The Tortoise and the Share
I had the privilege of delivering this year's Bob Friend Lecture at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Bob was part of the original Sky News line up, described by Rupert Murdoch as a "distinctive journalist and admired news broadcaster". I'm sorry to say I never met him, though of course I know a great deal about his reputation. I believe very strongly that we have obligations to the dead, not only to respect their memory and honour their contribution to our world, but also - if we can - to continue to learn from them, and to continue the good deeds and works that, were they still with us, they would be performing. That's one of my themes here.
I believe in journalism, as Bob Friend did, and in honouring his memory by discussing this subject in front of a room full of potentially great journalists, I hope I can support the principle that journalism is a noble trade, maybe inspire a few to go into it, and above all prosecute an argument about the nature and future of journalism that I think deserves a hearing.
Just before I outline that argument, let me say, a helluva lot of lectures about the future of journalism are given these days. Aside from this annual event, big recent lectures have been given by newspaper editors from Lionel Barber to Alan Rusbridger. There's the annual MacTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh, and the Cudlipp Lecture which James Harding is giving in March. My distinguished colleague Nick Robinson gave the inaugural Steve Hewlett Lecture last year.
The challenge, then, is to be at least mildly original. So I'm going to take some of those people and some of their arguments on. In fact, my enemy today is conventional wisdom, or rather conventional wisdoms - specifically, the claim that new technology provides an existential threat to the news business. Doubtless it offers a threat; I just don't believe it's an existential one.
And I'm going to argue that some of the claims made by journalists about the threats to the news business - for instance, the whole idea of fake news - are in fact not only often gross errors of judgement, but a kind of displacement activity, an attempt to distract audiences from the true problems afflicting the trade, which lie closer to home. British journalists have been very good at blaming everyone but themselves. As Michael Jackson sang, in lyrics you guys are doubtless familiar with from Freshers Week, "no message could have been any clearer: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change."
I'll then move on to what I think are indeed the biggest threats to my trade and some proposed solutions.
Let me start, then, by attacking three myths about the current state, not to say plight, of journalism.
PHANTOMS IN OUR MIDST
Myth One: Donald Trump is a mortal enemy of the press.
My joining the BBC as the Corporation's first Media Editor in late 2016 coincided very closely with the election of Donald Trump and, with it, a sudden explosion in concerns about fake news. This was a case of correlation rather than causation, I can assure you.
Due to his relentless and ferocious attacks on the mainstream media, his courting of alternative forms of media - including his embrace of conspiracy theorists - and his elastic relationship with the truth, Trump very quickly became seen in much of the media as a terrifying foe.
This fear was radically accentuated when Sean Spicer, the entertaining former Press Secretary to Trump, launched what I call the Spicer Doctrine: the belief that it was the job of government to hold journalists to account.
In a White House press conference early in Trump's presidency, Spicer said: "There's been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable. And I'm here to tell you it goes two ways. We're going to hold the press accountable as well".
This inversion of the traditional relationship between journalism and government - in which it apparently becomes the task of those in power to scrutinise the scrutinisers - was added to the list of points made by those who said Trump was a mortal threat to journalism.
It's important to note this idea became, for a brief flicker of history, something like a prevailing orthodoxy. When Trump tweeted a video of him seeming to wrestle a CNN reporter to the ground, not long after insulting that organisation in a very public manner, it became widely accepted that journalists were - literally - under attack as never before in the history of the modern West.
The Committee to Protect Journalists warned of "a threat to press freedom". Chris Wallace of Fox News said the President had "engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on the free press in our history." Joe Kahn of the New York Times bewailed "an American President and his close allies who treat reporters as 'enemies of the people' - with no attribution to Stalin or Mao".
Yet these arguments were, on closer inspection, the exact opposite of the truth. Donald Trump isn't the enemy of the media. He's a potential saviour of the media.
It's largely thanks to Donald Trump that record numbers of people in the English-speaking world are viewing, listening to, or reading the news. And, crucially, that record numbers are paying for it. All media - left, right, mainstream, alternative, digital, print - have benefited from a Trump bump.
In the three weeks after his election, the New York Times sold 132,000 digital subscriptions - a tenfold increase on the usual rate. They have been engaged in a truly wonderful, almost nostalgic newspaper war with The Washington Post, whose business model is also humming thanks to Trump, where the two papers are vying to out-scoop each other with a series of brilliant stories. It's been riveting - and readers are the winners.
Just this month, in fact, the New York Times announced an extra 157,000 digital subscribers for the fourth quarter of last year, with subscription revenues passing $1bn for the first time. Obviously that was the result of a team effort; but if, at a push, you had to give credit to one person for this exponential expansion, it wouldn't be Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor. It would be Donald J Trump.
As for television, virtually every American news network is up on its ratings, from Fox to MSNBC and of course CNN, which had its most watched year ever in 2016. Why? Two words. Donald Trump. And ad-funded, traffic hungry websites from Buzzfeed to Mail Online to The Independent have found nothing drives traffic like this President. He is - as he often boasts himself - good business.
