‘Brexit,Trump and the Media’ was launched at a Media Society event at the Groucho Club in London on 5th July 2017. The book is published by Abramis academic publishing and edited by John Mair,Tor Clark,Neil Fowler,Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait. It covers the 2016 EU referendum in Britain, the 2016 US Presidential election and the 2017 British General Election. There are over 50 contributions from journalists, academics and campaigners such as the self-proclaimed ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’, Andy Wigmore and Jack Montgomery, who give a four point guide to ‘how you manipulate the media as an outsider’ using the tactics they and Trump used.
At the launch I was on a panel which discussed the book and the implications.These are my speaking notes:
This is a terrific book, my congratulations to the editor and the authors, many of whom are here tonight.
I’ve got four points to make at this stage:
Point number one.
This book is a ‘mea culpa’ by journalists and journalism. Probably it is the biggest ‘mea culpa’ of recent times. Nick Robinson of BBC News says ‘We didn’t get it right on Brexit. We didn’t see it coming. We must try harder’. Dan Martin of the Western Mail in Cardiff is quoted as saying ‘with hindsight, I should have spoken to more of our readers about Brexit and fewer politicians’. James Mates of ITV News talks about the long-term lack of proper coverage of the EU as ‘a failure of journalism’. ‘An epic fail’ is how the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan described American coverage of Donald Trump.
In his introduction to the book Jon Snow goes as far as offering to take some of the blame for not spotting the populism that would take Trump to power, after witnessing him in action in a sports hall in North Carolina. We’ll let you off on that one Jon. Then of course, the day Britain like America produced an unexpected election result, Snow humbled himself on air: “I know nothing. We the media, the pundits and experts, know nothing.” I wonder if it wasn’t so much that we knew nothing, but that we thought we knew better than the voters. For some the failure of the coverage of Brexit and Trump was that they didn’t forecast the outcome, but for others it was the outcome that was the failure.That they didn’t get the result they wanted.
Traditionally we frame these big electoral moments as left versus right or remain versus leave. But academics such as Professor John Curtice encourage us to see them more as, for instance, socially liberal versus socially conservative or, as Professor Eric Kaufman intriguingly concludes from his research, people who want their kids to be ‘considerate’ versus those who want them to be ‘well-behaved’. In media terms I see it as conventional tribal wisdoms against challenger populist brands.
Point Number Two.
One obvious cause of the ‘failure’ in journalism on Brexit was the so-called London media bubble. This is best observed in the book by an outsider, Diana Zimmerman of the German public television network ZDF. Out of London she found ‘very often not a single person had anything positive to say about the EU and believed it was responsible for all problems facing the UK’. Back in the capital she would ‘soak up the predominantly pro-European sentiment, and the analyses by political economists that ‘people will always vote for economic security’.
But at least she can say: ‘Whenever I returned to London from these trips I gave a truthful report of how it seemed increasingly unlikely that the UK would remain in the EU’.
How many British television and radio reporters can say that they did the same? Which takes us to my next point.
Point Number Three
Professor Jay Blumler writes that ‘the broadcasters’ news coverage sometimes seemed to have been governed less by ‘due impartiality’ than by ‘impartiality carried to an extreme’! We do all seem are a bit confused about what the requirement for due impartiality in British broadcasting means in practice.
Here’s an example from the Brexit referendum campaign coverage. It is from Jamie Angus, then Editor of the Today programme, talking on the Radio 4 Media Show in June last year. Asked by Steve Hewlett ‘What do the BBC guidelines require you to do?’. Angus replied: ‘Well the BBC has signed up rightly to provide both sides in the referendum with equal airtime, fair treatment and the ability to get their campaign messages across without favour to one side or another’.
But what did the BBC guidelines actually say? ‘Guideline 3.1 Broad balance’ says:
‘Due impartiality is not necessarily achieved by the application of a simple mathematical formula or a stopwatch, but the objective – in a referendum with two alternatives – must be to achieve a proper balance between the two sides’. In the book David Jordan and Ric Bailey of the BBC say ‘Contrary to received wisdom, there is no general set of onerous rules corseting the broadcasters into a ‘false balance’, thus enforcing perfect equality of time’.My own experience is that this particular conventional wisdom was very conventional inside the BBC.
Point Number Four
In his chapter Gary Gibbon, Political Editor of Channel Four News says of the Vote Leave campaign;‘Dominic Cummings has written of how broadcast journalists in particular didn’t have a clue what his campaign was up to mining data on voters and to this day don’t have the newsroom skills to keep up with modern campaign methods. He may have a point’. Gibbon’s own view was that ‘the EU Referendum was a contest like no other: conducted in unique times by unconventional political forces and driven by data not used to the same extent before. The broadcast media coverage, I think it’s true to say, didn’t keep up’. He has a point too.