‘The Best and Worst of Times’: the MacTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh TV Festival 2017
Down the years I’ve found myself in some pretty curious situations, but nothing quite like this: standing before the heart and soul of our industry, the creative forces, producers, directors, owners, managers, editors, employees, the elite, the life force that has even — at times — rendered what we do the envy of the world.
For myself, in the immortal words of my Game of Thrones namesake: ‘I know nothing’. But I guess I have experienced a lot.
When I was doing the research for the lecture I was thinking back to what I’d done over the years, and I had to consult Google. I was appalled to discover, that that other fellow with the same spelling had hogged the first 50 entries, where once I was supreme. Winter sure has come for that bastard!
I may have experienced a lot but I manage nothing, I direct nothing. I am a journalist, I’m a reporter, and I really am honoured indeed to have been asked to give this MacTaggart lecture. Yet I address you on the heels of two years that have been an object lesson that we all know nothing.
The explosion of digital media has filled neither the void left by the decimation of the local newspaper industry, nor connected us any more effectively with ‘the left behind’, the disadvantaged, the excluded.
Never have we been more accessible to the public nor in some ways more disconnected from the lives of others.
Over this past year, we — me included — mostly London-based media pundits, pollsters and so-called experts have got it wrong.
The Brexit referendum: we got that wrong. Trump defying completely more so-called experts, pundits and journalists alike. Theresa May’s strange General Election – predicted to get a majority of 60 – 70: we got that wrong too. She was forced to do a deal with the DUP, in order to stay in power, while thousands of people at Glastonbury Festival chanted ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’
Oh, Glastonbury. Like they say about the 60s, if you remember it… you just weren’t there.
Then came the terrible events of the 14th June. The Grenfell Tower disaster taught me a harrowing lesson that I thought I had already learned, but perhaps forgotten. We’d better accept it. We’d better accept it that we are all in this together; all of us in this room are by definition, part of the elite.
Yet I believe that we have, by the nature of our business, an obligation to be aware of, connect with, and understand the lives, concerns, and needs of those who are not.
In short, I believe we are in breach of that obligation – that in increasingly fractured Britain, we are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite. It’s what I want to explore with you today – and how we can begin to remedy it.
It’s about exclusion, it’s about disconnection, it’s about alienation — but it’s also about diversity, and the digital age and why it renders the time in which we live both the most challenging and difficult, yet potentially the most exciting of any age in the modern media’s history.
The completely man-made Grenfell disaster has proved beyond all other things how little we know, and how dangerous the disconnect is.
On that morning of the 14th of June in the middle of one of the very wealthiest boroughs in one of the richest cities in the world, a fire engulfed the twenty-four storey Grenfell Tower.
Even now we do not know the true number who died. The authorities say at least 80 people perished, the surviving residents say many more.
When journalists woke that terrible morning and googled ‘Grenfell Tower’, they found a blog published eight months before. It raged at the Tenant Management Organisation and highlighted the dangers of the building and the disconnect between the tenants and the landlord.
A chronicle of death foretold not by any journalist but in a blog by the leader of the action group for those who lived in the tower.
Where are the once strong local papers that used to exist and served to inform national journalists? Gone. Yet the Grenfell residents’ story was out there, published online and shocking in its accuracy. It was hidden in plain sight, but we had stopped looking. The disconnect complete.
I will argue that our connectivity – life on Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more – has so far failed to combat modern society’s widening disconnection.
Grenfell Tower is a wounding centerpiece of my talk today, and I’ll return there amid my two main themes.
Firstly, that in the age where everyone is a publisher, public service broadcast journalism has never been more vital.
Secondly, humanity needs to match the dramatic growth of social media with a rebirth of social mobility.
But before I can talk more to you about it, let me begin at the beginning.
I did not grow up with an ambition to be a journalist. I have to admit that I didn’t need to gravitate to the elite – I was born into it!
My father was a Bishop. He went to Winchester College; his father before him to Eton.