And for obvious reasons. The Trump Presidency is not only one of the most astonishing facts of modern history, it is also one of the most astonishing stories of modern history - a gift that keeps on giving, and giving. And giving.
Also in February, Twitter, which is essentially just a news stream, posted a profit for the first time. There are complex and structural reasons for this of course, but I know from speaking to them that senior executives at Twitter are delighted, to put it mildly, that this President spends his twilight hours on the platform.
Every news organisation in the world has been boosted editorially by his remarkable ascent, and unless they are run by idiots, each of those organisations has found this presidency to be a commercial boon too. Next time you hear the idea of Trump's "war with the media", remember, then, that you're hearing a self-serving phrase which is essentially nonsense.
This isn't a war. It's a marriage of convenience.
Myth Two: Fake News is everywhere
Closely associated with the ascent of Trump is the phenomenon of fake news. Of course, when Trump uses that term, he's just referring to news that he doesn't like. The Russia investigation is fake news, the fake news media can't be trusted, and so on.
There is, however, a genuine and relatively new phenomenon which warrants the label fake news - and that is deliberate lies told for political or commercial purposes transmitted around the world through social media.
This material should be distinguished from the false news - that is, lies and propaganda - that has been circulating in media for years, for instance through the vile practices of the late sexual predator Max Clifford. Britain's tabloid press, for instance, has knowingly been publishing lies for decades, also for commercial gain. Freddie Starr never ate the hamster, as Clifford claimed.
For those of you too young or innocent to get that reference, it refers to a famous newspaper front page headline. For those of you too young or innocent to know what a newspaper front page is, I give up.
The recent phenomenon of fake news is different to the ancient phenomenon of false news through its deployment of digital technology. This technology incentivises massive audiences: the bigger the audience, the more money can be received from selling ads around those fake news stories. And that's the in-glorious issue with fake news: because it's made up, it's sensational; and because it's sensational, people want to share it. Compared to fake news, the truth is boring. It would have been amazing if the Pope or Denzel Washington had backed Trump. Somewhat boringly, they didn't.
But here's the thing about fake news. Whisper it, but it's not actually that widespread a phenomenon.
Yes, foreign actors used bots - those automated bits of software that feign human characteristics - to sow discord and disinformation. But in terms of what we know, fake accounts are a tiny, tiny fraction of the total amount of information available online.
For instance, Facebook has said that it thinks the number of fake accounts on its platform are around 3 per cent of the total, and the number of duplicate accounts could be around 10 per cent. Depending on how many fake accounts are duplicated, that could add up to a very sizeable number. But as a proportion of the overall total, it is, while significant, far from overwhelming - and the company and its community are getting better at discovering and eliminating such accounts.
What we know about fake news is that it spikes dramatically around big news events. In a tight election, the use of bots to amplify some messages, or sow confusion, could certainly make a difference. And Trump's election and the Brexit referendum were tight elections. But as of yet, we do not have anything approaching conclusive evidence that these democratic events were tipped by fake news.
So, seen in its proper context, fake news is nothing new - though the capacity for disinformation and lies to reach hundreds of millions of people is, I accept, a recent and worrying development. Similarly, we still know very little about the true extent of fake news; what we do know suggests it is a small proportion of the total information on the biggest social media platforms, and that it spikes around irregular events. Nobody has suggested the Pope backed Trump for a while.
But the principal reason to be sceptical - though not dismissive - about fake news is that so many of those who bang on about it have an incentive to inflate the threat.
For ambitious politicians, it creates a chance to show themselves to be digitally savvy, and deeply concerned about the rise of new technology.
For top ranking politicians, fake news and disinformation online can offer an excuse to cover their own failings. I had the privilege last year of interviewing Hillary Clinton on The One Show on BBC One. She was noble and honest enough to say that blame for her loss to Trump lay principally with her - but it was clear from talking to her, and will be clear to anyone who reads the book, that she puts a lot of weight on the claim that fake news was a key factor in his victory. It wasn't. It may have had an influence on some voters, but it wasn't Facebook wot won it for the President.
I sometimes get the impression that even technology companies don't mind talking about fake news, because it gives them the opportunity to flaunt their social consciences, and even distract from other social obligations, such as paying tax.
But the people who most relentlessly bang on about fake news are also the people who have the biggest incentive to show they can be trusted. And that is - though I hate the phrase, implying as it does mediocrity - the often loathed mainstream media of which I am part. Obviously if you work for the BBC, or The Times, or Channel 4 News, or CNN, when you give coverage to fake news, you hope the audience will see that you are different and that you will be flattered by comparison. If some news is fake, then presumably some isn't, and we the aforementioned great media brands deal in Truth... that's their message.
Let me repeat that there is a new threat from the viral spread of disinformation online. But its effects are still unclear; false news is far from new; what we do know about fake news suggest that it is limited and spikes around big news events; and the key point is that most of those who talk about fake news have a very great incentive in inflating the threat.
Myth Three: People won't pay for News online
The third myth that I want to debunk is the notion that people won't pay for news online.
