24th July 2017
By Tom Law

Getting Over the News That Almost Broke the Media

Brexit, Trump and the Media (Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tate). Published by Abramis £19.95

These are uncomfortable times for journalists, but they can be enlightening in equal measure. This compendium of essays, guest lectures and editorial shorts on the media crisis, for instance, is a useful coaching manual for everyone in journalism and should help calm the nerves in the newsroom.

It’s part of a so-called “hacademic” series and brings together more than 50 voices from journalism and media studies who pick through the debris of shattered certainties in the worlds of politics, polling and media following the Trump election, Britain’s vote to quit the European Union and the unexpected outcome of the UK’s general election in June 2017.

The book echoes concerns raised by the EJN’s Ethics in the News report earlier this year and adds more clear thinking and reflection over the role of journalism in the so-called post-truth era, when much of politics and public discourse has been reduced to shouty gladiatorial debate lacking in both civility and truthfulness.

The writers rake over some uncomfortable 21st century truths – the election of a populist US President who declares war on journalism and truth-telling; the lying liars of Brexit and their bus ride over fact-based politics; the pollsters who led us astray; and the press regulators who let media off the hook.

The book examines what went wrong. Did journalists fail to catch the wind of discontent blowing from angry voters in communities hardest hit by economic decline? Professor David Blanchflower argues they surely did, but another professor, Eric Kaufman, suggests that issues like immigration and the psychological pull of “national” values were also important.

The misfiring polling industry in Britain has also taken a battering in these unpredictable times, but John Curtice – something of a national treasure in the ranks of UK political punditry – explains how they got it right when it mattered, on the night of the UK election.

But the book is not all bad news. Each section is a juicy read, layered with nuggets of good sense that should help journalists understand better that journalism, for all its troubles, might be in better shape than we thought.

On Brexit and the Trump election, for instance, although media let the public down badly, a range of media experts on both sides of the Atlantic provide useful numbers and research that we can learn from. And there are engaging insights on the view from the regions: Britain’s northern rust-belt; Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; and, with the bigger picture in mind, from Germany, China and the United States.

For those of us confused by the gobbledygook of tech Alex Connock tells how the way we report elections may have changed forever as a result of bots, sock puppets, individual adverts and smart communications and elsewhere there’s a helpful “listical” of how technology helped Donald Trump elbow his way into the White House.

There are words of wisdom from the high and mighty – Mark Thompson, for instance, ex-BBC and now CEO of the New York Times, has a rerun of his thoughtful John Donne lecture in Oxford earlier this year, but who ends up as confused as the rest of us about what to make of Donald Trump. And my old boss Peter Preston laments the possible passing of a European world-view in UK newsrooms.

Much of the focus is on broadcasting where Justin Lewis and Stephen Cushion say editors need to recognise that “tit-for-tat” journalism alone does not deliver impartiality. This comes only from a more nuanced, inclusive and diverse sourcing of opinions. Jay Blumler grasps the nettle – it’s not enough to be impartial and to scrutinise political actions, he says, we need to actively deny airtime for politicians who tell blatant lies. Instead we need to install editorial routines to challenge and rebut falsehoods.

The BBC takes a bow, as David Jordan and Ric Bailey explain how the UK’s “Aunty” broadcaster weathered the storm, emerging with a majority of both remain and leave voters believing that the corporation’s Brexit coverage was fair.

This is a book for dipping into. Each contribution leaves a morsel worth thinking about. Some of them come from surprising sources, including Daily Express Editor Hugh Whittow and Nigel Farage, who in his speech to broadcasters warns: “If the people’s trust goes away from you guys and goes completely to the Internet there is a real danger very dangerous ideas will take hold.”

The conclusions appear to be that we’ve taken a hit and we’re down, but we’re not out. We can learn from our mistakes and, with a mite more humility and attachment to ethical values, we can get journalism back on track.