Indeed, in 1885, he, my Grandfather, General Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow, went to the Relief of Khartoum and retrieved a piece of the step upon which General Gordon died, only to lose it when in 1940, the Luftwaffa blitzed his home to pieces.
If I had a flair for the trade of journalism, I think I can detect having first displayed it at the age of nine. At the time my father was the headmaster of a public school in Sussex.
One Sunday, standing at the back of the school chapel during evensong I noticed an old, unhappy looking man in an oversized great-coat, standing at the other end of the pew.
I asked my Mother who he was. ‘I’ll get your father to tell you’, she said.
The next Sunday my father introduced me to the old man.
‘Jon’, said my father, ‘This is Harold MacMillan, he is the Prime Minister’.
Macmillan chimed in ‘Do you know what a Prime Minister is young man?’
‘Are you married to the Queen?”, I ventured.
‘No, no’ he chortled – I’m a Conservative politician and I run the country’.
With that, he left the Chapel, boarded his chauffeured Humber Super Snipe and purred off to Birch Grove, his gorgeous country house on the edge of our village.
I left my first Prime Ministerial encounter with no lasting thought of becoming a journalist; after all I had no idea what one was.
Rather I thought, with a car like that, a house like that, a greatcoat like that… I’d rather like to be a Conservative politician.
I never trained to be a journalist. My training was in life – at eighteen, Voluntary Service Overseas in Uganda. I had never been on a plane. I had never been out of Europe.
It was a shock to end up for a year in a secondary school in the bush, on the banks of the Nile, fifty miles North of Lake Victoria.
The nearest post box was fifteen miles away down a murum track. Fifteen miles on a British Council supplied bicycle, sometimes ridden through dust, sometimes slithering through the consequences of the wet season, usually to find a blue Aerogram from Mummy, and nothing more.
I came back from Uganda fired with an enthusiasm for Africa, for liberation – very much focused on South Africa and Mandela. I pitched up at Liverpool University. I read Law.
My first long summer vacation, I teamed up with twenty-five others and was one of two drivers on a thirty-seater bus to Banares University on the Ganges in India. It was a kind of cultural exchange.
We took a drama and a four-part close harmony Beatle band, in which I sang bass.
“Hey Jude, don’t be afraid – take a sad song, and make it better…”
Oh the 1960s. Oh, Glastonbury!
On the way there, I fell in love with Iran – a country I have reported on persistently from the revolution onwards. And which to this day in my view, the world and America in particular misunderstand at its peril.
I still had no inkling of journalism, but unbeknownst to me I was piecing together a world I would one day come back to report.
Eighteen months after Uganda, in my second year at Liverpool University and still lit up by having lived in Africa, I joined a protest demanding that the university dis-invest from its extensive holdings in South Africa.
Some many hundreds of us occupied the university’s administrative block. I was no revolutionary, and didn’t belong to any of the available Trot or Marxist groups. To my family I was just an embarrassment.
Inevitably the Long Vacation brought an end to the six week sit-in. I and nine others were kicked out for bringing the university into disrepute. I never went back.
Until, four years or so ago: when, under new leadership, the university apologised and gave me an Honorary Doctorate in the subject I never graduated in – Law.
Four decades on and I still know nothing.
Back in 1970, having struggled so hard ever to get in to University, suddenly jobless and degreeless, I was in deep trouble.
If I had wanted to become a staff journalist, now I would have needed a Masters degree, a series of unpaid internships, and a place to stay in the London area without any guarantee of it working out.
Barriers to entry into this highly competitive industry, largely on the basis of background rather than merit. It’s a central cause of our disconnect.
On 16th of November 1966 when I was at Scarborough Tech, still trying to get a couple more A levels, the BBC had screened Ken Loach’s brilliant, devastating “Cathy Come Home” – It was shown in the Wednesday Play slot.
