TRUST ME I’M NOT A POLITICIAN
Channel 4 News chief delivers annual university lecture
Thursday 30 May 2019
The chair of the Ethical Journalism Network, Dorothy Byrne, delivered the University of Manchester Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture on Thursday 30 May.
Dorothy is a former Manchester undergraduate who is now the Head of News & Current Affairs at Channel 4 Television.
According to the university’s press release:
The Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture is the flagship annual event for alumni and friends of The University of Manchester. We have the largest global alumni community of any-campus based university in the UK – we have graduates in over 190 countries.
Previous Cockcroft Rutherford lecturers include astrophysicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox OBE, Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies, and leading war surgeon David Nott OBE.
In this year’s lecture, Dorothy will explore how in the UK and across much of the Western world, many voters are saying that politicians have failed them. She will ask how faith and trust in democracy can be restored, and whether journalists – condemned by some politicians as purveyors of fake news – are key players in finding the solutions.
Read the full press release here: https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/channel-4-news-chief-to-deliver-annual-university-lecture/
TRUST ME I’M NOT A POLITICIAN
The text of Dorothy Byrne’s speech:
I am so honoured to be here speaking to you tonight. Thank you very much for inviting me. Last year my great friend the surgeon David Nott gave this lecture. He’s saved thousands of lives and I wondered how I could beat that.
So I’ve decided that I’m going to save democracy in the UK. I honestly believe I have at least some of the answers. So bear with me, you may think we are in political chaos but I can help get us out of this mess.
If politicians just do what I advise tonight, we’ll be heading in the right direction.
Democracy cannot thrive without trust. The people must believe in the politicians or the system won’t work. And the last figures I saw showed that only around 20 per cent of people in this country believes their politicians.
How will the politicians win back that trust so that the people believe in democracy again?
Two actions would contribute significantly – senior politicians have got to dare to tell the truth again and they have to make themselves accountable to the people again. At present they are not doing either of those things sufficiently. Everyone thinks the problem is Brexit but the underlying problem is the lack of truth and accountability.
Truth matters. I learned that in my first philosophy lecture here at Manchester University when we were introduced to Plato. Of course, Plato wouldn’t be allowed in a university today, he’d be no-platformed for so many reasons, not least because he thought women inferior.
But Plato believed that the search for truth and the ideal of truth were key to any successful society. And it’s because my life as a journalist has been about seeking truth that I ask you to follow my argument and to trust me because I am NOT a politician.
Across Western democracies, we have politicians trying to tell us truth is relative and something they can just define for themselves, without relating it to established facts. This is dangerous nonsense.
In the lead, is the most powerful man in the whole world who tells such huge and regular lies that he has a website in his honour called Liar, Liar Pants on Fire.
And of course, in order to get away with these lies, Donald Trump has to try to undermine the group who hold politicians to account; journalists. So we must be regularly condemned as purveyors of so-called fake news. Well, you don’t need to be as clever as Plato to realise that fake news cannot exist. If it was fake, it didn’t happen so it wasn’t news. Sorry, Donald.
Imagine what Plato would make of Donald Trump. In fact, let’s bring them together for a moment. What you might call a meeting of one mind. Obviously, I mean Trump’s mind because he’s told us he’s a genius. A stable genius.
So what should Plato and Donald Trump discuss? The Washington Post says that Trump has made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims but I have my own favourite.
The sound of windmills gives you cancer.
I love it. At first, you think that’s just nonsense, not a lie. But it is a lie and a lie very much of our time because lying about science is rampant among these politicians who think they can just make up facts to suit them. Trump, of course, supports the ludicrous anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield who I first exposed on TV more than twenty years ago.
It’s a bit weird that Trump is so scared of windmills because I’m not sure there are many windmills round Trump tower. It does strike me that if he’s scared of windmills, no wonder his own rhetoric on Iran frightens him so much. But in ancient Greece, windmills were a common sight.
So let’s have a windmill in our little scene.
‘Truth is the beginning of every good to the gods and of every good to man.’
Trump, replies, ‘ Watch out mate. There’s a windmill! Put your hands on your ears or you’ll catch cancer.’