I accept completely that most people under the age of 30 have grown up in a news environment where they expect, and are given, high-quality news for free. I also accept that a very major reason for this in Britain is the existence of the BBC website. But what I don't accept is that when these people grow up - when you guys grow up - and come to have a bit of money, and maybe realise you need to be well informed to get by, you won't pay for news. Because the fast accumulating evidence points in one direction: if it's good enough, people will pay for content.
It's worth saying that around a decade ago, it was absolutely the prevailing view that content online had to be free. The Guardian was perhaps the most militant proponent of this view. Its then Editor, Alan Rusbridger, championed 'open' journalism, using that most loaded term to imply that when people charged for content, they were part of a 'closed' system, rather than just trying to run viable businesses.
When Rupert Murdoch said he was going to ask people to pay for content, many said he was mad. His argument was: quality costs; if you want quality, you have to pay for it; if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys; and that readers would pay for journalism if it was good enough.
I'm here to tell you that Rupert was right, and those who championed the free model were wrong. Now, thank goodness, people are coming together in their millions to restore the link between top calibre journalism, and paying for that.
I mentioned the New York Times' recent, excellent numbers. Perhaps many of you in this room have a subscription to Spotify. Or to Netflix, which has built a committed audience of over 100 million subscribers in just a few years - mostly, by the way, by using other people's content. Public support for the licence fee of the BBC remains high for now. And look elsewhere, too: the Financial Times is approaching a million subscribers. And if you include digital subscribers, The Times recently overtook The Daily Telegraph.
This brings us to a key point. People will pay - but they will obviously only pay if they place a high value on the journalism - i.e. if it's good enough to justify parting with cash. I used to think that the only way to encourage payment was to specialise; indeed, there was a strong case for believing, a few years ago, that the future of journalism is specialism.
Specialism - being a magazine dedicated to fishing, or a website dedicated to the hedge fund industry, or a fortnightly satirical magazine like Private Eye, for example - allows you to focus your editorial energies in one domain, target a particular industry, chase advertisers with a unique focus, and distinguish yourself from the great rump of journalism now available online.
But it turns out people are now willing to pay not just for specialism, but for general news too, if it's good enough - for instance, that of The Times. When the facts change, I change my mind. So I've updated my view. Now I think the future of journalism isn't just specialism; it's also generalism, or general news, that has special qualities, and obtains unique standards.
THE THREE GIANTS
This brings me neatly to the question of the economics of the industry, and the first of the three major areas of concern for my trade that I would like, with your permission, to briefly discuss.
So far I have addressed what I believe to be three myths about journalism - that Donald Trump is a mortal threat, that fake news is consuming the whole ecosystem in which we live, and that people won't pay for news online.
If these are the mythical threats, what are the real ones?
I want to split them into three categories: economic, sociological and editorial.
1. The Economics of News
I hope I have demonstrated that there is now clear evidence that people will pay for news, both specialist and general, provided it is good enough. Over the past decade, a toxic combination of scepticism toward this view, groupthink and sheer myopia has prompted many organisations to conclude that, if revenues directly from the audience couldn't be relied on, then it would have to come from advertising.
It's extremely important that people in this room realise that there is nothing original about the dependence of news media on advertising for a majority of revenues. As recently as the 1990s, which I'm conscious is when many of you were born, august titles such as the Financial Times got some 80 per cent of income from classified and display advertising, with only 20 per cent coming from cover price revenue. It's no wonder, then, that the people running news organisations today, many of whom were just beginning their careers back then, thought it reasonable to rely on digital advertising for income.
But relying on advertising online is almost always a disastrous strategy.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is that it necessarily distorts your editorial values. If you give away your content for free, you become desperate for traffic; and the way to generate traffic is to go relentlessly down-market. This temptation has proved too much for many titles. The Independent, which was in print a high-minded title, today has a very different flavour, on social media at least. That might, by the way, be why it's very much profitable. Other websites from BuzzFeed to Mail Online do some very fine journalism; but it is often paid for by clickbait and trash.
I know too well how chasing clicks, not least through tweaking SEO, distorts editorial priorities. At the end of my first week on The Independent website, I once had just one article left to publish. I was desperately short of numbers on the traffic front, and it would have spoilt my weekend if I didn't hit my target. Alas the only piece I had left to publish was by Andreas Whittam Smith, the founding Editor of the paper. He was a great journalist but not a big mover of traffic, and this piece was about the need for greater transparency in the House of Lords and civil service - not the sort of salacious, traffic-generating subject you'd see in the Mail's Sidebar of Shame. Desperate for traffic, I looked at what was at the top of Google News. I saw that One Direction had just released an album in Canada. So I put a headline on Andreas's piece that said: 'All the evidence points in one direction: we need reform of our institutions now'.
It was the most read piece on independent.co.uk that month. I love the idea of all these teenage girls in Canada looking up the latest song by Harry Styles and Zayn Malik, and instead coming across an essay by the founder of The Independent on restructuring the Treasury...
Suffice to say, tweaking headlines in this fashion ain't what I went into journalism to do.