The play charted the descent of a young couple from a fulfilling employed life to one in which Cathy was rendered homeless and destitute and her children were taken away from her.
And here I must pause for a moment, because one of Ken Loach’s co-conspirators in a sense, was the producer director, Jimmy MacTaggart. Because whilst it was Tony Garnett who commissioned Ken to make ‘Cathy Come Home’, both Ken and Tony testify to the reality that it was Jimmy MacTaggart who created within the BBC what they both call ‘the capacity to allow’ — one of the most precious freedoms any media leader can create.
Without Jimmy MacTaggart, and the Wednesday Play strand that he devised, Cathy would probably never have been permitted.
Tony Garnett describes MacTaggart as the finest man he ever knew, and Ken Loach adds that MacTaggart was a man who personified the BBC at that time, indeed the very best of public service broadcasting.
I am very proud indeed to be speaking in Jimmy MacTaggart’s name.
Even twenty two years later a Radio Times readers’ poll declared Cathy Come Home the best television drama ever; a TV industry poll back in 2000 voted it the one of the best television programmes ever made.
The reaction to the film watched by 12 million people, coincided with the foundation of the housing charity Shelter, with which as a student I inevitably became keenly involved.
After my Liverpool shenanigans I finally did find a job, at 22, as the Director of New Horizon – a small day centre for homeless and vulnerable teenagers in London’s Soho.
At some point in my subsequent years on the board of New Horizon, Bob Hoskins visited. (That’s me at the back, the funny looking one.)
And when I worked there full-time I really intended to stay for six months, and ended up staying three and a half years.
The need was massive, and at first we were just three youth workers. Family breakdown, drugs, alcohol and above all, homelessness were rife. At night in theatre doorways, against heating ducts and gratings, there were bundles of sleeping youthful humanity strewn around the streets of central London.
The emotional impact on we who could provide so little was immense.
By my third year at New Horizon, the Centre had also, in a small way, became a kind of resource for the national media, albeit prompted by local journalists, anxious to report on homelessness.
I found myself interviewed, even making an appearance on the David Frost show – an edition of the Frost Report on Drugs. Indeed I even found I was better at talking about what we did than actually doing it. But it was to be a place with which I was to remain involved and which would inform my journalistic life for the next 45 years.
Last year I stepped down as Chair of the New Horizon, by now supporting a team of 34 youth workers dealing with some 4,000 young people a year.
Last month, the new leader of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council admitted that she had never been up one of the residential towers that her administration was responsible for, despite at the same time being in charge of children and families.
Understandably it caused something of a stir, and then I wondered how many of us has ever been up a local authority housing tower block? I admit that only as a youth worker during my time at New Horizon had I ever been up one — never as a journalist.
Below the smoking remains of Grenfell Tower, I recalled the story of young mother Jan and the rescue of her six-week-old baby pic.twitter.com/F9SQDEJfho
— Jon Snow (@jonsnowC4) August 23, 2017
Jan was a young single mother who drifted in and out of New Horizon. We had managed to help house her in a tower block in Hackney.
She called me one night from a phone box. In slurred tones, she informed me that she had abandoned both her baby and the flat. She was stoned somewhere in the West End.
Jan was only sixteen. The baby was just six weeks old. Mother and child had fallen through the gaps in social provision and we were unable to make up for their failings.
I hurtled across London to the tower and made it up the many floors to her flat. The door was unlocked, the flat was in chaos. The baby was screaming. I made up a feed, and carried her down to my Mini.
At 3.00am I arrived at the Maternity Unit at UCH, the very hospital where she had been born.
‘Sorry sir there’s only one way babies come in here and this isn’t it. We can’t help’.
Eventually, at 5.30 am, Camden social services took the baby off me.
Despite our best endeavours, Jan, the baby’s Mum, died two months later from a heroin and barbiturates overdose. I wonder to this day what eventually became of her child.
I thought about her and about Jan as I stood below the smoking remains of Grenfell Tower. And I thought about the gulf between us all.