OK, their intellectual discourse didn’t get very far. So now let’s introduce Plato to a British politician, genuinely clever bloke, whose attitude to truth transformed and many would say perverted politics in this country. Pretty straight kind of guy. Told us Saddam had weapons of mass destruction when all along he’d agreed to the invasion of Iraq to bring about regime change. Know who I mean?
Here’s his famous contribution to Western philosophical thought:
‘I only know what I believe.’
Yes, it’s Tony Blair.
In our little scene, by the windmill, with Donald trump lying on the ground in terror with his hands over his ears, Plato speaks.
‘Er, I think you’ll find Truth and belief are two very different concepts. Next!’
You’ll be thinking I’m going to introduce Plato to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn now. But no way either of them would turn up to a lengthy debate and searching in-depth questioning by a Greek philosopher. The issue about them isn’t lying, it’s about getting them to engage in serious discussion at all. They don’t even talk to Jon Snow or Emily Maitliss, they’re definitely not talking to Plato. Maybe Piers Morgan and Holly Willoughby. Compared even to the fairly recent past, our current batch of politicians do very little in the way of holding themselves up to proper scrutiny.
I believe a key reason Theresa May failed so spectacularly is that she didn’t hold herself properly accountable to the British people – in general, and specifically, on the medium British people trust, which is television.
Here’s what a top BBC executive told me about her,
‘There was no point in even trying to interview her. You might as well have interviewed a robot. She said nothing.’
Well, that communications strategy turned out to be a big success for her.
Here now is what her chief press officer said to us when Theresa May became the first leader of the conservative party in living memory to refuse to give either Channel Four or Channel Five an interview during her party’s conference.
‘What’s in it for us?’
I’m always suspicious of a man who calls himself ‘us’. I don’t care what’s in it for you good sir. You’re irrelevant and probably vastly overpaid. It was her duty – and Theresa May talked a lot about duty – to be held accountable. It’s supposed to be about what’s in it for US, the voters. You know what Theresa, Jon Snow or Krishnan Guru-Murthy would have given you a fairer hearing than you have received from many members of your own party.
Every major broadcaster in this country signed a letter of protest about Theresa May refusing to do that interview. Thank you other broadcasters. You didn’t just protest for us, you protested, I know this, on behalf of the British people. Because British journalists believe in democracy. Indeed I posit here tonight that British journalists have more belief and confidence in the British system of democracy than some of the politicians who have given up their proper involvement in the system.
Now here’s where I admit I’ve cheated you. I already know you trust me. You don’t trust politicians and you don’t trust newspaper journalists but you do really trust British television. Overall, figures from OFCOM, our regulator, show that 70 per cent of the British people trust TV News. Channel Four figures show that 91 per cent of our news viewers say we are independent of government. That’s the highest of any mainstream news programme and I’m really proud of it. It’s up seven points on last year.
So politicians, if you want people to trust you again, start appearing properly on the media people trust. We are really lucky in this country we have regulated, trusted television which is bound to be duly impartial. Be held to account there and you could be seen to be being honest and transparent. So many other Western democracies don’t have that. Our politicians should be using it.
And it’s even more vital to use TV now because of the rubbish spewing out across the internet. A Reuters Institute report last year, which surveyed people across 40 countries, found that only 23 per cent of the public trusted news they found on the internet. Note that that figure is pretty similar to the small percentage of people in this country who trust politicians.
So if politicians want to be trusted, just communicating through social media, and trying to bypass the so-called mainstream media like Channel Four or the BBC, which is what some of them are attempting, is not the way to go. That way too, they are only preaching to the converted and not reaching out to all voters.
Of course, some of you are thinking but if politicians do long interviews, they just get interrupted and attacked. There was a period during which, in my view, some leading television interviewers treated the grilling of a politician as some sort of game. Hours were spent preparing tricks and traps. But you the viewers, the voters, complained to us. You told us you thought it was unfair and unpleasant. I agree. There were times when I myself would shout at the screen or into the radio, ‘ For God’s sake, just let him speak.’ I’m not saying it never happens, but it shouldn’t happen. It was wrong and it undermined democratic debate in this country. If you see it happen on Channel Four, complain to me.