The second reason not to rely on advertising, is that in practice it means relying on the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, and when it comes to publishers generating traffic via Facebook, it turns out he is a fickle friend. In January, he announced huge changes to Facebook that would prioritise "meaningful interactions" - i.e. stuff from friends and family - over information from news publishers. Already this has had a dramatic impact on the traffic, and therefore the bottom line, of many publishers. In recent months BuzzFeed, Mashable, and Mic, three websites dependent on viral energy for their business models, have either announced layoffs or surprisingly low valuations.
All commercial models are dependent, obviously, on external forces and market conditions. That does not mean it is ok or smart to fund journalism by relying on the algorithms that Zuckerberg and his team tweak on a daily basis. On the contrary, it is much safer to ask readers to pay. If you can get them to do so, you make them - and not the advertisers - your most important customer. You can collect commercially valuable data about them too. Above all, you are liberated from the vicissitudes of the social media world, whose constant upheaval will never provide as sturdy a basis for top quality work as money direct from your audience.
Media organisations have always been funded by a combination of audience revenue and advertising. The evidence is abundantly clear and growing: in the digital age, you cannot rely on the latter. Not only are Facebook and Google gobbling up ever more digital ad revenue; they are also liable to change on a whim. Luckily, however, the evidence is also abundantly clear and growing that - if you provide a service that is good enough and unique enough - readers will pay for digital output.
This of course means that some platforms will die out. The future for local newspapers is unrelentingly grim. Many television channels will become irrelevant or redundant as streaming takes over. The whole process is Darwinian. But that could prompt a new generation of hacks to produce ever greater work - and take pride, rather than feel guilt, in asking the audience to fund it.
2. The Demography of News
Ah yes, the new generation. In a moment, I am going to examine some of the editorial failings of the news industry. But before I look at why so many journalists have missed the big stories in recent years, I want to focus on one particular cause of those editorial failings in detail - and that is the composition of the news industry itself.
Much of what I am arguing tonight is, I hope, an antidote to the feeling of crisis that has been the background noise of my own journalistic career. I think for reasons you've just heard there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful, and some of the supposed threats are mere phantoms. But I do think there is one reason to panic, one existential threat, one crisis that is engulfing the trade.
That is the astonishing - and growing - disconnect between journalism and the lives of poor people around Britain. Journalism today feels more like the preserve of the moneyed and metropolitan middle-classes than ever before. I think the problem has got markedly worse in my time in the business. And I think we need very urgent remedies.
As I wrote on my BBC blog in December, the most shocking thing I discovered in my first year in broadcasting is the absence of poor people. There are many reasons for this, plenty of them manifested at the societal level. Indeed the capture of journalism by the relatively wealthy is a symptom of much deeper ills in our society. My own view is that the most neglected reason for it is that the poor have no lobby in broadcasting.
Other disenfranchised groups have highly effective and energised lobbying operations. Those campaigning for greater gender equality and equal pay at the BBC, for instance, have sought and received an audience with the Director-General. Champions of ethnic minority representation include Lenny Henry and Simon Albury, the former boss of the Royal Television Society. As for regional devolution, the voice of MPs and local politicians from around the country has been heard loud and clear in, for instance, the BBC's expansion into Salford, or the calls for Channel 4 to move out of London.
But the poor have no lobby in broadcasting.
One reason for this is that they are hard to define. The greatest sociologists in Britain struggle to define class, knowing there's more to it than economic capital, and that the rapid changes in the nature of work and wages means old language about the working-class are no longer valid. You can define being poor or working-class through current circumstances, or family, or to some extent even geography.
Another reasons the poor have no lobby is that, being an amorphous group, they are hard to see. If I look at any newsroom in Britain, I can immediately tell you how many people are from an ethnic minority, what the gender split is, and how young or old the place is. What I can't tell you is how many people have a dad who worked in the mines, or a mum who didn't finish school, or grew up in a council state, or were on free school meals at a school where less than half of pupils went on to university.
These two related problems - a lack of easy definition, and categorical invisibility - should not, however, be an excuse to ignore the disconnect between journalism and the people it should serve. Lest there be any confusion, let me be clear, I'm not pretending to be some sort of proletarian hero myself here: I live in Islington, went to a good state school, and my parents were immigrants who simply wouldn't let their sons be wasters. I know what it's like to be skint, believe me, but I'm not any more.
My concern is that the crisis of trust in newspapers is directly related to the fact that most people don't feel journalists look, sound, think, or feel like them in the way they used to. The gradual decline of Britain's tabloid newspapers accentuates this. Of course the tabloids have done some awful things, and coarsened our culture; but in their heyday they were tribunes of the poor. The Mirror of my hero, Hugh Cudlipp, carried a slogan below its masthead: "Forward with the People". I just can't think of many British media organisations that espouse that philosophy now. Similarly, local papers made journalism a reasonably remunerated trade for those from poorer backgrounds around the country. But no more, for the most part.
When the Grenfell Tower horror unfolded, there was huge anger among residents about the media coverage. And yes, there were conspiracy theories floating around. I reported from the foot of Grenfell, which even now stands as a sickening, ashen monument to human suffering and political and social failure. I have to say that when residents said to me, again and again and again, that the media don't speak for them, precisely because they don't relate to them, and because they don't cover their lives until it's too late and the pictures make good telly, well, I think they weren't completely wrong.