Amid the demonstrations around lower part of the building after the fire there were cries of “Where were you? Why didn’t you come here before?”
Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact?
Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower, and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain, to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their stories?
In that moment I felt both disconnected and frustrated. I felt on the wrong side of the terrible divide that exists in present day society and in which we are all in this hall, major players.
We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves.
We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell and who, across the country, now live on, amid combustible cladding, the lack of sprinklers, the absence of centralised fire alarms and more, revealed by the Grenfell Tower.
How much time had we devoted to social housing in this year since the EU referendum, when day after day we found ourselves filling the airwaves with negotiating positions of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, David Davis (the Brexit Bulldog), Jeremy Corbyn and the rest, before serious negotiations had even begun?
Not just Brexit, consuming the airwaves with so much political flatulence. Stuff which we know from viewing figures, whether you are pro or anti-Brexit, bore and frustrate the viewer.
And I haven’t even mentioned the antics of Trump yet. Sapping airtime that could have and should have been devoted to subjects nearer the hearts of those who watch.
We have learned that lesson this year.
I am still haunted too by my own link with what happened at Grenfell Tower.
The tragic story of 12-year-old Firdows, a young girl I met two months before she was killed in the Grenfell Tower disaster pic.twitter.com/p7sQxVGThB
— Jon Snow (@jonsnowC4) August 23, 2017
On the 20th April this year, I was involved with Bill Gates in judging a schools debate, a competition in London. It was the final of a countrywide championship organised by the charity Debate Mate.
That’s an organisation that does fantastic work democratising that skill so often associated with the elite – public speaking.
I was there to judge the best floor speech. I had little difficulty in deciding. The winner, Firdows Kedir, a remarkably poised hijab-wearing twelve-year-old from West London.
She was confident. She used language beautifully.
Bill Gates grasped her hand and gave her the award.
On the 19th of June, a mere two months later, reporting from Grenfell, I spotted a picture of Firdows on a ‘missing’ poster.
She and her entire family of five are believed to have been incinerated together on the 22nd floor of Grenfell Tower. Two weeks ago it was confirmed that remnants of Firdows and her father had indeed been found, in their flat, and that their identities had been confirmed using DNA.
Firdows had been described as “the most intelligent, wise and eloquent girl.” I was fortunate to witness that first hand and since then I often think ‘what might have she become’? What were her life chances, once she’d been picked out in this way? Could she have prevailed over the fractures in our society and succeeded?
Britain is not alone in this – our organic links within our own society are badly broken.
In part because the echelons from which our media is drawn do not for the most part fully reflect the population, amongst whom we live and to whom we seek to transmit information and ideas.
Grenfell speaks to us all about our own lack of diversity, and capacity to reach into the swathes of Western society with whom we have no connection.
Like my fellow journalists, I have spent many hours around Grenfell. I have come to know a number of the survivors, and I speak to them regularly by phone or email.
So casually written off as nameless migrants, scroungers, illegals, and the rest. Actually, and it should be no shock to us, the tower was full of talent. Not least the wonderful and talented Khadija Saye, who died with her mother, on the verge of a major breakthrough as an artist. Or community leaders like Eddie Dafarn, who survived the inferno, but who wrote that warning blog on October 20th 2016.
We the media report the lack of diversity in other walks of life, but our own record is nothing like good enough.
The Sutton Trust has revealed this year that just under 80% of top editors were educated at private schools or grammar schools. Compare that with the 88% of the British public now in comprehensives.
It’s why I want to urge everyone and anyone in this room with the power to do it: give individuals who work with and for you the space to do something, anything, in the wider community we are here to communicate with.
Some of us do plenty of this already but others do very little in this regard. It is one fertile route to discovering lives and issues about which we might never learn. We have to widen both our contact with, and awareness of, those people who live outside and beyond our elite.
Our elite is narrow and deep, but the throng of those who have borne the brunt of austerity and not shared in the lives we have experienced is wide and even deeper.