That’s not why politicians are not coming on TV now.
Victoria Derbyshire. Does she remind you of Jeremy Paxman? No. His style of interviewing and hers are quite different. For three years the Victoria Derbyshire show on the BBC investigated a huge range of problems concerning issues covered by the department of work and pensions, including really important problems like universal credit. And in that three year period not even a junior minister from that department agreed to come on once to answer the points made. Politicians will go on ‘News at Ten’ where they can give a short clip and be in control but they want to avoid the hard stuff.
They complain about sound bite politics but too often they won’t talk for longer than a sound bite.
Some of these bites are so short and repeated so endlessly that they become meaningless.
‘Brexit means Brexit.’
What would Plato have thought of this ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ It didn’t mean Brexit because we haven’t got Brexit. How useful to public debate was it just to keep repeating it.
Now some of my kinder colleagues told me things like this:
‘They don’t dare say anything because if they make one slip, it’s blown up in the social media.’
‘They feel they have too much to lose.’
‘They don’t dare show even a bit of leg.’
Hang on a minute. Politicians are genuinely brave people. Every day now when they go to work they risk being abused, attacked, murdered by terrorists or deranged extremists. Yet they’re afraid to tell the truth. That’s not good enough.
Here’s the truth about being a politician in the UK now.
‘Anyone could kill me at any time.’
Jess Phillips said that. She’s right. Sadly. So politicians literally risk death and they won’t come on TV and talk to Jon Snow. What’s the worst he’s going to do to you – dazzle you with his tie. Or did some of them mix him up with the other Jon Snow?
Here’s something that might surprise you. A lot of journalists think a lot of politicians are really admirable people.
‘Most MPs wanted to go into politics to make the world a better place.’
That’s the political journalist Isabel Hardman.
Genuinely, I think most journalists think most politicians have at least some good motivations.
We are not cynical about politicians. In fact, we probably believe them more often than we should. Do you remember when the government agreed in 2016 to take in 480 unaccompanied child refugees after a campaign by Lord Dubbs? I was the poor dupe who immediately commissioned a film in which we would follow those children. Over months and months, in fact, for more than a year, I kept harassing the production company about their failure to crack on with the project. I thought they were remiss. They kept saying to me, ‘ We can’t find any.’ It turned out they were not to blame at all. By November 2018 just 20 children came in under that scheme and 240 unaccompanied children were admitted in total.
How many times in recent years have journalists who worked for Channel Four told me in absolute indignation that they have discovered that a government announcement of a new sum of money or a new policy was really just the same sum of money or the same policy that had been announced months before? If these journalists were so cynical, they wouldn’t be so outraged. So please, all politicians, can you just be straight with us.
They can make it hard for us to do our jobs properly. A most annoying habit of ministers is to give broadcast interviews before they’ve released the full details of what they are talking about. Neil Merrick in the most recent edition of The Journalist cites a good example of this. Housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire gave early morning tv and radio interviews about plans to cut rough sleeping.
The interviews had to be based on what the government itself had told the journalists because the 77-page document containing the actual policy wasn’t available until later in the day The same happened the next day with a green paper on social housing. As Merrick says:
‘Ministers could sit back in the knowledge that the message had reached the right places in the way they wished and any subsequent scrutiny by journalists would not attract much attention.’
That should stop.
Conversely, nowadays when something goes wrong, some politicians just disappear.
When it was revealed that Christopher Grayling had given a ferry contract to a company that had no ferries, he disappeared and Matt Hancock had to answer questions. And then there were the new railway timetables. Where was Christopher Grayling when that went wrong? Stuck in the lost property office?
At times we have to go to ludicrous efforts to get interviews. When Cathy Newman was investigating allegations of sexual harassment against the Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard – allegations he denied – the only way she could get an interview with Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats was to ring into his LBC programme as ‘ Cathy from Dulwich’ and force him to take her questions live on air.
