Nick Cohen

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le journalisme

C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas le journalisme
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Andrew Neil is the best political interviewer in Britain. I am not just saying that because he is so high up here at The Spectator, although that helps. I am not saying it because he once bought me lunch, although he did his cause no harm there either.

I am saying it because he is one of the few broadcasters who makes me stop what I am doing and listen. God help the interviewee who goes on his programme unprepared. If he or she has not thought through every flaw in their argument, they will find that Neil has done their thinking for them. He will expose their contradictions on live television. He will have a list of the inconvenient facts they forgot or never took the trouble to find in the first place, and will broadcast them to the nation.

As for his message to the 'loser jihadists' and 'Islamist scumbags' who bombed Paris, it was one of the finest moments in recent television history.

Whatever atrocities you are currently capable of committing YOU WILL LOSE. In a thousand years’ time, Paris that glorious city of light will still be shining bright, as will every other city like it, while you will be as DUST along with the ragbag of fascists, Nazis and Stalinists, who have previously dared to challenge democracy -- and failed.

What a magnificent peroration. Why can't our leaders inspire as Neil does? His words were heartfelt, true and stirring. I agreed with every one of them.

Before Neil, we had Jon Snow using the Channel 4 website to denounce the Israeli assault on Gaza. Ah, how Snow tore at the heart. He combined pity and anger as he described the horror all decent people feel at the assault on a cramped territory, packed with children, who had nowhere to run.

Everywhere you look you can see broadcasters following Neil and Snow and pushing against the fuddy-duddy rule that they must show 'due impartiality'. The Church of England is joining in, and pushing against equally antiquated restrictions on political and religious advertising.

They must be stopped. However admirable Neil and Snow’s sentiments are, and however inoffensive the Anglican’s celebration of the Lord’s Prayer was, we have to shut them up. The BBC and Channel 4 should never have broadcast their interviewers’ opinion. The cinema chains were right to tell the Church of England it was not welcome on their screens.

Britain is a country with rules to prevent wealthy politicians buying votes and wealthy televangelists buying converts. We are also a country that has fought to maintain the principle that broadcasters must be politically neutral – not always successfully, I grant you.

The Church of England fumed that its freedom of speech was being restricted, and it was correct. The first amendment to the US constitution gives its competitors in America the right to evangelise where they want. The American Supreme Court also used the first amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and the press to abolish limits on rich men and organisations buying political advertising. They freed the wealthy, but do we want to do the same?

The peculiarity of Britain's position goes further. If a British regulator said that a newspaper pundit, film director, artist or indeed the man or woman in the street had to show 'due impartiality', no one would be in any doubt that the state was attacking fundamental freedom . We would tell it to mind its own business, and say that the public was free to listen to the competing voices in the marketplace of ideas and make up its own mind.

We once justified anomalous restrictions on broadcasters by saying that access to television or radio was necessarily limited. ‘Spectrum scarcity’ meant that broadcasters should not be able to abuse their privileged position by exploiting a scarce resource.

Now with satellite television there are hundreds of stations to watch in Britain. Meanwhile the web allows anyone to broadcast, and collapses the old distinction between newspapers, which could be partial, and radio and television stations, which could not. The Guardian and Spectator websites where my prose appears also broadcast films and podcasts. The BBC News website is an online newspaper.

Broadcasters themselves know a dirty secret newspaper editors understand too well: extreme opinions sell. They confirm the partisan in their beliefs and draw in outraged opponents.

In a fantastic essay, Scott Alexander explained the phenomenon by looking at why so many rape cases promoted by American feminists turned out to be based on false accusations. The overwhelming majority of rape allegations were all too real. So why did they pick on the dubious cases?

A rape that obviously happened? Shove it in people's face and they'll admit it's an outrage, just as they'll admit factory farming is an outrage. But they're not going to talk about it much. There are a zillion outrages every day, you're going to need something like that to draw people out of their shells.

On the other hand, the controversy over dubious rape allegations is exactly that – a controversy. People start screaming at each other about how they're misogynist or misandrist or whatever, and Facebook feeds get filled up with hundreds of comments in all capital letters about how my ingroup is being persecuted by your ingroup. At each step, more and more people get triggered and upset. Some of those triggered people do emergency ego defence by reblogging articles about how the group that triggered them are terrible, triggering further people in a snowball effect that spreads the issue further with every iteration.

Broadcasters want a piece of that action. Opinion is cheap. News is expensive. The public watched Andrew Neil and Jon Snow’s polemics in their millions. What possible justification is there for insisting on balance, accuracy and impartiality?

I can give three.

That the first, that we have always had impartial broadcasting here, may not count for much, but it does count for something. If Channel 4 News were to become a Fox News for liberals, even liberals might find it creepy.

In any case, as I have said before, the argument that impartiality rules are an anachronistic restriction on free speech is not as strong as it sounds. The state is not treating broadcasters with a harshness we do not find elsewhere. We do not say, for instance, that teachers are free to teach what they want, as the reaction to Islamists propagandising in Birmingham schools shows. They must meet basic standards or be thrown out. Parents can teach their children what they will at home, but school is a protected space.

My final argument is simply that balance, accuracy and impartiality are worth having. If the best way to secure them is to insist that one corner of the market place of ideas abide by rules that others need not follow, is that such a hideous double standard?

Go back to Neil’s denunciation of Islamic State. For all its eloquence, it left a few questions hanging in the air. How is Islamic State to be ground into the dust? Would you send ground troops to Syria? What regime should replace IS? Should Britain ally with Assad?

No one I know would put these questions to Andrew Neil with greater force than Andrew Neil.