Nick Robinson told some awkward truths about Britain’s broadcasting media in the inaugural Steve Hewlett Lecture on Thursday: above all the need for them to up their game by defending impartiality and engaging ‘dissident’ voices. He captured the excitement and confusion of the great debate about ‘whose side the media is on’ which comes from the mainstream media swimming in the same ocean of facts, half-facts and ‘alt facts’ as all comers in the era of the Internet, smart phone and self-broadcasting apps like Periscope.
Nick painted a warts-and-all picture of the BBC, its evolution and enduring role as the number one source of news for people in Britain, and a punchbag for politicians and all who feel the media doesn’t speak to ‘people like me’. He called for a re-think by broadcasters of how to re-gain the trust and attention of ‘those who see themselves as fighting against the establishment’, like Scot Nats, Ukip-ers, Corbynites or Greens, by giving more airtime to their arguments and challenging them, too.
He questioned the media’s slowness to recognise recent groundswells in the public mood over the effects of immigration (UKIP), austerity (Corbynism) and social neglect (Grenfell Tower). For him the right responses by the BBC include setting higher targets for getting young and diverse audiences to follow its programmes, not setting rigid new targets for the backgrounds of those getting jobs at the BBC. He also urged the media to answer critics more robustly by defending its editorial decisions in public and admitting honestly when mistakes are made. Nick Robinson landed some good punches in his defence of quality journalism.
Point one: The BBC had ‘a bad referendum’
But he stayed clear of the biggest minefield of all for the media: the Brexit referendum. Judged by Nick’s own golden rule of journalism — ‘probe it, probe it, probe it’, he said – the BBC and much of the mainstream media is widely judged to have failed to challenge and expose the fallacies and simplistic arguments advanced by both sides in the 2016 referendum campaign. The BBC faced cogent criticisms for setting ‘impartiality rules’ which made a nonsense of the referendum debate, and for lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues at stake which became painfully obvious among many journalists as well as politicians on air.
Only much later, as the true consequences of Brexit have become plain to see, have the BBC and other mainstream media got round to researching in depth and informing the nation about the daunting complexities, and the national pain that will be caused by the politically botched referendum and the UK’s ‘accidental’ departure from the EU. A telling fact is that British voters said they were no better informed at the end of the long and furious campaign than they had been at the start.
For me one of the best bits of journalism on Brexit was in fact Robinson’s own two-part BBC TV documentary Europe: ‘Them’ or ‘Us’? shown in April 2016. It traced the main lines of the British people’s ambivalent attitudes to Europe and how they played out in the political chess game of Britain’s entry and its often uncomfortable years as an EU member state.
Point two: Explaining complexity
Robinson’s lecture highlighted the risk of serious journalism getting squeezed out by social media echo chambers, filter bubbles and algorithms that favour clickbait. And he rightly claimed that the BBC has taken a lead in tackling difficult subjects and setting up specialist units headed by outstanding journalists as ‘editors’ for home, security, business and other parts of the news agenda.
But this important lecture only whetted the appetite for more discussion and fresh ideas about how media, especially broadcast media, can do a better job in explaining vital and complex Issues of our times in ways that ‘inform, educate and entertain’ (in Lord Reith’s timeless phrase) – especially when people increasingly demand to get their information in bite-sized chunks on smartphones and other small screens.
Here are some examples of important news stories where the full facts are hidden or contested by vested interests and the media have struggled to report them:-
Russia’s ‘stealthy’ occupation of Crimea in 2014: should our media have been able to expose what was really going on much sooner than they did?
The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of half a million Rogingya people in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Was former Australian premier Kevin Rudd right to point to provocations by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as a significant factor in the unfolding conflict?
Closer to home, were survivors of the Grenfell tower inferno and others right to ask media figures who went to the area to report the aftermath of the disaster: ‘Where were you before?’
Will UK and EU citizens lose significant guarantees of their rights if the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK is ended?
Why has it taken so long for us to be told that Facebook allowed a Russia-based ‘influence operation’ to buy a massive amount of advertising to promote inflammatory political and social messages during the US presidential election campaign?
Such complex questions deserve considered and well-researched answers. But they point to the extraordinary challenge for would-be quality media to muster the resources and skills to report adequately on the fast-moving world we live in – its conflicts, its politics, its human stories, and its infinite online demensions.
To be continued…