Why we don’t trust the news anymore

Journalists think it is their job to ‘correct’ the opinions of voters.

Fraser Myers
Topics Brexit Politics UK

Head of Channel 4 News Dorothy Byrne, delivering this year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival, has complained that TV journalists are ‘too polite’ and should be more direct in their condemnation of politicians. In particular, she thinks journalists should more readily use the word ‘liar’.

Byrne used her lecture to call Boris Johnson a ‘coward’ and a ‘known liar’. She also accused him of aping Vladimir Putin’s media strategy for declining to give sit-down interviews. Of course, it’s a good thing for politicians to engage with the media and to be challenged by journalists. But the media are not entirely blameless for this breakdown of trust.

Far from TV journalists being ‘too polite’, interviews are often set up in such a way that means politicians will just be barked at. Too many TV journalists see it as their role to outsmart, catch out or humiliate politicians. This political pantomime can sometimes produce good entertainment, but it tends to generate more heat than light. The aggressive interviewer gets an ego boost and the politician is deflated, but the public is often left none the wiser as to what any of it means for the state of the country. It’s a good thing that journalists don’t show politicians the kind of fawning deference they once did in the 1960s and 1970s, but a balance has to be struck somewhere.

Bizarrely, Byrne’s plea for journalists to use the word ‘liar’ – and her ludicrous comparison of Johnson to Russia’s autocratic ruler – was couched in a call for more objectivity and truth in news. ‘Liar’ is a loaded term – it is a judgement not only on the content of what a politician has said but also on the content of his or her character. Journalists should be free to make and express such judgements, but to do so – especially, in the heat of the moment, on live television – is unlikely to be objective.

Surely objectivity is the bread-and-butter of news. So why is there so much fuss about it today? In part, it’s because the media see the political shocks of the past few years – Brexit, Trump, European populism – as products of an ill-informed and bigoted populace. Channel 4, which has the nation’s poshest newsroom, with just nine per cent of its journalists coming from a working-class background, is incredibly vulnerable to this prejudice. Many journalists today believe it is their job to ‘correct’ the views of the voters with ‘facts’ and ‘truth’.

‘Forget the idea that the public can judge what is true’, said Dorothy Byrne in her lecture. This role as the gatekeepers of the truth informs their skewed coverage of events like Brexit because what they often mean by truth and facts, are simply middle-class, establishment opinion. And it puts them on a collision course with broader public sentiment.

Thankfully, instead of simply absorbing what the news tells us is right, the public is shouting back at the TV – or is turning off in droves. In recent years, Channel 4 News has been, to all intents and purposes, the broadcast wing of the Remain campaign. Its presenters are visibly horrified by the expression of pro-Brexit opinions and of the sight of the pro-Brexit masses. It has devoted hours of investigations to unsuccessfully ‘exposing’ apparent illegality and fraud in the Leave vote. Unsurprisingly, in a country that voted Leave, its audience figures have taken a big hit over the past few years. Naturally, its execs have blamed Brexit.

So yes, viewers do want more objective sources of news. But broadcasters like Channel 4 have singularly failed to keep their own views and prejudices from informing their coverage.

Fraser Myers is a staff writer at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty.

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harry briggs

27th August 2019 at 1:34 pm

Its a sad state that UK journalism is in, it’s more like the partisan news services in the USA every day, pick a side and bend the news to fit your views seems to be the norm nowadays, are there any impartial newspapers left?.

Graham Aldridge

26th August 2019 at 1:24 pm

Great point about the over-aggressive interviewers – we know who they are – and the need to find a balance while maintaining proper scrutiny. We need more like Sophy Ridge on Sky.

Fraser Bailey

26th August 2019 at 12:59 pm

What a horrible and frightening woman. But what else would you expect from the Head of News at Ch4? Personally I have stopped funding the MSM in any way whatsoever. Indeed, I stopped some years ago.

Peter Jenkins

25th August 2019 at 6:27 pm

As a current affairs magazine at least I can be sure that you and your journalists keep your “own views and prejudices from informing your coverage”. Spotless.

Hana Jinks

25th August 2019 at 2:03 pm

Om…so this gotten pretty serious now….we had to offload duds like Jerry Oven-Kraut and ….anyway, lets not be commies, and be cool.

James Hillier

24th August 2019 at 2:21 pm

I started to mistrust the press when I began checking the sources used in articles. Since I was a student, I had been a Guardian reader. I finally abandoned the newspaper when it ran a piece uncritically amplifying NUS claims that the UK has a problem of sexual endemic harassment in universities.

The article used two studies to substantiate these claims, so I downloaded them. From memory, one had a sample size of around 40 and participants had been non-randomly selected by trawling women’s studies groups. The other has a larger sample but entirely self-selected: the survey had been sent, albeit ineffectively, to 2.3 million students. Around 5,000 had selected themselves to participate.

There was no equivocation in how the results were reported: this was uninterrogated and implicitly serious and trustworthy evidence of endemic abuse. I can think of no other appropriate way of describing this than to say that The Guardian was lying with statistics. And once you start checking, you discover that the use of poor evidence, or the unscrupulously selective use of what might have been high-quality evidence, to mislead is common in journalism.

And although The Guardian is a particularly egregious offender, it’s by no means the only culprit. In fact, this kind of ‘journalism as propaganda’ is so common it’s routine. Many subjects — particularly those related to issues which are the subject of passionate activism — are misreported far more often than they are reported.

How can you trust a profession that behaves like that? You can’t. You stop trusting the profession and to a large extent you stop trusting even individual media outlets. Instead you have to try and work out which journalists you can trust to take their role as seekers of truth seriously, and on which subjects.

