Nothing better illustrated the point of Dorothy Byrne’s lecture than the warped coverage of Boris Johnson in Europe, writes Dani Garavelli
The timing of last week’s MacTaggart Lecture could not have been more serendipitous.
As Channel 4 head of news and current affairs, and newly-crowned Queen of the Sisterhood, Dorothy Byrne, picked up a sling-shot and hit a succession of media Goliaths, including James Murdoch, squarely between the eyes, a squad of broadcast and print journalists appeared to have embarked on a mission to demonstrate the acuity of her take-down and the urgency of her message.
Where to start? On Radio 4, where John Humphrys and David Davis were chortling like schoolboys over an act of domestic violence? Or on C4, where a new reality TV show starring Scarlett Moffatt is gearing up to exploit a Namibian tribe while ostensibly exploring a clash of cultures?
Maybe we should take a look at the front page of the Daily Mail where an equivalence was being drawn between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s trip in Elton John’s private plane and Prince Andrew’s long-standing friendship with the late child sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein? Or other headlines on websites which suggested a 17-year-old “was forced to lose her virginity” to the former multi-millionaire. Christ, how many times? IT’S RAPE, you troglodytes.
However discomfiting these examples may be, they have nothing on the disingenuous coverage of Boris Johnson’s encounters with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. I mean, we could all see him sitting beside Merkel as protesters screamed “Liar” and “Stop Brexit”; we could all see him stick his feet up on Macron’s side table like a self-entitled brat (except – wait – that turned out to be fake news as it later emerged he was merely playing along with a Macron joke).
The most inexperienced of analysts would have understood that turning up in Berlin with bluster and braggadocio, but no actual plan B was hardly a masterstroke; and that Merkel and Macron’s agreement to give him a month to come up with a (non-existent) alternative was just a tactic to keep him occupied while they get on with important affairs of state.
And yet the Express and the Telegraph – cheerleaders for the worst Prime Minister in history – presented his bilateral talks as a triumph. The Express carried a photo of him raising his arms behind a fence with the headline “Brexit Victory Salute”, as if he were Winston Churchill giving his “Finest Hour” speech rather than a floppy-haired fop back from a European jolly. The Telegraph went with the headline “Johnson Demands Fresh Border Plan” (spoiler; he didn’t) while columnists lined up to explain how he had seen off Macron’s attempts to intimidate him and had reset the EU negotiations. Neither paper pointed out that Macron reiterated that the Irish backstop was “indispensable” and that this is the position they have held ever since Theresa May’s withdrawal deal was negotiated.
Their spin – or as Byrne would doubtless prefer us to frame it, “lie” – would be troubling at the best of times; but as we are hurtling towards a No Deal, it is utterly irresponsible. At a time when journalists should be pointing out the perils of his misplaced ebullience, many are egging him on, feeding his self-delusion.
In her MacTaggart Lecture, Byrne called out the inadequacy of much of our current news coverage and scrutinised some of the reasons for it. She blamed our contemporary leaders – May, Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – for refusing to submit themselves to scrutiny as previous leaders including Margaret Thatcher did, and went on to compare the way Johnson does his own pieces to camera as Vladimir Putin-style politics.
But she also castigated news organisations for believing audiences no longer crave forensic investigations and for talking down to young people. Citing Carole Cadwalladr’s Facebook/Cambridge Analytica investigation and the popularity of hard-hitting podcasts, she said there was still an appetite for in-depth exposés, although she didn’t point out that they require resources as well as courage – and that such resources are not widely available.
Finally, Byrne talked fearlessly about the need for more diversity: for more women, certainly but much more pressingly for more BAME employees. Although she rejected the phrase “pale, male and stale”, pointing out that many middle-aged white men make excellent programmes, she said TV made by a clique of posh boys was never going to challenge the status quo. “When you change who is making TV, you change TV,” she said.
Much of what Byrne raised, we see in action every day; the cabal of male presenters who revel in their outmoded attitudes (think Humphrys’ normalisation of the man who punched his wife during the World Tango Championships). And the courting of a younger demographic with nattily-dressed presenters, bite-sized news items and YouTube influencers when what many of those who are politically engaged want is to be confronted with new perspectives on giant issues such as climate change. There are exceptions, of course: Jon Snow stands out as a journalist willing to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, and Five Live journalist Emma Barnett has earned a reputation for skewering political interviewees.
But time and time again, especially in panel shows and radio phone-ins, broadcasters yield to the demand of false balance, treating journalism as a stand-off between two opposing sides rather than a quest for truth.
Nor is BBC Scotland immune to these problems; though much of the new channel’s output has been admirable, it is still overwhelmingly white. Meanwhile, The Nine has twice invited alt-right mouthpiece Brendan O’Neill to spout his anti-scientific climate change-denying views. Shouldn’t we be better than this?
As the spectre of a no-deal Brexit casts its increasingly dark shadow, there does appear to be a collective raising of the game. Over the past week or so, the BBC has been running a series of news packages analysing what a no-deal Brexit might mean in terms of the supply of fuel and medicine and the slaughter of animals that can no longer be exported.
But as Byrne says, whatever happens with Brexit, our country is undergoing seismic changes and our broadcasters must do much more if they are to play a crucial role in holding those responsible to account. “We must find courage in this time of crisis,” the Scot said. “We must unite to use the power of television to protect democracy because it is being seriously undermined.” The following day, the Express gave its default response, which was to refer to “an online backlash” invisible to all but them.
As Johnson engages in some pre-US trade talk willy-waving – insisting he will tell the US president “the NHS is not on the table” – Byrne’s rallying cry could not be more relevant. As men who couldn’t be trusted to tie their own shoelaces set the global agenda, the public is being failed. We need journalists to be less cowed. But we also need broadcasting companies to be willing to take risks, and newspaper owners to be interested in the actual news. And we need this to happen sooner rather than later. Because the hour of reckoning is nigh.