December 30, 2017

The bulk of this article is written by UnHerd’s Editor, Tim Montgomerie but, near the top, it includes the contribution to our under-reported series of the former Labour MP Gisela Stuart.

Some of you might be scratching your head at the title of this entry to UnHerd’s under-reported series. Wasn’t our argument that blanket coverage of these two events had driven other stories, events and trends to the margin of news bulletins and newspapers? I can’t deny it. It was and is. But, as the contribution from Gisela Stuart (below) sets out, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. The huge media coverage of both Britain’s vote to leave the EU and of America’s most controversial president of modern times has been partial in key respects.

Gisela Stuart stands alongside Michael Gove and Boris Johnson during her leading role in the cross-party campaign to take Britain out of the EU.(Photo by Mary Turner – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Let’s start with Gisela Stuart’s argument – which is focused on Brexit:

“If you are nurturing ambitions to win a gold medal in the 100m sprint, then don’t waste your money on a book which claims to tell you how to win a gold medal. Wrong question! Go for one which tells you how to run faster than anyone else – because, if you do, you will win that gold medal.

Asking the wrong question, or putting answers into the wrong context has been a feature of most of post-Brexit referendum reporting. It’s all been about what will happen if we don’t do this or that. Looming gloom and disaster is prefixed as simply not yet having come to pass. Good news is framed as being an act of Brexit defiance.

This is our chance of national renewal and rewriting rules in peace time conditions. Some things we have not addressed because we could overcome structural difficulties with short-term fixes e.g. our skills shortage and lack of productivity. Others, we had subcontracted much of the legislation and the debate to EU level e.g. worker’s rights, agriculture & fisheries, animal welfare, regional policy.

Our newspapers should be overflowing with reports on how this massive return of power should not just happen at Westminster, but be devolved to our cities and regions. That it is not, is a reflection of an amazingly illiberal liberal elite, which dismisses everything that does not fit into its preconceived mindset as being simply “delusional”.”

I can’t speak for Gisela but at least for me – and her text doesn’t contradict my analysis – the bias in Brexit coverage is not necessarily ideological (although it’s contributory). The biases are of the kind emphasised within the audio documentary on media short-termism that I presented in UnHerd’s first week. I argued then that a news industry that is hooked on Twitter, on serving rolling 24/7 news channels and beating daily newspaper rivals to scoops should not be allowed to allowed to set a nation’s agenda. Yes, accountability through the fourth estate is central in a functioning democracy but it shouldn’t become too powerful and so end up discouraging long-term planning by politicians, business people and even football managers. Interestingly, Justin Webb of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme appeared to sympathise when I interviewed the interviewer for the audiodoc. He half-joked that once Cabinet ministers and other politicians had appeared in the hot seat opposite him or his early morning co-interrogators, they should switch off TV/ radio/ social media feeds for the rest of the day and concentrate single-mindedly on the hard grind of making the government machine function.

In the coverage of Brexit across written and broadcast media, three of the biases that are effectively hardwired into nearly every branch of today’s current affairs industry are particularly evident (and exist almost regardless of any political disposition):

  • There’s the short-termism, exacerbated by the introduction of numerous intra-day deadlines in bids to stay ahead in the hyper-competitive internet culture;
  • There’s negativity because – as encapsulated in the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ maxim – shock and anxiety (often sourced from quotable and not especially authoritative contacts) will always shift more copies or attract more eyeballs than nuance or balance;
  • And constant speculation because ‘scoop’ remains an average journalist’s favourite word – partly because more careers take off or become remembered for exclusives than because of thorough briefing-style reporting.

If you don’t believe my ‘tomorrow’s fish’n’chip paper’ assessment, I recommend you go back – randomly – to a podcast, newspaper front page or, eg, Channel 4 package from almost any time in the last few months and a high proportion of the revisited output is now largely or completely irrelevant – overtaken by real events within the UK-EU divorce process. I’m reminded of Lionel Shriver’s words within her confession of her very serious news addiction: “All the time and energy we squander on transitory, trivial shifts in governmental power, strategy, and policy might be devoted to learning about other places and other spheres.” Allan Mallinson suggested a lot more reading of history.

Fortunately the public hasn’t entirely succumbed to the media’s time frame for making pre-judgements. In one of the more interesting survey results from the last year…

  • Ipsos-MORI found that nearly twice as many Brits thought Brexit would be bad for the economy over the next five years as expected it to be good.
  • Over a longer time frame, however, of a decade or two there was a small lead for believing Britain would end up being better off.

While many in the media might give the impression that quarterly economic data or a run of clever parliamentary performances matter enormously, a large proportion of too-busy-just-managing-to-worry-about-every-twist-and-turn audiences are focused on the horizon. This must partly explain the relative stability seen in the regular revisiting of the Leave or Remain question by opinion poll companies.

‘Fake news is an exaggerated problem’ is the argument made in this short UnHerd video. The bigger problem is the excessive short-termism, negativity, hunger for controversy and over-focus on politics (rather than technology, culture, religion and other upstream powers) that arises when democracies, markets and societies become excessively fascinated by news and end up serving its neophilia.

If coverage of Brexit has been lop-sided, failing to serve what Gisela believes is “our chance of national renewal and rewriting rules in peace time conditions” (a chance which helps to explain why so many non-voters actually went to the polls in June 2016), there is also a case to made that the media’s approach to Trump has also been fundamentally unsatisfactory. Again (although in his piece for UnHerd today, Senator Tom Cotton enjoys a dig at the difficult-to-contest biases of his country’s rich, coastal media elites), let’s put aside questions of political bias for today and examine biases in underlying methods of the trade – biases worsened by the way new tech has joined previously isolated and therefore more independent-minded reporters together, encouraging herd-like thinking (as persuasively argued by Jonathan Dimbleby). An intervention by Niall Ferguson in September was especially insightful. In remarks to Mark Mardell on The World This Weekend, the historian noted disproportionate attention to what America’s current president says rather than what his administration does. While his Tweets are often repellent and invariably hard to completely ignore, they often don’t lead to any action. A focus on what Mr Trump says with his 280 character platform comes at the expense of what he is doing (or not doing) through his administration’s control of Washington machine. And it’s not irrelevant that hiring pundits to talk about Tweets is much cheaper than employing notebook-and-pen, hard-yards beat/ overseas/ specialist portfolio reporters.

The recording of Professor Ferguson is reproduced below.

Last year I gave up Newsnight. The PM programme was jettisoned as a new year resolution twelve months ago. In the second half of this year I’ve largely given up Marr. I no longer rush to read papers but wait instead for Tweeters I respect to recommend OpEds, features, investigations. It’s an application of the Sopranos approach to time management. I’ve never bought DVD box-sets until consensual reviews are in. It means I’m often late to fashions but I’m increasing the amount of time I can give to books, research, conversation and – I should acknowledge – podcasts. I hope this broader immersion allows me to see the faults of the news industry and makes me a more informed, balanced citizen. There are some very good things happening in journalism and I’m publishing a short guide to them later in the week. But it’s also a worrying time. Trump is attacking the media because he knows its unpopular and, almost uniquely, not much more trusted than him. Even Britain’s BBC could only muster trust from 45% of voters in its reporting of 2017’s general election.

One of the most extraordinary features of the post-Brexit and post-Trump world is how little the media has changed the way it operates (although some are definitely trying). The FT and WSJ are two of the worst offenders in this regard – and I’ll be writing more about both on Wednesday as this under-reported series continues.

***

Introduction to this Under-reported series.

Summary guide to all under-reported articles in this series.

Comment


To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, join UnHerd.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up