Here’s another technique politicians use. You have just one question. Could you imagine Plato saying, ‘You have just one question.’ You can see a great example of this when our Scotland correspondent Ciaran Jenkins interviewed Jeremy Corbyn about Europe. I was going to show it to you but it’s really boring because guess what, he got only one question and Corbyn didn’t answer it. It was a good question, ‘Do you honestly believe that Britain will be better off outside the EU. ?’ I just wish I could tell you the answer. Here’s my tip of the night. If you’re ever going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and get to phone a friend, don’t phone Jeremy Corbyn. You could lose a lot of money.
Of course, the most daring interview of last year was carried out by Richard Madeley. I began my TV career with Richard here at Granada Reports. He was interviewing Gavin Williamson and Richard did something every journalist has dreamed of. He terminated the interview when Williamson refused to answer his question about having told Russia to ‘shut up and go away’ over the Skripal poisoning.
Did you notice how even the elephant didn’t want to talk to Gavin Williamson? I thought of that interview when we heard Williamson was grilled over the security leak about Huawei. I imagined secret people and Theresa May all trying to get the truth out of him and Williamson saying,’ I must insist on expressing my very strong support for the nurses of this country.’
But even what you can see with your own eyes on TV can be misleading
Here’s what a top BBC person told me about quite a few press conferences you see;
‘Press conferences look real. The politician is on one side and the journalists are on the other but the chance of a question, which is not pre-arranged, being taken out of the blue by a journalist sitting there is very low.’
What’s scary here is that could be Russia we are talking about. The disturbing point is that it LOOKS like the way it used to be but it isn’t. It’s a visual lie.
Even in the recent past, our politicians were more openly accountable.
Blair, Brown, Cameron and Clegg held regular press conferences but not May and Corbyn. They might do a ten-minute interview with Andrew Marr or 15-minute interviews during conference but they don’t do a half hour or forty-five-minute interviews as politicians used to.
Journalists following the 2017 election complained that May and Corbyn did only one or two events a day. During the 1987 election, Thatcher and Kinnock chaired their own daily press conferences each morning. In the past during an election campaign, party leaders would do several full-length interviews. Both Milliband and Cameron did extensive interviews in their election campaigns.
During the whole European election campaign we have just had, neither May nor Corbyn did a substantial interview with any broadcaster. They didn’t even do interviews on the night of the results.
Now I know those results were embarrassing for them – but so what? Older politicians are appalled by what’s going on. As Ken Clarke said recently on Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s Podcast Ways to Change the World, under Thatcher and Major senior politicians were expected to go out and justify their policies at length.
Part of the job, I always thought.
He was right.
Now I wouldn’t be a journalist if I didn’t quote a man in a pub tonight. So here’s what a man in a pub said to me on Monday night:
They’re not really proper politicians any more.
Politicians need to control their gatekeepers, not round the other way. We all have gatekeepers. For example, I thought I might say some controversial things tonight and some of our press officers might be concerned. So I didn’t tell them what I was going to say. Problem solved. You could have done that Theresa. You are not a robot. You could be free too. People voted for YOU, not your spin-doctors.
Since Theresa May became Prime Minister, the longest interview she has done for Channel Four News is seven minutes.
But on a daily basis too, journalists are struggling to question politicians properly. Only pooled interviews are offered at times. Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Keir Starmer often offers only pooled interviews. That isn’t proper scrutiny. One journalist can’t ask questions for all journalists; the whole point is supposed to be the diversity of questioning. You may not be
Here’s something you need to know about British politician. If you do something they don’t like, they take it out on you.
There’s a phrase you’ll be familiar with.
THEY DON’T LIKE IT UP ‘EM.
Newsnight was refused all Labour front bench figures after Emma Barnett interviewed Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Bergon at the launch of the European election campaign. He didn’t like being accused of lying about some of his previously stated views on anti-Semitism – so the Labour Front Bench sent Newsnight to Coventry. I used to be a teacher, I never permitted my pupils to stop talking to each other. It would have been detention for Labour there. Even last Friday night, when Theresa May was forced out of her job, a perfect opportunity for a senior Labour figure to go on Newsnight, none of them would go.
Other parties engage in similar practices.
During a significant part of the 2017 Election campaign, Sky was banned from the Tory bus. They received no briefings, no interviews, and no questions were taken from that at press conferences.
