The cost of normalising extreme and false ideas

08 Aug 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The cost of normalising extreme and false ideas

Blair Cottrell with former NT chief minister Adam Giles

From inviting neo-Nazis on to news shows to the BBC's problem of achieving balance, there is a worrying trend of extreme views being elevated by broadcast media, writes Raymond Snoddy

Few in the UK will have heard of Sky News Australia's political editor David Speers but he said something very interesting on air following a huge row over the appearance of an Australian neo-Nazi on the Adam Giles Show at the weekend.

There was little doubt about the neo-Nazi status of Blair Cottrell. He has in the past advocated the placing of a portrait of Hitler in every classroom in Australia.

Yet such a person was invited on a news channel show to discuss immigration policy. Somebody may have thought a liberal point of view had to be balanced from the right or in this case, far right. Or maybe the prime motive was simply to create a stir, gain attention and possibly viewers.

Whatever the thinking it backfired badly. Sky Australia had to issue a grovelling apology and the Adam Giles Show was placed immediately "in recess."

A former Australian Labor minister Craig Emerson resigned as a Sky Australia commentator because the invitation had served to "normalise racism and bigotry."

As a result American Express suspended its advertising on the channel.

But it was Speers, the political editor, who best summed up the implications of the admittedly extreme affair.

It was not about censorship but about the deep offence such views would cause most people.

Above all it was about "legitimising, normalising or mainstreaming these sort of repugnant views," Speers said.

There is a sliding scale, a spectrum, of course, but there does seem to be an awful lot of "normalising" going on in the media, and broadcasting in particular, of views and editorial approaches that would in the recent past have been deemed extreme or unacceptable.

Lurking in the background is the age-old dilemma over how much freedom of expression liberal democracies should give to those who would seek to destroy them.

Just after the Sky News Australia incident another small drama was unfolding on CNN involving the channel's media specialist Brian Seltzer and a colleague Don Lemon.

A caller to C-Span, the factual channel that covers Congress, had claimed that as Seltzer had described all Trump supporters as racists he was declaring war on Seltzer and Lemon and would shoot them on sight.

Seltzer told how he saw it as no big deal and didn't feel particularly in danger but pointed out there had been a large increase in threats to journalists across the US. It had become almost normal.

In his case it may not have been a coincidence that the night before the call to C-Span Fox News had replayed a two year old clip of Seltzer in which he was asked whether he thought there had been a racist element to the Trump campaign and he replied that there had. He had never claimed all Trump supporters were racists.

Around the same time in Washington another form of normalisation was being entrenched - that journalists were Enemies of the People, according to President Trump.

CNN correspondent Jim Acosta repeatedly asked the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders if the White House would withdraw the allegation that journalists were Enemies of the People.

She declined, accusing Acosta of "a verbal assault."

Afterwards President Trump shifted his ground slightly. It wasn't the media that were Enemies of the People it was Fake News but as he went on to explain that most of the media produced Fake News the dial hadn't shifted very much.

It has become almost normal to hear a president of the US denounce journalists as Enemies of the People and even more normal for President Trump to describe everything he does not like as Fake News.

The Washington Post has a list of 4229 examples of President Trump making either inaccurate or misleading statements. But that was last week's total - it's almost certainly more by now.

In the different but linked circumstances of the UK, Brexit has become afait accompli, or normalised in the editorial brain of the BBC, just as polls are starting to show that a majority would like to see a vote on the terms of leaving the EU (or the lack of them).

A former senior BBC foreign correspondent, and Baghdad editor from 2004 to 2009, Patrick Howse, has added a powerful voice against what is increasingly normal on BBC News and programmes such as Question Time and the Today programme on Radio 4.

Howse attacks the broadcaster John Humphrys for describing people as "unashamed Remainers." Why should we be ashamed, he asks before joining those who question why Nigel Farage should be on Question Time "suspiciously often."

The substance of his case, spelled out in a series of tweets, is the BBC's problem of achieving balance.

Normal balance is providing people with both sides of an argument and then letting the viewer and listener make up their minds.

This breaks down "when you have malicious people with no interest in telling the truth who in fact set out to deceive - let's call one Trump and another Boris Johnson - when you apply balance to people like them, and subjects like Brexit, climate change and Holocaust denial you don't get balanced reporting," Howse argues.

You get confusion and "he said that but she said that" reporting which is the negation of journalism.

"The truth is not the halfway point between good and evil," Howse added.

After a 25 year career at the BBC Howse claims that in the current climate instructions are being handed down "from on high".

Brexit and Trump, he believes, are different sides to the same problem - an attack by unscrupulous liars on liberal democracy and its values.

"This is the biggest test for the BBC since World War 2 and so far it is not going well," says Patrick Howse.

A lot of things are being accepted as normal which clearly shouldn't be, and Howse is right that attacks on liberal democracy and its values should not be one of them wherever in the world they occur.

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 9 Aug 2018
“I'll probably repeat points I made a couple of weeks ago, but one can see why it's challenging for the BBC - and to a lesser extent other media outlets.
A growing proportion of the population hold the view that Brexit is a good idea, supported by various public voices including a large proportion of the most visible politicians. From that side of the fence, people support the UK remaining in the EU are wrong, and ignoring the majority view. Right or wrong, that's their view - and taking one side or the other is (*very* loosely) a political interpretation of an awful lot of unknowns. The BBC is berated if it's seen to be trying to educate or change the views of a particular group, particularly when it comes to such political interpretations. Inside the London/ liberal/ educated bubble (which I am), Rees-Mogg, BoJo and the others are deliberately leading Brexit supporters astray, but again, the BBC would suggest that it has a duty to reflect the views of the British public, and not wade into espousing which side is right or wrong - and it knows that if it tried, it would be slammed by one side or the other.
I don't know that I entirely agree with this argument, but I can see how it would have some credence in Broadcasting House. Similarly with Trumpian views - when the person spouting views is the President, and is agreed with by a large proportion of the population, simply reporting what was said and not offering any opinion or fact-checking is the easy way to be 'impartial'.
What the Sky News Aus brouhaha demonstrates is how this is an incredibly slippery and deeply disturbing slope; but also the extent to which media channels are facing an unenviable choice of picking sides or trying to be 'even-handed' in in the face of growing (and increasingly worrying) populist views.”