Or, you can do what many people do, because they just don’t have the time or energy to do all this cross-checking and comparing, and simply assume that “they” are all liars. This is where many people are now. And it is dangerous. Because if nothing is true, then anything is possible. And once people think like that, they will believe almost anything.

The fourth estate exists in a state of constant failure. Far too many of its members think they are, or want to be, activists rather than journalists. The result is public debate mired in mistrust, deliberately cultivated misunderstanding, and misinformation. Sadly, the media collectively is too conceited and complacent to realise this or to grasp the fact that it is part of the problem.

Bri -an

27th August 2019 at 9:23 am

“Far too many of its members think they are, or want to be, activists rather than journalists”
Sums it up rather nicely.
From my standpoint, far too many ‘TV news presenters’ think they are journalists, when in fact they are just ‘mouthing editorial opinion’, meaning they are unable to defend what they say.
This latter characteristic explains why they do not often step outside the ‘from our (own!) correspondent’ box.

Anthony Dennison

24th August 2019 at 7:45 am

I can’t take any *journalist* seriously who resembles Shelagh Fogertys’ sister.

Hana Jinks

24th August 2019 at 12:01 am

Shouldn’t we be trying to be above leftist-bitching about fake news? Not if Big Brother is your best friend, l guess.

Ashley Giles

23rd August 2019 at 10:44 pm

The current trend for long discussions (including the Brendan O’Neill Show) on YouTube etc is a really positive contribution to the public’s ability to develop their understanding. The barracking, aggressive one up man ship of the likes of C4 & BBC achieve nothing, everyone looks bad – interviewers look unhinged, and interviewees flustered. What is the point?

Ian Wilson

23rd August 2019 at 7:40 pm

Blaming Brexit is probably right, but not for the reasons they seem to think.

cliff resnick

23rd August 2019 at 7:25 pm

If you want to see the veracity of comtemporary journalism just go to Google News pick a subject and then choose which spin you most desire, a veritable “Tower of Babel”. Really it should be called Spinism.

Patrick Taylor

23rd August 2019 at 6:07 pm

Of course it is the duty of a journalist, editor and publisher to choose their words carefully and ensure they report factually but who judges where the line between a newspaper’s narrative (that often borders on propaganda) and fake news should be drawn?

When I read a story in the Guardian, or Telegraph or Times – any ‘reputable’ newspaper- I am reasonably confident that the basic facts of the story are accurate – but that often only gives me half the picture. The rest of the picture is given through the narrative, the framing of the message – it is that which tells a reader how to interpret the ‘facts’. With a shift in narrative the facts of a story can be presented in a radically different light.

The Guardian, along with every other newspaper and news outlet in this country, presents “Facts” and “Statistics” that back up the narrative they wish to promote. They also fail to report those Facts and Stats that go against the narrative they wish to promote.

Are these deliberate falsehoods, so-called fake news? One could argue that either way, but journalists know only too well that there are two sides (at the very least) to most stories and present the side that most closely fits their own world view, or the world view of their newspaper or indeed the world view of their readers.

Every day the same story, the same speech, the same policy initiative can be covered by the Guardian and by the Telegraph, with the “factual” points of the story presented, but it is in the framing of that presentation, in what details a journalist (or Editor) chooses to include or omit, that the narrative takes shape.

The same facts can be employed to tell two different stories that can be diametrically opposed to one another. Thus readers of those two different stories – based on the same “facts” but presented within a different narrative -can come away with an understanding that is 180 degrees out from one another. You could argue that isn’t ‘fake’ news because the facts are accurate – but if the same facts can be employed by either side of the argument to bolster their own version of the truths and undermine the other sides version of the truth then how is it different?

Newspapers now have a lens through which they see the world – and every day and in every way they find it matching their preconceived world-view. Any stories that might challenge that view are either not reported or are written up in a way that they bare little relation to the ‘truth’ as reported elsewhere.

I read several news sources a day and try to pick my way through the inherent biases of each to try and find the truths of a story and form my own opinion. But even that doesn’t get you to objective “Truth” because, of course I myself read those stories with a subjective eye, how could I not? We all have our own in-built bias towards what fits our world view.

So, when Paul Mason claimed in a Guardian last year that, “The clearest difference between the liberal-democratic newspapers – including this one – and those of the right is that the former have no overarching narrative,” how – if you’re honest – does that compare with the Guardian’s current daily output?

Polarised politics has been good for business in the media. Objective reporting doesn’t sell as well as identifying your audience and just giving them what they want.

James Hillier

24th August 2019 at 2:39 pm

“Are these deliberate falsehoods, so-called fake news?”

Yes. And on a massive scale and with the most profound impact on our society and how we live our lives. I also don’t think they can be trusted on the facts themselves. I’m sure there is a source for everything they report. But if the source is unreliable even to the point of making the “fact” completely bogus, this is almost never discovered or commented on in the reporting, if the bogus fact is convenient to the reporter’s chosen narrative.

Fraser Bailey

26th August 2019 at 1:03 pm

The Guardian constantly lies by omission. I was once a Guardian reader in that I actually bought the newspaper. I would never do so now. And for Mason to claim that the liberal-progressive media has no overarching narrative is just another flat-out lie.

Mark Houghton

23rd August 2019 at 5:55 pm

Journalists have forgotten that they are there to hold the powerful to account and not to support one side or another.

James Knight

23rd August 2019 at 5:18 pm

Or maybe we should be more wiling to call C4 journalists “liars” when the promote nut-job conspiracy theories about Brexit.

They are on the same level as ant-vaxxers on social media.

Ven Oods

23rd August 2019 at 4:44 pm

“Channel 4, which has the nation’s poshest newsroom..”

Not to mention that its the worst. Snow and Gurumurthy are unwatchable as anchors. “I mean…”

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