Recently Channel Four News was banned from the Brexit bus. What is all this thing of politicians banning people from buses? I believe I am the only head of news in the UK who happens also to have been a licensed bus conductress. If I’d gone around behaving like politicians and throwing people off buses, Blackpool Corporation would have sacked me.
A couple of weeks ago, Nigel Farage didn’t like Andrew Marr asking him questions about his past. The little issue of his previous support for the relaxation of the law on handguns, for example.
Here’s what Farage said afterwards
‘The BBC are now the enemy.’
The enemy. The enemy of whom? Well, they are not the enemy of the people of Britain because the BBC is, in fact, is massively trusted by the British people. And you know all you had to do Nigel, was answer his questions. Asking you a question doesn’t make a man your enemy. And we’re not your enemies, we are the friends of democracy. Without free journalism, you can’t have democracy. Politicians should be supporting good journalism not attacking us. If trust is to be rebuilt in politics it is very important that politicians stop slagging journalists who are doing their jobs properly and start supporting journalism.
We journalists need to be sticking up for ourselves more. As well as my Channel Four day job, I’m the chair of an international charity the Ethical Journalism Network which supports journalists around the world who are trying to uphold good standards in sometimes very difficult circumstances.
History shows that when you want to undermine democracy, the first thing you have to do is undermine journalism. For Hitler, convincing the German people that journalists were liars was key. Round the world, whenever some evil regime wants to start murdering people, they start with murdering the journalists or imprisoning them or intimidating them. Criticise us when we get something wrong, don’t attack us for doing our job.
But it’s not just that politicians won’t debate with us, they won’t debate with each other. They regularly refuse to come on programmes with their opponents. In the last election, David Cameron wouldn’t appear on Channel Four and Sky with Ed Milliband, even although they were the two main rivals. We had to interview them separately. No offence meant to Ed Milliband but he’s not exactly scary is he. I’ve seen him in the street and small children didn’t run away.
It is remarkable to me that the Queen met Martin McGuiness but some of our politicians won’t meet each other. Prince Charles has even agreed to meet Donald Trump. I’d love to film that. I mean they won’t even be able to talk about the weather.
The struggle to stage TV debates has prompted one of the most ghastly and humiliating experiences of my career. One day I put on my best togs and went along on your behalf as my audience to see the Prime Minister’s director of Communication in Whitehall. I put the case for Channel Four to stage a TV debate. And this awful man puffed himself up pompously and told me, ‘I don’t think the best interests of the public would be served by the debate being on Channel Four.’ I looked at him and I thought, ‘I have to sit here and beg you and YOU are a crook!’ Because we all knew he was a crook. He was Andy Coulson, later jailed for 18 months for his role in phone hacking. After he refused me, he said, ‘ Would you like a biscuit?’ I declined his biscuit I went out and stood in Whitehall and I thought, ‘I just went to visit the office of the prime minister on behalf of a British public service broadcaster and a criminal offered me a biscuit. How did my country sink this low?’
I would just get rid of all these people. Prime ministers, government ministers, they should just have press officers who organise access to the press. Why are we paying for people who try to manipulate debate? What use are they in terms of public good? Frankly, Theresa May’s lot did her no favours at all anyway. And the lot who worked for Cameron were in the forefront of the campaign against Brexit. Another big success for PR men and spin-doctors there.
But it’s not just because I can’t stand spin doctors that I think TV news executives like me should have as little as possible direct contact with them, lobbyists and politicians. In my view, the more they know me, the more they will try to nobble me. I’m always hearing BBC news bosses complaining how over the years they were constantly rung up by people like Alastair Campbell. Well, why did you give him your phone number? Particular politicians and special interest groups shouldn’t be allowed too much access. Because YOU don’t get that special access and I’m supposed to represent your interests, not those of politicians. How can we be equally fair to everyone, if we meet and speak to just the few.
I was contacted a few years back by a Conservative peer. He told me that he and a group of his ‘friends’ had regular dinners with the head of BBC News and several of his top news executives. I asked him who he and his friends were, what group did he represent. He explained they were not a formal organisation but a group of people concerned that there should be fair coverage of Israel. They had got together because they were angry about some of the UK TV’s reporting of Israel and they’d like to meet me and tell me their views. I immediately told him I couldn’t spend my time meeting groups of men and their friends. Where would it end? I’d be out every night with men and their friends. So I wouldn’t be meeting him. Also, unlike the BBC, I didn’t have lots of executives. There was only me and I was a single parent so I didn’t have time to meet him. He was really not happy. He complained to my boss and I was told to get back onto him.
