Twitter is not always the best medium for exchanging ideas. I use it, but only as notification platform because I see on it people who I once admired behave in a way that erases nearly all respect. Intelligent individuals make comments they would regret if they had been texts to friends, let alone messages to the whole world. People who once seemed judicious in their judgements behave – at best – like scolds, desperately attempting to correct the world for not holding precisely the same views as themselves.
Yet the social media platform does have an ability to highlight at fast speed some problems that are only noticeable at a slower rpm in the real world — one of which is the uncomfortable, ever-vanishing line between comment and journalism. While this blurring is not a completely new phenomenon, Twitter does have an ability to highlight as well as speed along cultural shifts.
Earlier this week there was a fine example of this trend. As news of Boris Johnson’s successful Conservative Party election victory broke, Lewis Goodall – Sky’s Political Correspondent – tweeted a photo of a television autocue with the caption “So great to share a set with Black Mirror today”.
So great to share a set with Black Mirror today. pic.twitter.com/lhQYQjhjqO
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) July 23, 2019
For those unfamiliar with it, Black Mirror is a Netflix series created by the former Guardian journalist Charlie Brooker featuring various dystopian fantasy futures. There is not very much for Goodall or anyone else to gain from this observation. It is possible that some people saw it and gave a snort of appreciation. Perhaps somebody somewhere actually laughed. But it is unlikely that anyone is still roaring, days later, at the brilliance and perceptiveness of the observation. So, like most things on social media, the short-term gain is not worth the cost. For a cost there is, paid in public trust even if not by the individual tweeter.
Unplug the outrage machine
If broadcasters still cared about the editorial independence of their employees, then comments like this would not be made by their journalists. For they further reveal what most of the public have come to suspect – that broadcasters presenting themselves as non-partisan in fact hold very clear political views and that these usually veer in a particular direction. Most, for instance, tend not to be enthusiastic Leave voters who secretly admire Prime Minister Boris Johnson and occasionally let this truth slip.
Of course, people have always harboured their suspicions, but not until journalists began to freely give away their thoughts on social media was such a smorgasbord of evidence presented.
For years, Gavin Esler was the apparently impartial presenter of many leading BBC political shows, including Newsnight, holding people to account whatever his own views. This was back when we viewers did not have access to a presenter’s opinions. Instead we would have to guess from throwaway remarks or the way they might interview one person compared with another.
After the Brexit vote, however, it became clear that Esler had exceptionally strong views about British membership of the EU, and then, in April, of this year he announced his membership and candidacy for the pro-Remain “Change UK” Party. In a speech at its launch and in subsequent media appearances, the man who had only recently been presented as impartial on our television screens turned out to be as partial as it was possible to be. Indeed, some of his political interventions could legitimately be described as “foam-flecked”.
The dangers of post-truth journalism
Are the public to pretend that Gavin Esler pre-2019 was a different beast from the Gavin Esler of this year? Or do we presume that he always held certain views and only really broke out when there was a chance to express them while standing – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – as a candidate for the European Parliament?
Esler may have broken cover, but by following a number of broadcasters on Twitter, particularly BBC and Sky broadcasters, it is now clear that the barrier is eroding for everyone. When Goodall sent his Black Mirror tweet, the journalist Tim Montgomerie (formerly of this parish) tweeted “Throughout Sky News we have pundits posing as reporters. Neither Sky execs or OfCom seem to give a damn.”
In response, Goodall’s Sky News colleague Kay Burley went for Montgomerie herself: “You’re an absolute disgrace to our profession,” she tweeted. “Seriously.” It was, as Montgomerie went on to say, a pretty unprofessional response in itself, but he was right – there is something strange about this whole game.
Partly it is so eroding to public trust because it all goes in one direction. On one single occasion in recent years has a television presenter let slip a view that did not fall into lock-step with the narrow orthodoxies of the broadcasting class. When Politics Live presenter Andrew Neil sent out one tweet last year mocking the increasingly conspiratorial Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, he not only deleted the tweet but himself immediately became a news story. There were swift calls for his sacking, and the BBC felt compelled to publicly chastise Neil. As it happens, despite being almost uncontested as the country’s leading political interviewer, Neil no longer has a regular slot on the BBC.
On Brexit, Auntie just can't help herself
The incident stands out partly because it is so unusual for a broadcaster not to go in one predictable direction, but also because it was clear that a price must only be paid when the opinions are the “wrong” ones. And yet the breaking of the “fourth wall”, the one which meant impartial broadcasters once refrained from veering into personal political expression, has had a damaging effect on broadcast journalism.
Just observing what a broadcaster like Emily Maitlis chooses to retweet tells me more than I want to know about her own political views. Of course, these retweets go in the usual direction, and, of course, it bothers me not a jot where those views differ from my own – the trouble is that they begin to colour the rest of the work.
So, when Rod Liddle appeared on Newsnight last week and was roundly harangued (indeed rather basely insulted) by Maitlis I did not think “What a tough interview”. I had seen the sort of things Maitlis tweeted and retweeted in recent months and then – in the Newsnight studio – simply saw the same set of views played out in another form. There was no mystery anymore, no separation between the impartial interviewer and the opinionated tweeter.
Will this have an impact? My guess is that it already has, and when the media complain about disappearing levels of trust in our profession, it is worth remembering that we only have ourselves to blame.