The changing media for public debate

How do Liberal Democrats get our message across to the wider public?  When I was briefly the party’s assistant press officer, over half a century ago, the answer was fairly straightforward.  There were mass-circulation newspapers, with a range of political perspectives, which welcomed stories and Op-Eds; there was also a thriving regional and local press.  And there was the BBC, stolid and serious, to hold the national debate together.  I pride myself that the largest audience I have ever reached was when I wrote an Op-Ed for the News of the World for Jo Grimond: its circulation then was over 4 million.

The situation now is far more confused and difficult.  Newspaper circulation is in steep decline.  No national paper sells more than a million copies, and the ‘quality press’ sell a few hundred thousand each.  Few people under 40 bother with printed newspapers; they go straight to websites, to newspapers on-line or alternative sources.  The BBC website is reportedly the most trusted for news, but most heavily accessed by people over 40.  Younger generations choose between a very wide range of channels, on-line, audio-visual and printed.  Political campaigners struggle to keep up with changing tastes and fashions in following news and public debates.

Our written media have become absurdly biased.  I’ve almost given up on The Times, after 50 years reading it over breakfast while my wife reads the Guardian.  Over the past week it has carried articles downplaying the threat of climate change, supporting Netanyahu in his attack on Israeli judges, and a two-page spread on the pernicious ‘liberal elite’ that allegedly runs Britain – as well as the usual undercurrent of anti-BBC stories and culture-war scares.  The Telegraph appears to live in another world, in which Daniel Hannan, David Frost, Julia Hartley Brewer and others rage against political correctness, modernity and evidence-based arguments.  The Mail is even more hysterical in its headlines than it used to be.  Their influence lingers on in the way the BBC still follows the cues of their news stories, and covers ‘the papers’ in its reporting; but the evidence from surveys is that the majority of the public trust the BBC for news far more than any newspaper.

The BBC thus presents a major obstacle to the wealthy right-wingers who are determined to shift the balance of Britain’s political debate to the right.  No wonder that the Mail and the Telegraph decry BBC output as repeatedly as does the Times.  A glance at the alternative TV and radio channels that News Corporation and others have floated show us what they would like us to absorb instead.  Talk TV offers a weekly show labelled ‘That Was the Woke That Was’,  has Richard Tice on Sundays and ‘Friday Night with Nadine’ (Dorries).  GB News, largely funded by the same Dubai-based tax exile who funds the Legatum Institute (now with Sir Paul Marshall as a second major investor) has Nigel Farage as a lead presenter, with Jacob Rees Mogg a recent recruit and Philip Davies and Esther McVey as a broadcasting couple.   The model for both channels is clearly Fox News.

The audience for these anti-BBC channels, however, remains small and largely elderly.  The younger generation pick up their news from Twitter, on-line newspapers and an expanding universe of specialised websites and blogs.  I read Politico (UK, US and European versions), Arab Digest and a range of specialised sites – which leaves much less time for printed papers. I’m aware that several experts I respect have started Substack columns with rising numbers of subscribers; and I keep meaning to look more often at Byline Times, which has some excellent journalists (and which republished one of my articles last year).  My children skim more quickly than I do through a range of platforms.

Two current legal cases may discredit traditional media further.  News Corporation is being sued by Dominion Voting Systems over alleged deliberate misinformation about its machines in the 2020 US Presidential election; and the Mail is being sued in London for alleged phone-hacking of Prince Harry and others.  A ruling against either media company would deepen public mistrust of right-wing conglomerates, and move more of us onto specialised on-line channels.  I’m glad I’m not part of our party’s communications team, navigating such a complex environment.  And I’m acutely conscious that all of us who can spare the time need to help spread our messages and challenges across the web, to reach different audiences and age-groups in our fragmenting media world.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • I become reconciled with my fossil status when I lament the flight from print newspapers. The latter have always been one of the joys of my life – I can still be found waiting outside the Co-op so I can get my Guardian and the local daily at 7 am. For many online reading may be more satisfying and convenient but I have yet to be persuaded that It offers just as much fun. However I am happy to echo William’s sympathies for jthe media office as they plot their way through the minefields.

  • Peter Davies 6th Apr '23 - 7:37am

    The biggest change is not where the news and op-eds come from but how they travel and spread. The feed to many people’s phones largely comes from their friends. That is a whole different challenge for our media office.

  • Yes, lwhat Peter said.

    People understand, for the most part, that you can’t trust print journalism, and that’s one of the reasons why the circulation has fallen as precipitously as it has – why pay for untrustworthy journalism when you can get it for free online? – but people do trust their friends. And the mail online might not be trusted, but it is /read/. And shared.