We can as a country no longer allow ourselves to be so ignorant of the lives of others, or the conditions of people who lived in Grenfell Tower. It should no longer be possible to live in ignorance of the very present danger in which the residents of several hundred UK tower blocks are still living.
That and the revelation of the utter waywardness of one of the richest councils in Britain provoked a shock to us all. Our Queen showed more humanity than her Royal Borough.
This is a scandal that speaks to all of us, and we in the media need to respond.
We as an industry must widen our intake. I was delighted to discover that the Television Festival itself has blazed a trail in this regard with ‘The Network’ and ‘Ones to Watch’ schemes aimed at developing both entry-level and established talent, and as you noticed, some of them are here.
90 fully funded places each year targeted at rendering the television we make reflect more the people who watch it. The cost of the festival pass that we pay ensures the schemes remain free and accessible to all, including year-round events and training.
It’s a start – it’s up to us in this hall to see that the potential exists for those on the Network Scheme to go on to fully funded apprenticeships – positions that have the potential to significantly diversify our workforces and hence the programmes we bring to the screen.
Seek them out. They have to potential to help transform what we do.
A young journalist of ours is present in this room, from the very town where my father was a Bishop, Whitby. He joined us last year. Jack Parkes was the first person in his family ever to go to university. He funded his place at City University only through a full scholarship.
At the age of 23, this very year, he voiced his first report for Channel 4 News. He was reporting unemployment and disengagement in the community of his birth. He provided that local pathway for them to speak to him that might have eluded one of us. He found them all through Facebook groups; a digital means of accessing communities that might otherwise have been closed.
I’m proud to say that Jack, along with documentary maker Hannah Livingston, is one of the first people to be given the Steve Hewlett Development Award today – another new initiative from this Festival. Congratulations, Jack.
The truth is, we all need to build on this. Everyone needs to ask, ‘can we do more? Can we expand these slender gateways?’ It’s in your hands.
It’s not the whole answer of course but we need to open our organisations to the unconventional, the different, the diverse. The dividends have the potential, for example, eventually to help to ensure Grenfell’s agony does not go unaddressed.
I have no desire to find myself at another disaster in another area of social housing that we never knew existed, where people are shouting: ‘Why weren’t you here before?’
I do not dream of the wars and pestilence that I have reported. But when it came to Grenfell Tower, I was haunted. And I still am. I woke every morning possessed by the enormity of it, and of its implications.
Has our glorious welfare state – founded by a Labour Prime Minister and extended by that Conservative Prime Minister Macmillan – come to this?
On August 2nd I reported from Salford, just one part of the UK enduring 29 tower blocks sporting the same combustible cladding as Grenfell. But it wasn’t that which drew us there. It was the wider issues surrounding social housing.
I anchored the programme from the Ordsall area. Once this was the scene of severe deprivation and considerable crime and was regarded as a sink estate.
It’s been regenerated! Affordable homes, private estates now dominate Ordsall. Of the fifty Ordsall pubs, two are left. Virtually all the old inhabitants are gone.
The few that are left live around the ironically named ‘Welcome Inn’ pub. Our programme illustrated the extent to which the new community is fractured. The incomers never come to the pub and have no interaction with those who live around it.
Is this the future? Is regeneration short for gentrification? How many of us ever seriously thought about the swathes of communities that depended upon council housing? What’s happened to lives lived at the bottom end of our society? Who cares?
Well, if we are broadcasting for all, we in this room must.
The flaring walls, the burnt out husk, the resilience and diversity of the survivors have come together as a wake-up call to the true state of divided Britain.
These are some of the most challenging times many of us have ever worked through. In three months this year in the UK alone, 4 major incidents, 115 people dead, scores injured. And that’s before we get to the international developments.
Who could ever have forecast that we would find ourselves wrestling to report, to disentangle, and to make sense of both Trump and Brexit at one and the same time?
