Since being elected a Brexit Party MEP, I have gone from gamekeeper to poacher as far as the broadcast media is concerned. Until six weeks ago, I had the privilege of being a commentator who could sit on couches endlessly pontificating. Now as a politician, I’m the target of my fellow commentators. They either discuss me in my absence or ask a series of staccato questions with little room for context or nuance.
Maybe I’m fair game. After all, I have spent two decades as a Radio 4 Moral Maze panelist interrogating witnesses. This, perhaps, is my comeuppance. Yet what I've learned about the way the broadcast media works in recent weeks bothers me and I've been asking myself a question: what good does it do if journalism is reduced to demanding politicians ‘answer me – yes or no’? What do we lose when the media’s attitude to anyone who wins election is to deny them room for intellectual reflection or the chance to properly explore and think through ideas?
I mentioned this concern to one radio producer and she assumed it was because voters would expect simplistic answers, deliverable outcomes and ‘populist’ slogans from politicians. Ordinary folk, in this view, are not interested in complexities or subtlety.
But that assumption is telling and wrong on two counts. It is not the voters who insist on a black-and-white, one-dimensional approach; it is often the media who assume that anyone elected automatically becomes a robotic parroter of party-line soundbites.
This also reveals another contemporary problem for broadcasting: it underestimates voters – their viewers and listeners – by often wrongly presuming that people only have the attention span of a gnat and want fiery tit-for-tat exchanges to make politics ‘entertaining’.
If anything, the democratic surge since the EU referendum is proof that people have – on both sides of the debate – developed an appetite for more depth when it comes to politics. Voters I have met over the past few weeks have wanted to talk at length and in detail. And they are not finding enough substance in much of the media to satisfy their thirst for finding out what is happening. Perhaps as a result, plenty of people I met told me they didn’t bother to watch TV anymore (‘don’t trust them to tell the truth’).
One 25-year-old I encountered in Peterborough at the weekend explained that he wasn’t that political before the referendum, but researched the EU to decide how to vote. He then just assumed the decision would be enacted. Since he realised ‘it wasn’t going to happen’, he admitted he’d become ‘obsessed’. ‘I read and watch everything,’ he told me.
Other voters I spoke to were devouring and citing long-interview podcasts, filmed panel debates, philosophical lectures and political speeches on everything from sovereignty to free speech, economic analysis to international relations. Many loved the behind-the-scenes Channel 4 and BBC 4 documentaries on the EU. Why? Because they took viewers seriously by allowing them access to an in-depth look at current affairs.
At campaign stalls, people were quoting articles from as politically diverse publications as Quillette and openDemocracy. One in Stockport pointed me to a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, recommended by someone in his Facebook Leave group.
This suggests that dissatisfaction with mainstream TV and radio is less a matter of wanting to hear their own views played back to them, than bemoaning the thin gruel of sneering ‘gotcha’ interviews.
Feeling disenfranchised means more than having your vote ignored; it can mean feeling the media are not in step with your appetite to know more. Voters’ main complaint about much of the media is that often it is too superficial. People are treated as fools who want easy answers, misrepresented as one-dimensional caricatures, or demonised as bigots.
But this is not just another typical complaint of media bias. Those from both sides of the Leave/ Remain divide claim that their side is misrepresented, often tiresomely, so I’ll avoid rehearsing that argument. Yet flash points can clarify what is making voters bristle.
I spoke at the Leave Means Leave rally in Parliament Square on 29th March. Tens of thousands of decent Leave voters were there. It was a good-natured, joyous act of solidarity, despite the obvious fury that the government had reneged on its repeated promise that we would have left the EU by that date.
People sang, cheered, booed, chanted and vowed to keep fighting for democracy. Around the corner was a much smaller, nastier gathering listening to Tommy Robinson’s conspiratorial ramblings.
No one in good faith could have confused the two, especially not serious journalists. And yet on TV and media, both were often interchangeably shown without any clear sense of them being separate events. On top of that, Channel 4’s Jon Snow made his infamous remark signing off from the news bulletin by saying that he had ‘never seen so many white people in one place’, referring to the rally.
The reporting of that rally was a turning point for many Leave voters, who have become convinced they don’t get a fair shout on TV. On the campaign trail, I constantly heard people complain that so much of the media ‘just don’t get it.’
Sometimes, attempts to ‘get it’ can misfire and compound the problem. Some shame-faced, soul-searching by broadcasters since the referendum, embarrassed that they had failed to notice the Leave surge, has led to sending reporters on endless safaris up north to meet ‘real people’. But sadly, rather than spending time talking to and challenging voters, these efforts can be reduced to ‘working men’s club’ fodder, wheeled out to tick a ‘we’ve listened to you’ box.
Former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer pointed out in a recently published essay for Prospect magazine that the BBC is ‘acutely conscious that it is often perceived as part of an “establishment”, London-based and “stuck up”’. In response, he said, ‘a programme editor will have the unoriginal idea, on television or radio, that the BBC should do a “vox pop” piece far away from Broadcasting House and ask “real people” what they think about Brexit. Again, that is reasonable—whether or not driven by a neurosis that the BBC is out of touch.’
Damazer seems concerned that this means reporters abdicating responsibility for proper journalism: having harvested their soundbites, they ‘dutifully proved that “real people” are fed up with it all, fled, and filed their report’. But his dig that featuring ‘non-political, non-expert public opinion where things get said that are just wrong’ is also misplaced. The public – the nations’ viewers and listeners – are becoming experts who want reporting and analysis that recognises the complexity of a political landscape that crosses traditional party boundaries.
This requires a new, fresher attempt at journalism that avoids the usual tropes and formulaic styles. Seeing themselves portrayed as hapless, hard-done-to, left-behind providers of gobbets is not only patronising, it’s not the solution. The Brexit Party’s slogan is ‘Time to change politics for good’. Maybe it’s time to change news journalism for good as well.