Brexit, Trump and the media

05 Jul 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Brexit, Trump and the media

With the dust still far from settling, Raymond Snoddy examines what has been a tumultuous 12 months for politics and media organisations

Following Brexit, Trump and the June general election, Nick Robinson, the Today presenter and former BBC political editor, is in contrite mood - along with a host of other mainstream journalists and broadcasters.

“We didn’t get it right. We didn’t see it coming. We must try harder. That is where any assessment of the media’s reporting of Brexit and Trump and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn should begin. With humility,” Robinson argues.

He is writing in a new book out this week: Brexit, Trump and the Media, which also has a section on the general election and features 56 contributions - from Nigel Farage and Lord Jim O’Neill, to Mark Thompson, chief executive of the New York Times.

Robinson’s mea culpa includes guilty pleas to everything from spending too much time in the campaign bubble to concentrating too much on the campaign horse race often to the exclusion of helping voters to understand the issues.

“In the old media world many of us grew up in everyone knew their place - it was the media equivalent of Downtown Abbey. Today’s media world is more like Breaking Bad,” Robinson says, lamenting the fact that across the Western World, including the UK, a key part of political strategy is to convince people not to believe “the news” served up by the MSM - the mainstream media.

Where attacks on the media were once lazy devices to get easy applause at party conferences, now “a guerrilla war is being fought on social media, day after day hour after hour.”

For Robinson, part of the solution is to re-make the case for impartiality from first principles.

“The lesson of Trump, Brexit and the 2017 election is that we can and must fight to convince a new generation that all you read and watch and listen to is not the same. Yes, we get things wrong. Yes, we can do better. Yes, we have lots to learn but we do not come to work to make the case for a party, a leader or a cause. Our job is to report, to investigate, question, analyse and explain,” Robinson insists.

Academics from Cardiff University, Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis, note that roughly equal broadcast time between Labour and the Conservatives helped Labour defy initial poll predictions. But journalists still under-estimated Corbyn’s appeal, May’s weaknesses and support for an anti-austerity agenda, and misunderstood the strength of feeling among younger people.

Cardiff researchers found a heavy reliance on vox pops and live two-ways, both informed by journalistic and editorial judgement and which tended to question the suitability of Corbyn as a leader rather than using evidence to interrogate the issues.

Professor Ivor Gaber, journalism professor at Sussex University and former BBC investigative journalist, criticises the BBC’s “balance of facts” in the referendum campaign which turned out a phony balance on the main bulletins.

Gaber cites two telling examples. On the day before the Brexit vote 1,280 business leaders signed a letter to The Times backing EU membership. The BBC “balanced” the letter with a quote from one entrepreneur Sir James Dyson, whose Leave views had already been reported two weeks earlier.

The BBC, Gaber also notes, failed to mention that Sir James had moved some of his production not just out of the UK but out of the EU to Malaysia.

Another example of the “phony balance” came on 10 June when 10 Nobel prize-winning economists warned of the dangers of Brexit and were balanced by quotes from just one economist, Professor Patrick Minford whose views had also been used earlier in the campaign by the BBC.

“As eminent as Professor Minford might be, didn’t the absence of any other leading economist supporting the Leave campaign ring even the tiniest of alarm bells at New Broadcasting House?” Gaber asks.

The BBC, Gaber argues, is still by far the most trusted source of impartial news in the UK and has to be defended but that defence is easier when the defending is clearly merited. There is a need for more good journalism and less phony balance, he believes.

Unsurprising the BBC’s top editorial policy executives David Jordan and Ric Bailey put the case for the defence and the fact that a majority of both Remain and Leave voters believe BBC coverage was fair and balanced.

They reject the idea that the concept of impartiality needs to be revisited, although the guidelines will be reviewed as they always are “because that is precisely the requirement of judging the ‘due’ in ‘due impartiality.”

The only truly happy note for the pollsters - apart perhaps for the Mail on Sunday poll by Survation which picked up the extent to which Labour was closing the gap with the Tories - was the performance on election night by Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University.

The Curtice exit poll for broadcasters enabled the BBC, ITV and Channel 5 - Channel 4 did not take part - to reveal to startled politicians at 10pm that although Mrs May would lead the largest party she would not have an overall majority.

Curtice reveals in detail how he does it, including offering exiting voters a “secret” ballot with cod ballot boxes. A lot of artistry is still involved in choosing which polling stations to target and how to allow for postal voters and those who still decline to take part despite the privacy guarantee.

Across to Trumpland and Bill Dunlop, president of Eurovision Americas, argues that American newspapers and television networks were in the doldrums and struggling and then along came Donald J. Trump. Dunlop sets out how the mainstream media created President Trump and how now in turn Trump hostility is saving the media.

Trump got unparalleled free, largely uncritical television exposure at the outset.

As CBS chairman Les Moonves put it: “Who would have thought this circus would come to town? It may not be good for America but it’s damn good for CBS. The money is rolling in and this is fun. Bring it on, Donald, keep going.”

It was much less fun when the media woke up belatedly to what they had done - that the colourful, maverick candidate could actually win.

The mainstream media turned against Trump and Trump ended the campaign with open contempt for journalists.

Dunlop concludes that from the ratings grab of the early days to the misjudgement over the election outcome the record of the media was not great.

Now the American media is once again fulfilling the role of fourth arm of the system of checks and balances.

“More than any other single factor, it was the mainstream media that turned Donald Trump into a credible political force. Now Donald Trump is returning the favour, giving the mainstream, media new life as a credible, robust and truly essential journalistic force,” says Dunlop.



(Raymond Snoddy is a contributor and co-editor of 'Brexit, Trump and the Media' edited John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait. Published by Abramis on 6 July.)

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