So I did. I said I’d thought about it very seriously and I had to make a decision. Would I meet him and his friends whoever they were or would I meet my own child? And I’d decided to meet my child. He said this outcome did not make him at all happy. I said, in contrast, I was very happy indeed.
But a few months later I got back in touch with him. I said he maybe thought I’d ignored his approach to me but au contraire. As a direct result of our contact, I’d commissioned a Dispatches programme which was about to be broadcast. Presented by Peter Oborne of the Daily Mail, it was called ‘ Britain’s Israel Lobby’ and I wanted to thank him for the idea because if he’d never got in touch, I’d never have commissioned the programme. That’s what TV executives should do when people try to lobby them. Expose them.
I’ve spent most of tonight saying politicians should be on TV more. But sometimes, they should be on TV less. I have heard a preposterous story that the BBC is devoting six one hour programmes to the presumably self-justifying biography of David Cameron. Did he win the Second World War and I missed it? They’re going to have an audience challenge on their hands there. I think some snappy programme titles will be needed and as the BBC are my colleagues, I’m happy to help.
Something akin to the way the Just William books are promoted feels apt.
Programme one, Dave and the Huskies. That picture could also be the publicity photo for the series as it’s always nice to see a posh boy and his hounds.
Programme two Dave saves Libya. Because that one turned out well.
Number three: Dave and Nick pal up. That partnership said everything about diversity in Westminster politics, didn’t it. Eton and Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge.
Next episode: Dave saves Scotland. Scotland does actually still exist as a country so that’s a big tick.
Then the best episode of all. Dave’s Big Brexit Brainwave.
And finally Dave: the Shepherd Caravan Years. But I wouldn’t end the series in his £25,000 caravan. I see the last scene as Dave and Michael Cockerell in their cozzies in his £8,000 outdoor jacuzzi in Padstow.
Cockerell turns to Dave and says, so what would you say was your greatest legacy? And they both look out at the sun setting over the United Kingdom. What will such a series cost? Maybe £1 million. Since the referendum campaign, it’s become fashionable to ask how a sum of money can be better spent. How could £1million be better spent than on a six-part TV biography of a politician? Almost anything probably.
And are they going to commission a series on Theresa May’s time in office? That title’s obvious. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
I’ve been a bit mean there so now, It’s time for a moment of criticism of TV journalism. There is an area where journalists need to sharpen up their act. At the start of this talk, I said a key reason we are trusted is that we are required by regulation to be duly impartial. Some of you may have missed that little word, ‘duly’. We don’t have to be impartial between truth and lies. In fact, our key job is, on your behalf, to tell the truth from the lies.
You may think you can do that without us. But at Channel Four (we gave a representative sample of 1,700 people six news stories – three of which were true and three false. Only four per cent of people identified them correctly. In many ways that’s not surprising, the public isn’t in a position to investigate the truth or otherwise of stories. That’s our central job. And partly because of pressure from politicians and lobbyists, TV journalists are not always doing it properly.
Here’s what a former senior BBC news executive said to me.
‘People with opinions and arguments have used the idea of impartiality to undermine the importance of accuracy.’
In the Referendum campaign, both sides talked tosh sometimes – look how duly impartial I’m being here – and they were sometimes allowed to get away with their tosh because some journalists thought it was their job to report tosh, not to expose it.
In Gary Gibbon’s excellent small book about the Referendum campaign, Breaking Point, he writes:
‘One broadcast journalist told me how his bulletins were strictly, almost to the second, timed so each campaign’s interview clips achieved perfect balance in each report. The bosses no doubt thought they were rigorously implementing impartiality but they were ducking their duties, abdicating in favour of a stopwatch.’
In coverage, journalists were often loathe to call out lies as actual lies.
