Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 18 November 2016

A Mission to Explain

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.       


  1. A different world. Facebook and social media dominate how people consume news now, not the BBC and the tabloid press.

    This has upsides and downsides. The upside is that for a non specialist who is interested it has never been easier to become informed: see this very blog.

    The downside is Trump, who is a product of the modern era, not that which prevailed in the 70s. A perfect BBC would no longer scratch the problem.

    1. This makes a simple but common mistake I think. What you say does not apply to the old, who are the ones who are deciding these critical votes. Also the Mail has an extremely popular website.

    2. It is both extremely popular and a hive of extreme views.

    3. I think that reflects a view of internet usage that is at least a decade out of date.

      While it is true that internet usage is lower for 75+ age group, it isn't really for 55+

    4. But look at who reads newspapers by age. Research also shows that people tend to access sites that follow their own prejudices. So the right wing tabloids represent a continuing source of influence on those who read them. They also, ironically, have a large (and growing) influence on the broadcast media.

    5. I don't doubt they have some influence, but much much less.

      The blunt numbers also dont tell the whole story. The Mail's website is completely different from the paper paper. That is its genius and why it has proven so successful. It has far more about Kim Kardashian than Brexit.

      To understand Trump and Brexit you need to focus more on the irrelevance of the press and BBC. (The US never had the rabid tabloid press of the UK. Trump is a product of the new irder.) Unfortunately, that makes any "solution" hard to find. Getting the BBC to stop treating climate change deniers seriously won't help much now.

  2. I still cannot see how the BBC can reform itself without being locked by charter into reflecting university peer review.

    Anything less seems leaving journalism to its own devices, with its 'marketplace' of press barons and their po-mo fact free philosophical conservatism.

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  4. BBC has consistently failed the U.K. Public over last few years. During Brexit Boris, Gove aand Farage were allowed to trivialise the Economics of Brexit and rubbish economists and the other 6 parties. Concepts like Passporting, Tariffs, cost inflation, capital flight whatever rarely figured as the BBC spent time on Boris Bus etc., Now BBC coverage remains flawed with little mention of companies leaving , jobs and investment on hold , skills shortages affect our growth, the need of migrants to balance aging population. It's the other channels and the FT that are telling us what's really happening.


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