    This is very worrying from a misinformation point of view

  • Mark Frankel 6th Apr '23 - 8:17am

    Is it really this bad? Why no mention of Sky News or LBC, which have a balance of opinion? Iain Dale’s Cross Question on LBC is exemplary.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Apr '23 - 9:04am

    “why pay for untrustworthy journalism when you can get it for free online?”
    You mean you can get untrustworthy journalism online I take it?

    Is it acceptable for any journalism to spread factual untruths? i.e. tell lies about something for which there is good evidence that the journalist is lying?

    “And the mail online might not be trusted, but it is /read/. And shared.”
    It isn’t read by me!

  • David Goble 6th Apr '23 - 9:38am

    A Jacob Rees-Mogg is mentioned in the article as being a presenter for GB News. Would this be the same Jacob Rees-Mogg as the person who sits in the House of Commons as an MP? Surely, if he has so much time to spare from his MP post that he can be a presenter on GB News, one has to question if he is doing either job adequately.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Apr '23 - 9:45am

    @David Goble
    I had thought Jacob Rees-Mogg was so wealthy he didn’t need a job of any sort…..

  • There is far more choice of media today than was available in the 1960/1970s.
    William Manchester’s biography of Churchill has a passage where he noted that Churchill rarely bothered with the frontpages of the Newspapers, he read the editorials. His reasoning being the news was a jumble of facts. What he wanted from the Newspapers was an interpretation of what it meant.
    The press is both a influencer and is influenced by public opinion and public opinion is changeable.
    A century ago during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921, few would have given any thought to Ukraine’s struggle for independence with either of the Bolsheviks or ‘White Russians’ looking to reconstitute the Russian empire. War-weary public opinion was unwilling to sanction further loss of life in a distant conflict supporting anti-communist forces, whatever the Northcliffe press published.
    The Mail did influence events, however. In the Chanak Crisis of 1922 they published a leader writing that the views of Churchill-who very much favored going to war with Turkey-were “bordering on insanity”. Britain was governed by a Liberal-Conservative coalition, and the opposition of the Daily Mail, which normally supported the Conservatives, caused many Tories to reconsider continuing the coalition government of Lloyd George. The Chanak crisis ended with the Conservatives pulling out of the coalition, causing Lloyd George’s downfall.

  • @ Joe Bourke, “the opposition of the Daily Mail, which normally supported the Conservatives, caused many Tories to reconsider continuing the coalition government of Lloyd George”.

    Do you think that apart from Chanak LLG’s fall had nothing to do with the sale of honours scandal in his 1922 List, (pocketing at least £ 4 million personally), the appalling behaviour of the ‘Black & Tans’ in Ireland and the collapse of the post war economic boom, Joe ? Tory backbenchers over-ruled their leaders, cut and ran.

    For anyone interested, Michael Kinnear’s, The Fall of Lloyd George, gives a thorough and comprehensive analysis of all that and more.

  • Jenny Barnes 6th Apr '23 - 2:20pm

    The front page of yesterday’s Times had ana article about Kemi Badenoch’s idea of prioritising “biological sex” over gender, even when new gender acquired via a GRC. How the transphobes think this will work, with trans men in “biological” women’s changing rooms and hospital wards I am unable to imagine. Still it keeps the transphobia/anti immigrant etc culture war election campaign going I suppose.

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Apr '23 - 3:02pm

    Might it help if we had lots of something to transmit which is eye and brain catching and of real and clear benefit to our country’s citizens and their children?

  • Jason Connor 6th Apr '23 - 3:25pm

    Yes but that also applies to other parties. You’ve got David Lammy presenting a show on LBC so you could equally question his dedication to duty and even a Call Keir show for Mr Starmer. Now I wonder where they got that idea from but no Lib Dems on there these days.

  • David Raw,

    I have not read Michael Kinnear’s book, but all the very serious failings you mention would no doubt be contributing factors to the decision reached in the Carlton Club meeting of 1922, where Conservative MPs successfully demanded that their party withdraw from the coalition government of David Lloyd George, and which triggered the 1922 general election. Lloyd George got four years as the PM who won the war. Churchill barely made three months after the German surrender in 1945, despite widespread press backing.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Apr '23 - 12:45pm

    We need a culture change that values evidence based reporting and investigative journalism. This starts in our schools. Students need to appreciate factual accounts, know how to check for veracity and how to distinguish facts from opinion. A change to our governance with more deliberative democracy that involves the public and holds it accountable for its opinions is an important part of that change.

  • Having read through the comments above the general consensus seems to be that any media outlet that rejects or criticises the Lib Dem world view is biased, whilst any that supports it is balanced and accurate. I think this is known as myopia.

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