Are they both about the economic consequences of the financial crisis of 2008, or do they speak to us of the global divisions between wealth and poverty? Every day we are forced to consider some incremental moment and place it in the firmament of the way we live.
I believe that both Brexit and Trump have commonalities which we need to understand and address.
Come with me to a sports hall in North Carolina. We are in the America we seldom visit, amongst the Americans we do not know well.
Our comfort zones are Boston, New York DC, Chicago, LA, San Francisco – east and west coasts and a few bits in between.
But this is small town middle America — largely unintegrated, few people spend much time out of state — yet through the media, new and old, that they absorb, they see the other America in which they appear to have little share.
They are resentful. They are alienated. Their Facebook feeds are a parallel universe, repeating the chants of ‘Lock Her Up’ that shocked many of us who attended these rallies.
Trump arises, familiar for firing people on TV’s ‘Apprentice’ show. Boy do these alienated people want people fired – politicians in particular. Trump is not a politician but a game show star.
At one moment in this sports hall, he herds the twenty or so journalists, me included, into a corner at the back, and then finger jabbing at us, he shouts ‘Bad people, the worst people in the world!’
The crowd whoop with a mixture of derision and joy. I doubt they’d ever considered whether you and I are the worst people in the world before. But they enjoyed the moment expressing both joy and rage.
I wondered whether they, like the residents of Grenfell, had ever had much contact with the media. As in Britain, in the United States the local newspaper, local journalism has all but died.
The America we never visit, the Americans that we do not know – the alienated and the left out, elected Donald Trump their President. What they make of it now – well we don’t really know because they reside in the America we never visit. The forgotten voices, not unheard, but ignored.
The similarities with Grenfell are stark.
Are we, the media, the worst people in the world? Is Donald Trump making America great again? Is Britain being made great by Brexit again?
In both cases, the challenges of truths and lies render tackling either Trump or Brexit hugely challenging.
And whilst fingers will most inevitably be pointed at the political classes, both Trump and Brexit overwhelmed the media’s ability to call out the lies of those both sides of the debate.
Part of the problem with Trump is that he is the first American to be both President and publisher.
Brexit is infinitely more complex – it has been far harder. What is balance, when the issue as defined by the referendum result splits the country down the middle? When the issues represented such a tangle of truths, lies, over-simplifications, and immense complexities?
Two years ago the idea that Britain would face the prospect of leaving the EU was remote. However it all turns out, we the media, have little cause to celebrate the role we have played.
We should have been far more robust with both the truths and the lies. In any case did we ever know any more than we now know the politicians knew – which was precious little? How well did we represent the arguments?
It’s been a ghastly period in which empty vessels and overloaded egos have been allowed to wallow about the stage, too often unchallenged.
We are in an age when everyone from Trump downwards is a publisher; where in every given year more photos, more information, is published than in any decade of the 20th century.
Never since the rise of the printing press have two companies held such a monopoly over the world’s information. Never have such organisations taken so little responsibility for it either.
Oh no, I’m not talking about Murdoch and Dacre. It’s Facebook and Google to whom I refer.
In the past we’ve had the guarantee of reach through our number four on the TV remote. That was the beauty of public service broadcasting.
Now we have our four million Facebook fans. They are hard earned, but our reach is vulnerable to the whims of one man, Mark Zuckerberg.
He says he cares about news, but does he really? Or does he care about keeping people on Facebook?
Many news organisations including our own, have asked too few questions about the apparent miracle of Facebook’s reach.
For us at Channel 4 News, it has been invaluable in helping us to deliver our remit – to reach young viewers, to innovate, and to get attention for some of the world’s most important stories.
But the other side of the issue – the dark, cancerous side – Facebook enabled the story: “Pope endorses Trump for President”. That engaged more than a million people during the US Elections. That same algorithm that prioritised many amazing reports of ours, also prioritised fakery on a massive scale.