There is a crisis of trust in the news industry, and with it a crisis of relevance, and until the sociological make-up of the industry changes to reflect the people we serve, journalism will stagger from failure to failure. This is most urgent, and most existential, at the BBC, where staff are twice as likely to be privately educated as the rest of the population.
3/ A Catalogue of Editorial Errors
This failure of representation is, I think, the main reason that, taken as a whole, journalists have missed many, if not all, of the big stories of the past decade.
I hope that in what I have done so far I have made clear that, it seems to me, journalists have a tendency to blame everyone but themselves. It's President Trump's fault, because he's launched an assault on CNN. It's other politicians' fault, because they won't come on our shows any more, knowing they can use social media to circumvent pesky journalistic questioning. It's other legislators' fault, for suggesting new regulation that would cripple a centuries-old commitment to press freedom. It's Mark Zuckerberg and the tech giants' fault, because they're taking all our advertising dollars and now not even referring people to our websites.
And best of all, it's the audiences' fault! They're not paying for quality any more, and they're too distracted by better offers from elsewhere, like watching sport or eating ice creams or raising families.
Well, to this litany of cowardice, this catalogue of doom, this pathetic poltroonery, I say quite simply: enough is enough.
Stop blaming everyone else for the failures of modern journalism, and take a look in the mirror. Because the evidence suggests that the greatest enemy facing this noble trade is closer to home. The renaissance and renewal in modern journalism that we should all desperately want will only happen when journalists confront, and vanquish, the enemy within.
The fact is, with very few exceptions, the vast majority of journalists have missed most of the big stories of the past decade. Of course, I must include myself in this. We didn't see the financial crash coming. We were taken aback by the 2010 result and the formation of a Coalition. We didn't see the nationalist surge in the Scottish referendum, the 2015 Conservative majority, the Corbyn surge in 2017 - or, perhaps most remarkably, the actual possibility of Brexit. (Though the BBC did give due weight to the possibility of a victory for Leave).
And of course, like many American journalists, we were shocked by the election of Trump. In terms of my own scorecard, I did better on Brexit and Trump, but I still got the majority wrong.
As I say, there are exceptions to all these cases, but taken as a whole, the profession of British journalism was caught unawares by every single one of these seismic events. To miss one huge story would be, perhaps forgivable - two less so; but all of these, in the space of a few short years? I am, as I say, hugely culpable myself: as Editor of The Independent, I looked at the 2015 election too much through the prism of a hung parliament that every poll suggested likely, but which didn't accord with the result.
So I don't for a minute absolve myself from blame for this. But we have to look at what is going on here, and why. Given most of the events I've just referred to are political, and to give some focus to my argument, I'm going to suggest where political journalism may have been led astray. Without wanting to make this section of my lecture feel like a stroll through Caveat City, I should say again that when I criticise political coverage, I am including myself among the guilty men and women; and, moreover, there are some truly outstanding political journalists in Britain, many of them my colleagues at the BBC.
Why might it be that political journalism has been caught so unawares by all these stories? One reason, undoubtedly, is the utter tyranny of opinion polls. I cannot emphasise enough to you the extent to which, through the 2010 and 2015 election, the news agenda was hijacked - utterly hijacked - by opinion polls. All my conversation with senior politicians and leading political journalists started from a premise set by the opinion polls. And this despite the fact that the opinion polls have been caught with their pants down time and time and time again.
I'd really encourage you to search on YouTube for "Christopher Hitchens opinion poll racket". There, my hero, the late, great polemicist can be seen more than 25 years ago discussing a cover piece he wrote for Harper's magazine with the headline 'Voting in the Passive Voice: What Polling has done to American Democracy'. That, he says, is about "how the opinion poll racket" has tried to be a substitute for democracy" - and how lazy journalists use opinion polls - many of them rigged, by the way - to generate news, instead of going out and finding real news. Opinion polls are a snapshot rather than a forecast, but they give journalists the chance to inject drama and narrative in the often remorseless drift of political life.
Broadly speaking, I think political journalism in this country is in danger of being too much Westminster, and not enough Whitehall. That is, it's so caught up in the fast sport of party politics, the slow business of government struggles to get a hearing. At the Independent, I gave Oliver Wright, our brilliant Whitehall Editor, an Inside Whitehall column for this very reason. There are many journalists who cover policy and government superbly, of course. I think Chris Cook of Newsnight is outstanding.
Then there is the revolving door between journalism and politics. I don't by this mean the great many journalists of all persuasions, including BBC staff, who end up in politics. I mean the tendency of senior political journalists to cross the rubicon, to become special advisers or Directors of Communication. You can of course understand why this should happen; they have the requisite skill and contacts, and I for one do understand the frustration, as a journalist, of feeling like at times you're stuck outside throwing rocks in, rather than in the room, making the decisions. But this revolving door just can't help but create the sort of clientism that substitutes propaganda for proper scrutiny.
