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Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, debated the issues facing the modern media with BBC broadcaster Mishal Husain and Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, at the FT Weekend Festival last Saturday. The following is an edited transcript of some highlights from their conversation.
Lionel Barber: I came across a really interesting interview recently with Tim Garton Ash in the Columbia Journalism Review, which described a scene from the fifth century BC where 6,000 Athenians gathered at the foot of the Acropolis to debate political issues. It was a democratic debate. Now, fast-forward to today: that public space is filled and populated not just by newspapers, radio, television and magazines but also social media. And it’s become an incredibly confused, noisy place. The old maxim from when I started in journalism — “If it bleeds, it leads” — has been substituted by “If it roars, it scores”. So we know, I know, that the job has changed. But I’d just like to ask, starting with Mishal, how has this new age shaped editorial priorities?
Mishal Husain: How have things changed? Well, the first thing I would say is that what all of us as journalists would have been used to were the peaks and troughs that come with the big news events, particularly elections. The challenge that we are facing now is the heightened state of alert that we’ve been in since the EU referendum, which creates practical difficulties around just maintaining the same level of energy and excellence over a long period.
It also means that the “howl-around” is that much greater. “Fake news” is a pretty horrible term and one that I have great difficulty with. But amid all of that, one thing that is positive is the fact that I — and I suspect all of us journalists today — have a renewed sense of mission and purpose. I think I haven’t felt this way about my profession since I was trying to get into it 25-odd years ago.
Fraser Nelson: There is no doubt, there has never been a better time to be in the business of news, because people have never been more interested in what’s going on. I date the beginning of the madness to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. At the time, that felt pretty crazy. But looking back, the craziness didn’t stop. You then had the general election of 2015 where, against all odds, David Cameron won.
We’re in an era when our ability to predict is pretty low, and there are far more people tuning into what’s happening because so much more is at stake. So this has created, for journalists, a wonderful chance to reach out to people who are now interested in what we do.
LB: How far are you constrained, Mishal, by the need for balance?
MH: Well, you see, let’s face it — balance is a word that doesn’t necessarily energise people. I like to think that every day I’m going on air, I’m in pursuit of the truth. Right? I see my job in asking the questions of a particular guest or series of guests on a day as being much more in pursuit of truth than balance.
FN: Mishal is judged on balance because she is part of a government-mandated organisation with an obligation to be balanced. Now, I’m not subjected to that. But who decides what balance is? It is incredibly subjective. How do you define a balanced decision on Brexit?
LB: One of the most interesting phenomena in recent years is the way politicians have become commentators and journalists, quasi-journalists. I’m thinking of Nigel Farage on LBC. Is it a problem when somebody who is a politician, and very opinionated, is given a platform on the radio with their own programme?
FN: Well, I personally think LBC has got a range of views. Sure, you’ve got Nigel Farage there, but then you’ve got James O’Brien, you have Nick Ferrari. I think it’s really interesting to see the progress LBC is making, actually. You’ve got very high-quality debate for all sorts of tastes.
LB: [To Husain] Is this a problem for the BBC, though? Is it pushing the BBC to be more opinionated?
MH: I think it is healthy for the BBC — competition is never a bad thing. All of us as media consumers will, I hope, want to watch and listen to and read a range of different things, so I don’t think it necessarily makes the BBC more opinionated. People will go to different places depending on what they’re after.
LB: Well, let me just offer a couple of observations from my time as editor at the FT. There is no question that in this environment where you’ve got so much noise, quality opinion and commentary is what sets you apart. So opinion has, I would argue, become much more important in recent years.
FN: I think that is true for publications like ours, less so for the BBC.
FN: Because the BBC provides news, primarily.
MH: For us, it is the analysis rather than the opinion. When I think about my career in journalism and the big moments — 9/11, then 2011, the year of the Arab uprisings, and then this period that we’re in — the first two were much more “what, who, why, when”. And now, we’re in an age where a lot of what we’re talking about in the Brexit-dominated landscape is not something that is following any kind of script, something that is completely unknown territory.
LB: “De-platforming”, which is a terrible phrase, this notion that some people are just too toxic to interview — how does the BBC approach this? I say this because I interviewed Steve Bannon on stage in New York last year and afterwards, we did have some internal criticism.
MH: Steve Bannon was also interviewed on the BBC very recently by Jon Sopel. I think that “platforming”, in the context of interviews, is such a pejorative term. It is an interview, not a platform. And frankly, I wish more of our leaders, particularly our prime minister and our leader of the opposition, would put themselves through that in a time like this. It seems to be increasingly a choice for them to avoid such scrutiny.
LB: Yes. But is there anybody you wouldn’t have on the show?
MH: I’m not an editor, clearly. I would agonise much more about some people than others, there’s no doubt about that. And we obviously have our own internal debates about who’s on and who’s not.
LB: But what are the criteria for not acceptable?
MH: I think a lot of that depends on individual editors and how they see it. The BBC isn’t really a command-and-control type organisation.
LB: [To Nelson] What are your criteria?
FN: The Spectator prides itself in giving the broadest parameters of debate . . . we run articles in our magazine you’ll probably not get in newspapers. But, of course, you draw the line somewhere.
Now, you do get fringe figures who are there to shock and provoke. And you can tell that they’re there mainly to write stuff to get a reaction, to trigger anger, not really to say anything. This works well in social media, and you can actually be a nobody, yet create a name for yourself by saying such abhorrent, outrageous things, and you’re inviting others to get outraged.
And this is the trick Donald Trump plays. Everybody falls for it: I’m going to say something outrageous and you’re all going to talk about me for the next hour, for the next week, for the next year. So therefore, the outrage gives them the platform.
MH: And is that useful for you as an editor?
FN: No. This is toxic for us as editors. Because there’s a big difference between clicks and subscriptions. Now, I wake up every morning to an email showing what people read yesterday. If you look at total clicks, that is a very misleading indicator because you can get outrage . . . that doesn’t help you. What your subscribers read, that is very important, but very different to what gets the most reaction.
So if you’re out to maximise clicks, then you will drag your publication to the gutter. If you’re out to maximise the people who think your journalism is worth paying for, that is the route to quality. And that’s the route . . . So this is why publications that have got paywalls are orientated towards their paying readers whose interest is very different to those who don’t pay a thing.
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