Facebook has a moral duty to prioritise veracity over virality. It is fundamental to our democracy. Facebook’s lack of activity in this regard could prove a vast threat to democracy.
Facebook has a priority to provide veracity over virality. It is fundamental to our democracy pic.twitter.com/7inoIzQZI6
— Jon Snow (@jonsnowC4) August 23, 2017
Facebook’s principles are seldom explained in detail and can change overnight at Mr Zuckerberg’s whim.
Still, there are many ways in which technology has changed both how we consume and how we gather the news for the better.
No more: ‘Sorry mate we can’t do that – No satellite. No dish. We can’t get the film processed in time.’ We are liberated from the technical constraints of the past.
There is virtually no place in the world we cannot reach and transmit instantly from. How amazing that you can lash eight mobile phone SIM cards together and transmit perfect picture and sound — instantly!
When I first reported from Iran during the revolution in 1979, it was on film. Imagine the joy of being live in Iran last May, for Rouhani’s re-election as President: picture perfect in Qom, as forty-one million people voted, however restricted the contest.
Trump bellowing from the other side of the Gulf, off-loading $110 billion dollars of weaponry to the Saudis.
One day, perhaps, our ability, our capacity to report will outwit the lies and deceits in international affairs too.
For our own kind of domestic divisions are writ large across the world too. Nowhere more glaringly than in the crucible of faith and hatred in the Middle East.
But there are dark clouds from other sources at home threatening us too.
The Law Commission is consulting on a new espionage bill. It follows on from the Snooper’s Charter which enables the police to access private communications data without judicial oversight.
It’s now proposed effectively to criminalise journalists, and their sources, treating us like spies. It suggests anyone publishing or broadcasting leaked government information could land in jail for up to 14 years. Economic and financial data fall within this ‘national security’ legislation, thus impacting upon our ability to report – for example – leaked Brexit deals.
No wonder in recent years that the World Press Freedom Index finds UK journalists are now less free to hold power to account than those working in South Africa, Chile, or Ghana.
When it comes to the threats from within the digital universe, let’s start with the good news. There’s no doubt we have been a beneficiary.
Two and a half years ago Channel 4 News’ TV audience was three quarters of a million a night. Maybe a total of five or six million a week.
Two and a half years ago, we had five and a half million viewings on Facebook per month. Since the beginning of last year we have had over three billion viewings on Facebook — and yes, what constitutes a ‘view’ is still a subject of some controversy.
But in that year they were the highest for any broadcast news provider in Europe; a substantial chunk of them in America, tens of millions of viewings in California alone.
Facebook viewings aren’t some kind of paradise, but they do enter us upon a stage the scale of which we never dreamt we would ever reach.
We were among the first to pioneer captioned news clips specifically designed to be consumed on a smartphone. It’s proved a leader in the market.
The clips normally run for some ninety seconds, sometimes two minutes. The uptake by 16–34 year olds has been vast. The subjects aren’t skateboarding dogs, but the most serious stories of our times: Syria, Brexit, Trump, acid attacks, civil rights, Grenfell.
But now the bad news: While the reach of Facebook video exceeds that of conventional broadcasting, the revenue provided doesn’t even come close. And Facebook themselves have provided publishers with the most nominal of sums and certainly not the rate for the job.
Rather than simply trying to take down the fakery, there has to be an incentive for Facebook to pay the rate for high quality news and encourage the development of a global bedrock of truths rooted in their offer to the quarter of the world’s online audience that consume them, and use them.
Indeed when you read Zuckerberg’s manifesto for the future he seems to think Facebook will invent and establish quality journalism. There is no need, Mr Zuckerberg. It already exists, independent of Facebook.
In fact, the duopoly of Facebook and Google has decimated the market in digital revenue that many hoped would sustain quality journalism for years to come. Now we all need to work together and find another way of supporting it, before it’s too late.
