TWITTER is not always the best medium for exchanging ideas.
I use it — but only as a notification platform. I see on it people I once admired behave in a way that erases nearly all respect.
Last year Andrew Neil mocked Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr on Twitter and there were calls for his sacking[/caption]
Intelligent individuals make comments they would regret if they had been texts to friends, let alone messages to the whole world.
People who once seemed judicious in their judgements behave — at best — like scolds, desperately attempting to correct the world for not holding precisely the same views as themselves.
Yet Twitter has the ability to highlight at speed problems only noticeable at a slower RPM in the real world.
One is the uncomfortable, ever-vanishing line between comment and journalism.
While this blurring is not completely new, there was a fine example last week.
As news of Boris Johnson’s successful Conservative Party election victory broke, Lewis Goodall — Sky’s political correspondent — tweeted a photo of a television autocue with the caption: “So great to share a set with Black Mirror today.”
For those unfamiliar with it, Black Mirror is a Netflix series created by the former Guardian journalist Charlie Brooker featuring various dystopian fantasy futures.
PAID IN PUBLIC TRUST
There is not very much for Goodall or anyone else to gain from this observation.
It is possible some people saw it and gave a snort of appreciation.
Perhaps somebody somewhere actually laughed. But it is unlikely anyone is still roaring, days later, at the brilliance and perceptiveness of the observation.
Like most things on social media, the short-term gain is not worth the cost. For a cost there is, paid in public trust even if not by the tweeter.
If broadcasters still cared about the editorial independence of their employees, comments like this would not be made by their journalists.
For they further reveal what most of the public has come to suspect — that broadcasters presenting themselves as non-partisan in fact hold very clear political views and that these usually veer in a particular direction.
Most, for instance, tend not to be enthusiastic Leave voters who secretly admire Prime Minister Boris Johnson and occasionally let this truth slip. Of course, people have always harboured their suspicions.
But not until journalists began to freely give away their thoughts on social media was there such a smorgasbord of evidence.
For years, Gavin Esler was the apparently impartial presenter of many leading BBC political shows, including Newsnight, holding people to account whatever his own views.
This was back when we viewers did not have access to a presenter’s opinions.
Instead, we would have to guess from throwaway remarks or how one interview compared with another.
After the Brexit vote, however, it became clear that Esler had strong views about British membership of the EU.
Then, this April, he announced his membership and candidacy for the pro-Remain party Change UK.
Emily Maitlis presents BBC topical news programme Newsnight and regularly retweets political opinions[/caption]
In a speech at its launch and in subsequent media appearances, he turned out to be as partial as it was possible to be.
Indeed, some of his political interventions could legitimately be described as “foam-flecked”.
Are the public to pretend Gavin Esler pre-2019 was a different beast from the Gavin Esler of this year?
Or do we presume he always held certain views and only broke out when there was a chance to express them while standing — as it turned out, unsuccessfully — as a candidate for the European Parliament?
‘OFCOM DON’T GIVE A DAMN’
By following broadcasters on Twitter, particularly from the BBC and Sky, it is clear to see the barrier is eroding for everyone.
When Goodall sent his Black Mirror tweet, the journalist Tim Montgomerie tweeted: “Throughout Sky News we have pundits posing as reporters. Neither Sky execs nor Ofcom seem to give a damn.”
In response, Goodall’s Sky News colleague Kay Burley went for Montgomerie herself, tweeting: “You’re an absolute disgrace to our profession. Seriously.”
It was, as Montgomerie went on to say, a pretty unprofessional response in itself.
But he was right. There is something strange about this whole game.
Partly it is so eroding to public trust because it all goes in one direction.
On one single occasion in recent years has a television presenter let slip a view that did not fall into lockstep with the narrow orthodoxies of the broadcasting class.
When Politics Live presenter Andrew Neil sent out one tweet last year mocking the increasingly conspiratorial Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, he deleted the tweet and himself became a news story.
There were swift calls for his sacking and the BBC felt compelled to publicly chastise Neil.
Though widely considered the country’s leading political interviewer, Neil no longer has a regular slot on the BBC.
The incident stands out partly because it is so unusual for a broadcaster not to go in one predictable direction, but also because it was clear that a price must only be paid when the opinions are the “wrong” ones.
‘FOURTH WALL’ BROKEN
The breaking of the “fourth wall” — which meant impartial broadcasters refrained from veering into personal political expression — has had a damaging effect on broadcast journalism.
Just observing what a broadcaster like Emily Maitlis chooses to retweet tells me more than I want to know about her own political views.
These retweets go in the usual direction, and it bothers me not a jot where those views differ from my own.
The trouble is they begin to colour the rest of the work.
When Rod Liddle appeared on Newsnight and was roundly harangued and insulted by Maitlis, I did not think: “What a tough interview.”
Having seen what Maitlis had tweeted and retweeted in recent months, I simply saw the same views played out in the Newsnight studio.
MOST READ IN OPINION
There was no mystery, no separation between impartial interviewer and opinionated tweeter.
Will this have an impact? My guess is it already has.
And when the broadcast media complains about disappearing trust in their profession, remember — they have only themselves to blame.
- Douglas Murray is associate director of the Henry Jackson Society. This piece first appeared on the UnHerd website.
Gavin Esler announced his membership and candidacy for the pro-Remain party Change UK this year[/caption]