Channel 4 boss’s petulant jibe at Boris strips bare the broadcaster’s bias, says former No 10 communications chief ROBBIE GIBB
To me, it came as no surprise that the Prime Minister decided not to give an interview to Matt Frei of Channel 4 News at the G7 Summit in Biarritz at the weekend.
Why would he when, days earlier, a senior Channel 4 executive had made it clear that she thinks it is perfectly acceptable to call Boris Johnson a ‘known liar’.
You probably hadn’t heard of Dorothy Byrne before she hurled abuse at our Prime Minister, but she is the channel’s Head of News and in charge of current affairs programmes.
And Channel 4, like all broadcasters, operates under the rules of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Chief among those rules is that news, in whatever form, must be reported with ‘due accuracy and presented with due impartiality’.
A Channel 4 interview between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and journalist Matt Frei was cancelled this week
So it remains one of great mysteries of our age how Channel 4 is not now drowning under a sea of complaints to watchdog Ofcom, so flagrant, in my opinion, is its political bias.
Ms Byrne took aim at the Prime Minister during her keynote speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival last Wednesday.
She believes that broadcast journalists are too polite to our senior politicians and should be calling them out for their transgressions. Indeed, she got the ball rolling herself by bandying about words like ‘liar’ and ‘coward’.
I am loath to give Ms Byrne the publicity she so obviously craves — how else does one explain such an inflammatory attack — but it is difficult to know whether she is more wrong-headed in her view of politicians or of journalists.
Let us begin with the role of broadcast journalism. For more than two decades, I worked as programme editor for some of the BBC’s flagship political programmes. And for all the claims of ‘BBC bias’, I know we operated under strict guidelines that ensured impartiality was at the heart of everything we did.
Being impartial is not the same thing as giving politicians an easy ride.
Channel 4 Head of News Dorothy Byrne took aim at the Prime Minister during her keynote speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival last Wednesday
It has been my honour to work with some of the sharpest journalists in the business, such as Andrew Neil. Any politician would be wise to be on their ‘A game’ before subjecting themself to an interview with Mr Neil.
With fierce and forensic questioning, he can take apart lazy arguments, expose the reality of any subject and make politicians squirm.
Does he do any of this by hurling insults at politicians, by calling them liars like an over-wrought eight-year-old in a playground spat?
Robbie Gibb says BBC presenter Andrew Neil doesn’t rely on hurling insults at politicians during interviews
No. He does it by knowing his facts and by subjecting political assertion to rigorous and independent scrutiny.
What Neil doesn’t do is start with a political world-view that infects his line of questioning. Nor does he lead viewers to a politically biased conclusion: he trusts them to make up their own minds on the basis of what they have seen and heard rather than telling them what to think. That is what good-quality broadcast journalism is about.
But although subject to the same Ofcom rules of impartiality as BBC News, ITN, Channel 5 News, Sky News and ITV News, does anyone seriously doubt that Channel 4 News has its own political agenda?
Was anyone really surprised when its veteran broadcaster Jon Snow joined in with a baying Glastonbury crowd shouting ‘F*** the Tories’ at the 2017 music festival?
Was anyone really surprised when its veteran broadcaster Jon Snow joined in with a baying Glastonbury crowd shouting ‘F*** the Tories’ at the 2017 music festival where Jeremy Corbyn was treated as the headline act?
In her lecture, Ms Byrne said she believes that in this ‘difficult period’ we ‘need the truth and we need proper scrutiny of all our major politicians’.
What she really means by that is the scrutiny which takes place specifically in a Channel 4 News studio.
When she talks about truth, what she really means is her truth. This is the truth of the liberal and Left-wing elite, so quick to dismiss the views of millions of people who don’t agree with the Channel 4 political agenda. It’s precisely this sort of ‘we know best’ attitude that has caused such terrible division in our country.
The idea that Ms Byrne should be the moral arbiter of truth and scrutiny in broadcast journalism is beyond parody.
She also took aim at my time as Downing Street Director of Communications under Theresa May.
During this period, I hit the headlines for turning down a request for the then Prime Minister to be interviewed by Channel 4 News at the 2018 Tory conference. Having given Channel 4 an interview just the week before, we had to draw the line somewhere.
But the inevitable claim came that we were dodging scrutiny. At the same conference, Mrs May took part in 36 other interviews.
Ms Byrne, incorrectly, quotes me as saying: ‘What’s in it for us?’ about the interview request. What I did argue, then and now, is that for an interview to really work it has to work on three levels — not just for the news outlet and the politician, but also for the public. That doesn’t mean a softball interview with a patsy journalist; it means a rigorous and insightful interview with a news channel that is both forensic and fair.
Gibbs hit the headlines for turning down a request for the then Prime Minister to be interviewed by Channel 4 News at the 2018 Tory conference
In three years as PM, Theresa May did interviews with print and broadcast journalists; she held press conferences in Downing Street, around the country and abroad; in the Commons, she spent more than 140 hours at the dispatch box and answered more than 4,500 questions. Few modern politicians have been subjected to more scrutiny.
The real root of Ms Byrne’s grievance is not that our leading politicians won’t explain themselves at all, but that they don’t always choose to explain themselves in a Channel 4 news studio.
To that end, Ms Byrne is dismissive of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s determination to talk directly to the public as he has done with the ‘People’s PMQ’s’ via Facebook. He is also a prolific user of Twitter. This desire to speak ‘directly to the nation’, Ms Byrne claims, is straight out of the Vladimir Putin playbook.
Since when did talking directly to the people you serve become a bad thing? What is really frustrating Dorothy Byrne, I believe, is that social media has afforded modern politicians a way of communicating that can bypass any broadcast bias and allow voters personally to hold politicians to account.
The rules of the game have changed, and broadcast executives like Ms Byrne need to wake up to it and understand that impartiality in reporting is not something they can observe or ignore at will.
And to any broadcast journalist who wants to parade their politics like a badge of honour, I’d say your political opinions are not relevant.
Your job is to seek out and explain the opinions of others, to make sense of a complicated world and to distil a great deal of factual information into an accessible format.
You are not a personality and you are not a television pundit. You are not there to raise your own profile by displaying your bias on Twitter and dressing up your opinions as fact on air.
Broadcast journalism is not a narcissistic tool, nor is it a political weapon. It is the means by which millions of people should be able to see and hear what is going on in the world through objective and impartial reporting and to draw their own conclusions.
At its best, broadcast journalism is independent and fearless. It is forensic but fair.
And it is vital to our democracy that it stays that way.
My advice to Ms Byrne is to focus on that rather than add her own contribution to the already toxic level of public debate in this country.
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