On politicians and TV

Dorothy Byrne is Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4. She was invited to give the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, and she grasped the opportunity to say some pretty pertinent things about politicians.

You can read her funny and very pointed speech in full here, but we can give some extracts:

On trust and politicians:

Don’t believe politicians when they say that the public doesn’t trust the so-called mainstream media in the UK. They trust TV. Remember, terrestrial television has huge levels of trust:  71 percent. 

It’s politicians who are not trusted – they have a trust rate of 19 per cent  And news on the internet – the medium  politicians are increasingly using to bypass us – has, according recent Reuters Institute figures,  a trust level of only 22 percent with a mere 10 percent for news on social. 

But in recent years, there has been a dramatic fall in politicians holding themselves up to proper scrutiny on TV and in recent months and even weeks, that decline has, in my view, become critical for our democracy. 

We have a new Prime Minister who hasn’t held one major press conference or given one major television interview since he came to power. 

That cannot be right. And we have a leader of the opposition who similarly fails to give significant interviews on terrestrial TV. We may be heading for an election very soon. 

What are they going to do then? I genuinely fear that in the next election campaign there will be too little proper democratic debate and scrutiny to enable voters to make informed decisions.  

On TV interviews:

During the 1987 election, Thatcher and Kinnock chaired daily press conferences and gave several full-length interviews. Even more recently, Miliband and Cameron also did extensive interviews in election campaigns.

However, Theresa May, when she was leader, and Corbyn, failed to hold themselves to account in the same way. In the 2017 election, May and Corbyn did only one or two events a day. 

Outside of election periods, and setting aside some interviews with Andrew Marr, Theresa May’s PR people generally said she would do interviews of only four minutes, maybe six if you were lucky. 

Throughout her time as PM, May’s longest interview with Channel Four News was seven minutes. How do you delve into the complex problems of our times in a few minutes. Jeremy Corbyn sometimes permits only one question, and then doesn’t answer it!

On Johnson, Corbyn and Trump:

But what is happening now is far more serious. For weeks and weeks of the Conservative leadership election, Boris Johnson was virtually invisible on television. 

The public was able to view him mainly on hustings organised by his own party. Our experience at Channel Four was typical. He kept promising to come on Channel Four News. He never did. He didn’t do an interview with ITV News or Channel Five News either.

He did the minimum he could – just two leaders’ debates, one interview with Laura Kuenssberg and just one real grilling by Andrew Neil.

Corbyn did do an interview on Channel Four News at the Labour Party Conference in 2017 but then didn’t do another until the same time in 2018. And he hasn’t done one since. So annual appearances. What does he think he is? My birthday?

I would never have thought I would say these words: I believe that Mrs Thatcher would agree with me; Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are cowards. She had a word for men like them – ‘frit’.

If they really believe in the policies they promote, they should come onto television to explain them, to allow them to be scrutinised and to justify them.

Let’s look at a Western democracy whose leader decided he didn’t need to be held up to scrutiny. Who could I be thinking of? Where did Boris Johnson get his great idea about not having to bother with people like us?

Yes, it’s Mr Chlorinated Chicken himself, Donald Trump.

Trump lies as a matter of course now. The Washington Post listed ten thousand of his lies a while back but it’s gone up since then.  He lies for convenience and on a whim.

Going back decades, Johnson has lied about the EU.

1991 – EU bureaucrats reject Italian demands for smaller condoms. Rubbish.

The EU set rules on the shape of bananas. Nonsense.

More recently, he claimed he was resigning from Theresa May’s government partly because the EU had prevented the UK from passing a law to save the lives of female cyclists. What a feminist that man is! So many women say that to me.

Here is what we all need to decide: what do we do when a known liar becomes our Prime Minister?

In conclusion:

It’s time for the television industry to stand up for itself and speak out publicly against what is happening. Yes, we are rivals but we have to form a united front in opposing attempts to side line our central role in the political life of this country.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames and is a member of Federal Conference Committee.

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6 Comments

  • Paul Barker 23rd Aug '19 - 8:19pm

    They have an obvious solution in front of them : invite Johnson, Corbyn & Swinson on every Day & if the first two dont turn up spend all the time talking to Jo. They can hardly be accused of bias if they invite People & they never turn up.

  • Mark Blackburn 23rd Aug '19 - 9:07pm

    It’s deliberate. These kind of people know that if they expose themselves, the truth will out, so they avoid the risk. Far better to push out fake news and control social media through the likes of Cambridge Analytica. And the sad fact is, it works.

  • You can also watch Dorothy Byrne giving the lecture on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XIEFKEw4co

  • In her lecture, Dorothy Byrne posed the question “what do we [news organisations] do when a known liar becomes our Prime Minister?

    Last night, I was in the audience for Any Questions. The ‘warm up act’ was Jamie Angus, the Deputy Director of World Service news and previously editor of Today, World at One and Newsnight. He was asked how he would deal with politicians who are liars. His response was that news organisations should not judge, but should present the facts to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. That is fine for programmes like Today, Newsnight or the Channel 4 News, which have the length to present the evidence and the resources to do fact-checking.

    However, many news outlets do not have the time, resources – or, in some cases, the inclination – to present the evidence. Increasingly, politicians chose to give their interviews to these outlets. The lies by politicians therefore go unchallenged.

  • Peter Chambers 24th Aug '19 - 9:19pm

    The sort of interview described was fine in an age with few high quality channels, who employed professional interviewers. With the shift to many channels, and a more tabloid style of news, and staff who were prepared and incentivised to “have a go”. The situation evolved.
    We now have the politicians who have done what they have had to do to survive the grid.
    Are we surprised?
    We live in the world of Mr Murdoch and Mr Berlusconi. Did they plan this?

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