One of the famous interviews of the campaign was that by the pro—Brexit Conservative Penny Mourdant. She announced on the Andrew Marr show that Turkey was definitely going to join the EU and the UK wouldn’t be able to stop them. In fact accession of a candidate state has to be approved unanimously by the council of the EU which is made up of representatives from each member state. Andrew Marr told her he found what she was saying ‘Strange’. It might have been strange, it was definitely untrue. And when politicians don’t tell the truth, we need to say it.
The obsession with impartiality is even more dangerous when it comes to science. When I worked at Granada, even although we knew smoking caused cancer, when we did a smoking story, we’d be told to get some bloke on saying it didn’t. That sort of bad science reporting has continued, in particular with MMR and, of course, climate change . I’ve made three films in total about the awful Andrew Wakefield, each one exposing him, starting in the late 1990s.
But others have given this ludicrous man space. Panorama, great as it is as a strand, broadcast a film back in 2002 with special access to Andrew Wakefield at work and home. Here’s what the BBC publicity said,
‘As parents continue to shun the controversial triple jab, despite mounting fears of a measles epidemic, Panorama asks how safe is MMR.’
Even then, we knew the answer, really safe. You didn’t need to make that programme. Seventeen years on from programmes like that, we’ve got a quarter of a million teenagers who didn’t get the MMR vaccine. Panorama shouldn’t have been at home with Andrew Wakefield, they should have been exposing him as we did so that he got struck off as a doctor. We must not report drivel.
Last week I heard John Humphreys say on Radio Four that everyone finally accepts climate change is happening. Hello John, most of us accepted that a LONG time ago. You know how the BBC found out. David Attenborough told them.
Imagine Galileo came along today and said that, contrary to what had been believed previously, the earth goes round the sun. Can you picture how the Today programme would cover it. They’d need to get an opposing viewpoint. The editor would demand, ‘ Get Nigel Lawson on’ Some innocent researcher would say, ‘ But Nigel Lawson isn’t a scientist. How about that Brian Cox from Manchester University? Can’t we get him? ‘ The editor scoffs. ‘He’s an astronomer, he’ll just agree with Galileo. The whole point is to have someone who says the opposite – and if he’s a Tory grandee, double whammy for the BBC.’
Our top priority as journalists should be telling the truth about science. Journalists have failed just as politicians have failed. Science students of Manchester University. Please enter our profession urgently. Your nation needs you.
Our democracy is facing some critical issues and politicians and journalists are going to need to work together to sort them.
I started my journalistic career on a local paper in East London, the Waltham Forest Guardian. It had nearly 100 pages. We covered every major council meeting and all the planning meetings. Local papers have been decimated by the internet. Without local journalism, you can’t have a properly functioning local democracy. This is a democratic crisis. Now, local councils are reporting on themselves. Politicians all over this country are reporting themselves.
But there is a huge threat looming over our whole democratic system – and politicians need to get a grip. Because it’s been journalists, very notably Channel Four, The Observer and the New York Times but others too, who have had to take the lead here.
IQ Elections fought less and less on the doorsteps and hustings ….OQ ‘watch it grow’.
Our democratic systems need to be strengthened to deal with this threat.
As Carol Cadwallader of The Observer has said, ‘ What happens to democracy when 100 years of electoral laws are disrupted by technology?’
Across Europe in the EU elections, we have just had, Russian disinformation websites and social media accounts linked to Russia and far-right groups have been spreading disinformation. Researchers have identified tactics and fingerprints similar to those seen in the 2016 US elections. People are talking about whether we might have an election soon ourselves, how will we know if the public will be properly informed and that election will be fairly fought?
Here’s a scary statement about what the external enemies of our democracies are up to.
‘The goal here is bigger than one election. It is to constantly divide, increase distrust and undermine our faith in institutions and democracy itself,’
Daniel Jones, Advance Democracy, former FBI analyst and senate investigator.
Both politicians and journalists will have to rise to the enormous challenges we face.
But meanwhile we’ve got the pleasure of the Conservative leadership hustings to look forward to. And I’ve got a great idea for how they should run them. Here’s the form I suggest.
‘A form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions.’
Yes, you spotted it. The Socratic Method. Now wouldn’t that be refreshing . But don’t hold your breath.