfers of this wave.

As such:

  • Social media has re-enfranchised parts of the electorate that were ignored and disregarded by mainstream media.
  • Social media has enabled an egotist with a loose association with the truth to subvert confidence in the established media so his followers no longer differentiate between fact and assertion.

Which of these statement is true?  Both? Neither?

But these statements, for me, set out why it does matter that our broadcasters are not just professional and above the political fray – but are seen to be.

During the election, Channel Four News selected a topic for their only leaders’ debate.  Almost any topic you select is going to have one side believing that they are stronger or weaker: health, economy, Europe…  So by only holding one debate on a specific topic wasn’t it inevitable they would be accused of and appear partial?  The fact that when, inevitably, Boris Johnson declined to participate they went one step further than empty chairing the Prime Minister and placed an ice sculpture where he would have stood was intended to make a statement.  

Piers Morgan, former Mirror editor and (former) friend of Donald Trump, has livened up ITV Breakfast show Good Morning Britain with his forthright views and aggressive approach to politicians with whom he disagrees.  The programmes ratings are the highest they have been for many years – although whether this is down to Piers, the increased interest in news because of coronavirus or just because people are available to watch now they are no longer able to commute to work is unprovable.

Both Channel Four News and Good Morning Britain faced multiple complaints to Ofcom about their programmes.  That the broadcast regulator dismissed the respective complaints surprised many senior broadcasters – including some executives at ITN, the makers of Channel Four News.  Perhaps the regulator, wisely, wants to keep out of politics or perhaps the watchdog got it right.

Broadcasters have always been accused of bias.  Every editorial decision is going to please some – and disappoint others.  Like an umpire in a cricket match, there will be marginal decisions.  There will be mistakes.  There will be decisions which, on another day, could have been called differently.  The players know this – but so long as the umpire is perceived to be trying to treat both teams equally these errors are part of the game.

I believe our broadcasters need to see themselves in a similar vein.  The umpire calls out bad behaviour, he points out infringement of the rules and he reports on the successes and failures of a team performance as he signals a four or a wicket.  But he doesn’t cheer for either team.

Broadcasters have a very privileged position.  We welcome them into our houses.  For many, they are the first voice we hear in the morning and one of the last at night.  And in a world where Twitter now flags a US Presidents Tweets over (lack of) accuracy it’s more vital than ever they maintain trust.

As day follows night, politicians will attack broadcasters.  And attempt to undermine them.  It’s because it is such a powerful media that it still matters.

I understand the desire to be provocative.  It’s the technique I deployed at the start of this article and perhaps why you’ve read this far.  But if we are to have a trusted mainstream broadcast media – something I believe is vital if we are to have an informed, civic society capable of resisting demigods and dictators, then our broadcasters must guard their impartiality and be like Caesar’s wife: above suspicion.  Otherwise they just make it too easy for those who want to undermine them.  

Under the TV lights that ice sculpture quickly melted – it doesn’t take much for trust to melt away too.