Standpoint September 2014
Critics,” said Brendan Behan, “are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” The same applies to broadcasters.
Imagine how they feel as they watch their interviewees. Their working lives have trained them to purr out a soundbite and spit out a putdown better than their guests can ever do. They are the finest players of the TV news game, but like a referee at a football match, they must remain neutral. Why? The viewers know a Jon Snow, Andrew Marr or John Simpson better than they know nearly all of their guests. Yet while the politicians and pressure groups can prattle at will, presenters must bite their tongues. Dusty regulations from the 20th century stop them using “the advantage of regular appearances to promote their [own] views”.
Perhaps the newsroom celebrities wonder how their obituaries will read. “He did his job so well no one knew what he thought,” people will say — not much of an epitaph in an age when self-expression is the highest virtue.
Broadcasters might have chosen to be political writers or activists; they might just have lived the life of a democratic citizen. They would have been free to say what they wanted, but in all likelihood, they would never have had the money or the prominence. As they grow old, do they see their careers as Faustian traps? Broadcasting gave them fame that might have placed them among the most powerful voices in the land but took from them the freedom to speak their minds in return.
Once broadcasters could only get their views over covertly. They would load the panel or slant their questions. Marr did it to me once and I despised him in a way I have never despised an honest opponent. Start the Week, the Radio 4 programme he hosted, was for writers, artists and intellectuals who had a book or show out that week. Because I wrote a book he and his producer disagreed with, they brought in a stooge or ringer solely to attack me. I looked at Marr then, and thought that broadcasting had emasculated him. When he was a newspaper columnist, he fought for his opinions in the open. The BBC had given him money and celebrity, but its standards had turned him into an unmanly sneak.
Current affairs celebrities have had enough of the eunuch’s life. They want to grow a pair now, and have it all ways. Jon Snow’s personal response to the suffering of Gaza pointed the way to a deregulated future. The deaths of children filled Snow with horror. Beside his well-expressed pity and disgust, the painstaking reporting of Channel 4’s foreign correspondents appeared bland. I am not criticising. If anything, Snow underestimated the scale of the misery. He talked about how a war fought in a city packed with children, must kill those children. He did not mention what proper reporters saw at once: with Egypt and Israel sealing off Gaza’s borders, civilians could not escape.
But although it was a Channel 4 production, Snow’s opinion piece could not be played on Channel 4’s terrestrial evening news. Snow did not show the “due impartiality” the regulators demand. He did not describe what Hamas was, examine the Nazi rhetoric of its charter, or explain how Palestinians who wanted women’s rights or democratic freedom fared under its rule. He allowed no balancing Israeli voices. Snow was giving television’s version of a newspaper opinion piece — a powerful and well-argued piece, I should add. Neither he nor his hundreds of thousands of viewers cared about “due impartiality” for the brute reason that dead children are in their graves and legalistic debates on fairness and standards will not resurrect them.
If a state regulator told newspaper journalists, authors, playwrights, artists or the general public that they must show “due impartiality”, I would say it was attacking basic freedoms. It is not up to the government to dictate what can and cannot be said. The public can listen to the competing voices in the marketplace of ideas and make up its own mind. The old justification for imposing unique controls on radio and television was that space on the airwaves was scarce, and media companies could not squat on it and impose the partisan views of their owners or presenters. The days of “spectrum scarcity” went years ago, however. Satellite television allows hundreds of stations to broadcast, while the web has made the notion of a separate broadcasting sphere absurd. My newspaper broadcasts films and podcasts on its website. The BBC publishes a taxpayer-funded online newspaper. The old divisions make no sense, and you can feel the pressure on the rules that govern them building. The BBC’s John Simpson, whose opinion of himself can be gauged by his title of “World Affairs Editor”, said he wished he could imitate Snow. Channel 4’s managers look as if they want to boost their flagging rating by creating a Fox News of the Left.
But although I cannot defend regulation on grounds of pure principle, I can do so on grounds of the public interest. We do not say, for instance, that teachers are free to teach what they want, as the reaction to Islamist 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.
The celebrities notwithstanding, most broadcast journalists feel that the law should protect broadcast news as carefully. They do not want to be partisans. Like civil servants and judges, they do not feel that the demand that they leave their political beliefs at the workplace door diminishes them. Indeed they are proud of their ability to separate the private from the public. The journalists other journalists listen to during a Middle East crisis are Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4, Lyse Doucet of the BBC and Peter Beaumont of the Guardian because we know that they are fanatical about getting a story right. They will never be famous, but they matter to our culture more than celebrity presenters can ever do.
It does not strike me as oppressive that there should be a small corner in the marketplace of ideas where people can go — if they wish — for impartial and accurate journalism. I do not see why we should close it down just because Jon Snow wants to wave his willy at anyone who will look.