Arrow points to defective part, we name the guilty men, information which someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know – of the many definitions of journalism I have heard over the past decades these are the ones that have stuck with me.
Journalism is essentially a diagnostic rather than a prescriptive occupation, stronger looking back on what has gone wrong, rather than to the future as to how it might be put right.
In my view this is healthy since analysis of what has happened or is happening is based not on conjecture but on facts. Those facts are seldom freely available – which is where those other vital components of journalism, investigation and analysis, come in.
Mark Thompson is a brilliant journalist. Indeed that was one of the greatest concerns of editorial staff when he was appointed CEO at the New York Times – that an executive had the ability potentially to shatter the Chinese wall protecting them from him, to make valid criticisms of the newsroom’s output.
Given at the behest of his longtime friend and BBC colleague Mark Damazer, now Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, Thompson’s three ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ lectures, the first of which is revisited and published in Demos Quarterly, proved his professional skills were unblunted by his years as the BBC’s top bureaucrat.
His diagnosis of the malaise troubling western democracy is sharp:
‘A pervasive climate of suspicion of all traditional forms of purported authority – church, state, class and so on – a contrary suspicion of everything which is proposed should take their place.’
Thompson’s culprit is not a guilty man or a defective part but an abstract entity ‘public language … is changing in ways which make it more effective as an instrument of public persuasion but less effective as a medium of explanation and deliberation’.
Nostalgic twinges seem built into the human condition. Thompson’s claim that things are getting worse and that we are on the brink of ‘decadence’ is challenged by the breadth of reference of his own work – from classical antiquity to Mrs Thatcher’s views on society in the 1980s.
But he is right that in the English-speaking world at least we seem to be going through a particularly vicious linguistic phase. Labour’s proleptic and metonymic misrepresentation ‘bedroom tax’ has been as effective against welfare reform as Sarah Palin’s ‘death tax’ was against Obamacare.
It is true too that in Britain ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word. Why else would the notion of Coalition government, popular at the time of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat pact, now be anathema to Conservatives, Labour and the general public in opinion polls?
Refreshingly for a journalist, Thompson declines to blame individual politicians for the slide into shrill rhetoric. However his two subsequent lectures suggest policy areas where he thinks things have gone wrong – the second lecture ‘Confine it to the Flames’ dwells on the populist attack on scientific authority over climate change, while the third, ‘Not in My Name’, decries the absolutist positions taken on the post-9/11 conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The BBC was beaten with many sticks on both these questions during Thompson’s time as Director General. What people wanted to believe outweighed their respect for an honest journalistic effort to give them information.
Social media have made this worse. Any journalist trying to perform a straight forward task of reporting and commenting can now expect to be attacked on Twitter and to be accused of partisanship for simply raising an issue. Many trolls even think that the alleged prejudice of the messenger somehow invalidates the facts which they are reporting. Tweet the latest opinion poll and someone is bound to tweet back ‘you’ll be pleased by that’.
None of this should matter to a journalist doing their job honestly: comment is free and usually not representative. Difficulties clearly arise when reporting shifts into advocacy whether on left or right. Thompson is brave to call out Polly Toynbee for her claims about ‘49%’ privatisation of the NHS, and I am sorry to have missed the symposium at the end of his lectures which she attended.
It didn’t plunge Western democracy into Platonic terminal decline but the era of ‘triangulation’ under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair certainly contributed to the decline in public discourse. Saying one thing to achieve another, was never going to reinforce the credibility of public debate, especially when backed up with bogus reassurances such as pledge cards.
Likewise the ‘followership’ of holding referendums on key questions is only going to further undermine confidence in political leadership. Is the nature of the United Kingdom really something for Scottish voters to decide alone? Is the pro-EU case really just about ‘jobs’ as Clegg told Farage? Perhaps broader principles of co-operation are in question, though no politician dares speak their name?
The problem is not the language used by demagogues but that mainstream politicians are scared to reply to it. Journalists are less shy of airing controversial arguments than today’s politicians – and the infinite capacity of digital technology means that there is always room for the long-form explanation and deliberation which Thompson desires.
Getting the wider public to consume it is the difficult part. As Thompson’s successor at the BBC remarked some years ago: infinite media choice means that not even the BBC and the NYT can force the public ‘to eat their greens’ of improving information.
Yet, it seems to me that Plato is losing the argument, because for all the people’s apathy and grumbling, democracy doesn’t do such a bad job. The sassy Sarah Palin was not elected VPILF, death panels did not stop the implementation of Obamacare or the re-election of Barack Obama. A much-revised version of Andrew Lansley’s incomprehensible NHS reform bill is now being implemented.
We may hate compromises and coalitions, yet no party has managed to break from the scrimmage and a messy hung parliament remains the most likely outcome for the 2015 General Election. Either way, I look forward to more journalism from the visiting professor in rhetoric and public persuasion.
Adam Boulton is a journalist and the former Political Editor of Sky News