All pack journalism is inherently dangerous. I'm told by some senior political journalists that the fabled lobby, the pack of Westminster journalists, doesn't exist any more, though I keep seeing evidence to the contrary. Pack journalism encourages groupthink, and strikes me as belonging to the age before social media. In the Palace of Westminster it is particularly hard not to be captured by various factions within politics, or to go along with what other journalists in the pack - the lobby - have determined to be the news. This means it takes real guts to strike out on your own and say, "hang on: everyone seems to be doing this story, but I don't think it actually amounts to much - and the real story is elsewhere".
The demands of rapacious social media, combined with the groupthink inherent in all pack journalism, makes covering politics highly prone to what, in my view, are errors of judgement. Let me re-iterate that I'm not talking about specific individuals here, but give you a couple of examples.
First, Moggmentum. I'm sure you all know who Jacob Rees-Mogg is. Last year, especially through what has become known as silly season, there was a burgeoning industry in speculation over whether this idiosyncratic and intelligent backbencher was a future leadership contender for the Tories. I read article after article after article about how he was the grassroots' favourite, and various Tories were coming together to plot his takeover, lest Theresa May fall.
But who does such speculation benefit, other than Jacob Rees-Mogg? And is there actually any substance to the story? It is of course one of those self-perpetuating things. Once the story starts to gather, if you excuse the pun, momentum, it does have the effect of inflating Rees-Mogg's reputation, and making him seem more plausible. But do ordinary members of the public really care about personalities in politics as much as journalists do? Runners and riders stories always seem to reflect the interest of hacks and pundits rather than audiences at home.
Or take an example from America. The mad boosterism around Oprah Winfrey is their version of the same thing. After her speech at the Golden Globes there was an explosion of chat online about whether she might run for President. Does that mean it should be covered as news? Hell no! But did CNN cover it as news? Hell yes! One of their reports carried the headline: "Sources: Oprah Winfrey 'actively thinking' about running for president".
Where to begin with this? I spend weekday evenings 'actively thinking' about becoming a reggae producer, or eating Nutella straight from the jar. That doesn't mean it's going to happen. The fact that this speculation was coming nearly a year before the mid-terms of Trump's first term was no barrier to the idle speculation. And if you actually read the story, it contained sentences such as: "One source emphasised that Winfrey has not made up her mind about running"... and "For now, it's all just talk". Er, you don't say.
But the pièce de résistance came out last July. I was on a stag do in the south of France, munching brie and drinking rum sharpeners next to a swimming pool. Suddenly my phone exploded with alerts from news organisations that I follow, including the Telegraph. And what was this remarkable news story? It was Theresa May saying that she would carry on until 2022. As the Telegraph story put it, the Prime Minister's spokesman said she's no quitter and wouldn't be standing down after Brexit happens in March 2019. A follow-up story, by the way, said that Jacob Rees-Mogg had offered the Prime Minister his support.
I have to say, even now I struggle to contain my anger at this alleged news story. First of all, it's a ridiculous question, because how on earth can she possibly know what the situation is going to be in 2022. I barely know what's going to happen next week, let alone next year. What with all the fluctuations in History between last summer and 2022, four and a half years, the idea that Theresa May can accurately predict her own state of mind is ludicrous.
The next thing is, what's she supposed to say? If the Prime Minister, or indeed her spokesman, had said, no, she won't be staying on until 2022 because it's generally felt that she's lost the confidence of her party already, that would have been a much bigger story. So here's some advice for young journalists: if you ask a question to which an honest answer is impossible, don't treat the less than honest answer as a great revelation.
And finally, there's the simple fact that we just don't seem to learn from history. Through the Brexit campaign, David Cameron said that if Brexit happened, he would stay on as Prime Minister. He did that because he knew that if he said he would step down, it would change the narrative of the referendum and, quite understandably, journalists would run with a different story - just as they did when he said, going into the 2015 election, that it would be his last as Prime Minister. So during Brexit he said he would carry on. After Brexit, he left. That should have taught us that you can't always believe Prime Ministers when they answer this question. And yet still my stag do was interrupted by the frenetic excitement among journalists who thought they'd landed a big story.
All this speaks to a deep problem within journalism, which is the editorial judgements and interests of those who cover certain professions are often terrible. Amid the endless brilliant coverage, they often miss the real story. Not because they're stupid, but for reasons I have suggested: they subscribe to a pack mentality; they have a - quite reasonable - impulse toward drama and narrative and conflict; their interests do not reflect those of most of the public; they're part of a revolving door between journalism and the professions they cover - whether in politics, education, health or wherever - driven in part by the explosive growth in the PR industry.
But there is one reason why all of these tendencies are getting worse. And as I turn now to my concluding remarks, in which I shall propose some solutions to the problems I have outlined, I want to suggest that the defining qualities of modern journalism points to a way out of the difficulty the trade has found in.
The defining qualities of modern journalism are its scale, its sociability and its speed. And that is why I want to finish by re-introducing you to the parable of the Tortoise and the Share.
