Last week, as a proud alumnus of Manchester University, I attended the annual Cockroft Rutherford lecture, given by Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4. She argued the case for strong political journalism as a key pillar of our democracy, coupled with an analysis of why those who wish to subvert it have turned their weapons on those who seek to report on them.
You can see her whole lecture here. It’s about an hour long and the lecture proper doesn’t start until about twenty-five minutes in. It’s very entertaining and incisive. Well worth a looksee.
However, in a largely convincing account of the nuanced meaning of due impartiality, Ms Byrne seemed to have a bit of a blindspot as to some of her own channel’s output. She took a good deal of righteous delight in attacking the BBC for giving undue airtime to climate deniers in the name of balance, conveniently forgetting that it was Channel 4 who led the way on this with The Great Global Warming Swindle back in 2007. She decided that a six part BBC documentary about David Cameron’s tenure as PM would be a waste of money – without having seen it (it may be, it may not be – who knows? There’s certainly plenty to say about his rise to power and, deride it or not, his pivotal premiership 2010-2016. Her uninformed, prejudicial dismissiveness was hardly setting a good journalistic example) and she took great pride in quoting a statistic that said that 90% of Channel 4 News’s audience believed that their coverage was truly independent, the highest of any mainstream news programme.
Duh. Of course they do. They’re Channel 4 News’s audience.
When people say – as many in the Cockroft audience did – that they think Channel 4 News is more independent, or more balanced than the BBC what they mean is, they agree with its very particular Guardian style Liberal/Left – and pro-Remain – agenda. They want Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy to express their righteous indignation at people with Right Wing/Brexit views.
I like Channel 4 News. I watch it every day.
I like The Guardian. I have a subscription. Not because these news outlets are impartial (which they aren’t) but because they have a very clear agenda, which throws a clear light on things, albeit from a very distinct angle. As long as you know what that bias is – and it is bias – you can evaluate what the truth may be. A bit like a Mark Kermode film review. I listen to Mark every week, but there’s no getting away from it, he likes all sorts of tedious shite – however, as long as I know what sort of tedious shite he likes I can work out whether the movie is worth seeing or not.
It tells me all sorts of things I DON’T want to hear. Its commentators come from all corners of the political spectrum, not just the ones I agree with. I have to work a bit harder to make my own judgements. The interviewers aren’t trying to express my rage (I can do rage on my own, thank you very much). It’s not presented to me wrapped up in a parcel of satisfying righteous indignation.
Many of my friends on Social Media vehemently disagree with me, insisting that while ‘we’ may be able to divine the truth from such output, most viewers aren’t bright enough, and will be easily swayed by, say, a Nigel Farage, unless the interviewer leaps on them and tells them – and tells the viewers that they’re wrong. Angrily!!
Bloody hell, that’s patronising. And not just a little arrogant as well.
Core to our democracy is the trust that people, by and large, are pretty smart and that everyone has the skills to make considered judgements providing they are given the tools. That’s far preferable than the presenters or interviewers editorialising on our behalf. That’s presumably why the BBC has invested so much into the Reality Check team and they are referred to most days on the BBC TV News. But it is our responsibility as an audience and as participants in the democratic process to make the effort not to go out and make a cup of tea when Chris Morris tips up, or when the fact checker feeds back on PMQs on BBC2’s Politics Live which he does EVERY week. Expecting to be spoon fed won’t help the democratic process – and hats off to the BBC for constantly pointing people to Reality Check web pages, Reality Check news items, the very brilliant More or Less on BBC Radio 4, The Briefing Room etc etc etc.
So I will never say: “Well of course I understand what’s going on but it’s the stupid masses who don’t… so they need to be told what to think.” I see an awful lot of BBC bashing social media from people who take that attitude, and it depresses me. Just as in drama – my own personal trade – no one ever wrote a decent script assuming the audience to be more stupid than the writer.
So, for this Marmoset, it’s bloody amazing that the BBC has the courage to go on doing this, and we should treasure it, not bleat on Social Media because it isn’t saying precisely what we as individuals think. The day it does that is the day it has stopped being News and become our own personal echo chamber.