Preparing for my SPERI/NEW Statesman lecture (now sold out I’m afraid), I had a closer look at something that had been in the back of my mind for some time. In the mid 1970s, Peter Jay and John Birt put forward a new philosophy for broadcast journalism. Their first article in the Times started
“There is a bias in television journalism. Not against any particular party or point of view – it is a bias against understanding.”
A lot of the points that I have made in this blog are in their writing: the need to get more economic expertise into reporting, how he said/she said reporting and panel discussion can reduce rather than increase understanding and knowledge.
What became of their initiative? Both had opportunities to put their ideas into practice, and Birt became Director General (DG) of the BBC in 1987 (in rather unfortunate circumstances, with Alasdair Milne being forced to resign because of conflicts with the Thatcher government, echos of which are perhaps still with us today). But Birt’s period as DG seems to have been associated with more centralisation of news and current affairs, and more ‘risk management’, which included pulling programmes that were controversial, and might have increased understanding!
It is tempting to draw the conclusion that the mission to explain fell foul of political interference, but that may be too easy on television journalism itself. It may simply be that the mission to explain worked against dominant journalistic values and culture. The need to generate scoops and headlines, for example, which comes from talking to or interviewing politicians rather than explaining economics. The entertainment value that comes from conflict and debate. The idea that it is more exciting television to have a correspondent embedded with troops in a war rather than calmly explaining the roots of the conflict from somewhere less ‘dramatic’.
But whatever the reasons for the demise of the ‘mission to explain’, it is not exactly the same as what I have discussed in the past. Failing to explain does not account for what I call the politicisation of truth: where something becomes true just because one lot of politicians keep saying it and the ‘other lot’ do not contest it. That comes from insularity, from an excessive focus on the Westminster bubble.
I will talk more about this in my lecture, and subsequently in this blog.