ENTER THE TORTOISE
Forgive my indulgence for a minute, but it's worth saying that I really believe in the power of parable, and as journalists I think we all should. Another hero of mine, with whom I often disagree, was Isaiah Berlin. He wrote a notorious essay called The Hedgehog and the Fox, about the two kinds of intellectual. Hedgehogs knew mostly about just one thing, and saw the world through that prism. Foxes knew about plenty of things, and drew on multiple sources and schools of thought. Though Berlin later said that he was being mildly ironic, people always asked him if he was a hedgehog or a fox. The truth is, he was a hedgehog about being a fox: his one big idea was that there was no one big idea.
Similarly I'm sure many of you know the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, or the Tortoise and the Hare. This fable by Aesop has many interpretations, few of them as simple as commonly thought. But there is one key lesson, summarised to generations of children as "slow and steady wins the race".
I think modern journalism should be less hare, and more tortoise.
We are living through - and you guys are inheriting - the Great Acceleration: a period in History in which, thanks to technology, everything is speeding up. Journalism hasn't escaped this revolution; in fact, it has both reflected and contributed to it. But I think the paradox and predicament of our trade is that, as the world speeds up, journalism needs to slow down.
I still haven't seen the recent film about The Washington Post, called simply The Post. I wonder if any of you have seen All the Presidents Men, about Watergate; or Spotlight, about the work of the Boston Globe; or Attacking the Devil, about the thalidomide scandal that Harry Evans and The Sunday Times so brilliantly exposed. All of these films obviously ooze an irresistible nostalgia, and having grown up on, and in, newspapers, I enjoyed them. But something about watching them as a newspaper Editor, as I then was, hurt me too. That was the realisation that while I was scrambling relentlessly to get a newspaper out, juggling several full-time jobs, and trying to manage a digital turnaround, the people doing the journalism I revered had one fundamental resource that I didn't. Time.
Did you know that the thalidomide scandal exposed by The Sunday Times, one of the signature newspaper investigations in the English language of the 20th Century, unfolded over a decade? All of the great investigations in journalistic history have taken time to land. Even more recently, The Times' brilliant work on alleged sexual harassment at Oxfam emerged from a 10-month courtship of an anxious source by Chief Reporter Sean O'Neill.
And yet the advent of 24-hr news and the internet - both of them, by the way, exceptionally recent phenomena when you consider the grand sweep of journalistic history - has created an impulse toward relentless, breathless stories; towards roiling oceans of information in which, inevitably, poor judgements are made. And all of this is exacerbated and intensified by the social media driven, dopamine-fuelled desire to make stuff go viral.
There is nothing wrong with going viral; on the contrary, it's an admirable achievement, provided it's done in the right way, for the right reasons. Another hero of mine, George Orwell, wrote in his seminal essay Why I Write, "My initial concern is to get a hearing". All journalists want to be read, and that's completely reasonable. But the danger is that the pursuit of virality - in other words, clickbait - distorts our editorial values, making us prize being read widely above getting the story right. That's why I contrast the tortoise - who was slow and steady, and had a clear sense of his goal - not just with the hare, whose slapdash and speedy approach was his undoing, but with the 'share', because I fear the speed of social media, which allows journalists to reach vast audiences in seconds, is corroding the soul of journalism.
Without a recrudescence in the ancient virtues of journalism, digital technology, which ought to elevate us, will enervate instead.
Obviously, I am not trying to militate against the journalistic impulse to get a story first, or to be on the scene of a crime or major event before your rivals. Breaking stories and scoops is our lifeblood. We should always want to be first, so long as we're right, and the impulse to get fresh top lines on a story, and so push it on, is a noble one. But for many journalists, being liberated from the need to cover every story as it breaks will free up more time to focus on the stories that most matter.
Clearly, specialist publications such as Private Eye have the huge advantage in being fortnightly, and not covering breaking news. But that doesn't stop them breaking news stories. Together with a unique wit, it's the quality of the journalism that has driven the magazine to record circulation.
Or take The Times. I really think one of the most neglected innovations of recent years was the decision by that publication to move to four editions a day. As Emma Tucker, the Deputy Editor, told me on Radio 4's The Media Show last week, that has freed up tremendous resources to focus on big stories, because they recognise that they just can't compete when it comes to breaking news 24/7.
On which point, by the way, I'm not getting paid for this lecture, obviously - but if there were one favour I were to humbly ask of all of you, it's that you immediately subscribe to The Media Show podcast - and, if you don't think I'm a waste of space, or in fact even if you do, you rate and review it. Just search online for The Media Show podcast, and click on subscribe.
Ladies and gentleman, so far I have given you description aplenty. Let me finish on a positive note by giving you prescription instead. I started by saying I would finish with some solutions for the undoubted difficulty journalism faces. Let me cluster them according to the three areas of concern: editorial, demographic, and economic - in reverse order.
Editorially, British journalism has historically got a huge amount right, and continues to even today. But I think four simple steps worth taking immediately are:
1/ First, a radical shift to context, to the underlying trends and complex ideas behind the news. This is more likely to take place in what you might call the broadsheet end of the market, I'll grant. So be it. I think deep analysis of why events are happening should be considered as worthwhile as descriptions of what is happening. Pockets of British journalism are doing this of course. I want to see a mentality in which Editors say, what are the 5 or 6 huge trends that are going to change how we live - from AI and graphene, to the rise of China and the data economy, to people living for much longer. And then for their best reporters to be unleashed on those stories.
2/ A shameless embrace of the principle that it is better to be right and second than first and wrong; and a recognition that committing to the former will sometimes lead you to look slow on the uptake. There is a culture war going on, in which the idea of absolute truth has been denigrated. Only by shamelessly fighting for truth can the reputation of journalists be restored. That's why initiatives like Channel 4's Fact Check, the BBC's Reality Check, and other fact-checking services are hugely welcome. They should be given greater prominence.
3/ Related to this, I think we need to make immediate and unforgiving statistical correction one of the aims of broadcast journalism. The peerless Mark Damazer, former Radio 4 Controller, has suggested having statistical experts on standby after broadcast interviews, to check whether claims made on air are correct. Far too often, these checking mechanisms are too slow, or arise in places far from the original interview, for instance, on websites or social media an hour later. But one of the key reasons for loss of trust in the media is the ludicrous abuse of statistics. If independent arbiters with the authority and expertise of, for instance, psephologist Professor John Curtice, were on standby, falsehoods could immediately be debunked, and trust regained.
4/ Speak for and with the poor, rather than to or at them. I know this sounds hopelessly vague. But one of the main reasons for the breakdown in trust between journalism and the public is that capture by middle-class professionals that I mentioned. I take it as a moral duty, being a journalist, to consider myself a tribune for the poor - not because I am a class warrior or proletarian hero - but rather because I know too well how disconnected they feel with our trade, how that rift is widening, and the social consequences of journalism losing touch with millions of people. That means commissioning brilliant programmes, essays, reports and features about the lives of millions of people in poor and provincial Britain - and telling their stories in compelling ways that give them a voice and don't patronise them.
This will be much more likely to happen if we change the composition - the demographics - of the trade. I have argued that this is one of the most urgent problems we face. It is one so serious that I think we should consider positive discrimination, in the best sense of that phrase.
I should say at this point that, in principle, I am against positive discrimination. It engenders suspicion and resentment, and often demotes merit as a criterion for promotion. But sometimes particular situations are so urgently in need of remedy, and the public cost of not acting, is so high, that positive discrimination goes from being a bad to good idea.
Positive discrimination by class is very hard, for the reasons I mentioned: class is hard to describe, and it shifts in a way that, for instance, gender and ethnicity do not. There are also very impressive apprenticeship schemes already in place in many institutions, not least the BBC. But, short of quotas, I would consider positive discrimination toward working-class journalists from outside of London a valuable option for the BBC, when promoting or hiring on and off-air journalists. And though I don't know much about any lobbying organisations within broadcasting set up to help kids from poorer backgrounds, I hope any such efforts can be improved.
As for the economics, Simon Fox, the Trinity Mirror CEO, told me on The Media Show last week that there are two models in journalism now: scale, and specialism. As I have argued, I believe the scale model is inherently vulnerable, because it depends on advertising that cannot be relied on, puts publishers at the behest of social media giants, and potentially distorts editorial values. Further to this, there is now exhilarating evidence that, if you produce journalism that is unique and of outstanding quality, and you make it easy for them to pay online, they will do so. So if you're not in the fortunate position of being funded by a licence fee, have the balls to charge, and take pride in it rather than feeling guilt.
You know, I'm part of the generation that missed out on the supposed Golden Age. Not for me the hot clanging metal and inky glory of the old Fleet Street, nor the public broadcaster awash with cash, where you could get paid the salaries of yore for presenting the News, at a time when the salaries of yore went a lot further. I work extremely hard, not because I get paid so much - though I do get paid very well - but rather because I love it. Journalism, in that hackneyed phrase you often find in university prospectuses, is a state of mind rather than a career choice. Technology has made this trade much more sociable, and much more partisan - just as it was in the coffee houses of the 18th century where the trade really got going. But it has also made it much more fast. It is absolutely imperative, when breaking a story, to be first if you can; but scoops, while vital, are not all we do. And as an approach to journalism, the impulse to be fast, and to be shared among our friends, can too often distract us from the higher callings of our profession, which is to apply scrutiny to power, find truth where it is hidden, and enlighten our culture.
"Slow and steady wins the race" was never meant to sound galvanising. But it was meant to point to a deeper truth - and truth is our currency. As the sprint of the hare was his undoing, and the dopamine-fuelled thrill of the share is ours, so the enduring wisdom of the tortoise should be our inspiration. It's all a matter of time, my friends. Journalism today, and tomorrow, will be at its best when it re-learns the habits inherited from yesterday. That re-learning is my task as well as yours, and I commend it to the University of Kent.
"The Tortoise and the Share - or, How to Save Journalism (from Itself)" was The Bob Friend Lecture 2018 at the University of Kent at Canterbury on 22nd February, 2018.
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