The much mourned Liz MacKean was amongst a number of remarkable reporters on Panorama, Dispatches, Newsnight and more, who have provided and proved the point. This country has the best TV output in the world, and some of you here are responsible for that.
Ipsos Mori sampled 1,500 people this July. It’s encouraging that they found 88% of UK adults stated that they trust at least one of the UK broadcasters’ news programmes and that among regular viewers of Channel 4 News, 89% state they trust Channel 4 News.
In a world of social media echo chambers, never has this trust been more important, more vital. We must all work to protect it at all costs.
In 2005, Channel 4 News blazed a trail by installing FactCheck, the first regular source of political fact-checking. This award-winning team, which recently recruited not a journalist, but a high-flyer from Her Majesty’s Treasury, accesses and exposes misleading claims from people in power, to running its own lie-debunking service — combating fake news that is cannibalising the value and confidence of news brands.
Earlier this year a YouGov survey for Channel 4 revealed only 4% of people can actually distinguish between fake news from truth. This is what we’re up against.
Take our Syrian freelance camerawoman: the remarkable, multiple award-winning and recently Emmy-nominated Waad Al-Kateab and her series for Channel 4 News simply titled “Inside Aleppo”. It exposed the horrors of the largely ignored Syrian conflict.
The Syrian war is the most photographed, recorded, streamed in human history. And yet, rarely since the Second World War have the parties involved proceeded with such obvious impunity.
Madaya was a town with a wi-fi connection and no food. Every bomb that hit Aleppo was broadcast online. We are connected to it and yet feel distant from it.
There is so much footage coming out of Syria that it’s hard to make sense of it any more. It’s frequently de-contextualised and often distrusted. Never has it been more watched and less understood.
A war that lasted longer than the Second World War in our modern age is no closer to ending today than it was when it started.
Yet Waad’s films have received almost half a billion views online to date, and thanks to social media, her searing footage continues to spread faster and further than ever before.
Never have we been more able to fulfil our public service remit more effectively. Never have more people seen our journalism, in Britain and around the world. And never has what we do mattered more.
Never has Channel 4 News had a bigger audience; much of it young, much of it across the globe on Facebook – but never has it been more relevant.
Hats off to the courageous Conservative politicians who set up Channel 4 in the first place, and hats off to the courage of Conservative politicians who despite ideological sympathies turned their backs on privatising Channel 4 television 3 decades later.
For just when we thought that public service broadcasting was facing the hangman, its true age is dawning. Channel 4 doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. Its advertising revenue goes straight back into making programmes.
There are many difficulties along the way. Not least, as I have already stressed, the virtual collapse of local journalism. This has two disastrous consequences.
It limits the chances of local journalists coming into our industry, reducing the diversity that such entries used to bring. It also cuts the input from outlying parts of the country that local journalists used to bring.
It also means that the UK, unfed by local journalists becomes ever more dependent upon reporting what’s going on at the centre, eschewing what is happening away from it. The absence of local reporting is merely intensifying what’s happening.
Could things have turned out differently had a local reporter been aware of Eddie Daffarn and his blog at Grenfell Tower, and seeped his warnings of danger and devastation out into the media mainstream before it was too late?
Before, the council meetings would have been covered by two reporters from local papers. Their bumper revenue streams have long since vanished; the classifieds have gone online even before the advent of Google and Facebook. Here the social networks have simply exacerbated what happened already.
This country needs bringing together as never before, and based on what we’ve witnessed over the past year, it remains to be seen if Brexit will be the unifier.
Part of the capacity to do it, we have in our hands. We must reach out, connect and empower.
The resources that we have at our disposal have never been so much needed in peacetime before. To adapt an old wartime slogan: ‘Our country needs us’. Not us the elite, but us diverse, expansive forces.
Inevitably, monetising of all this is the great issue hanging over everything I have talked about today.
We have to look at the new players in this digital age. Facebook needs to pay more taxes; Google needs to pay more taxes, the rest too. The digital media, the duopolies, have to pay more to carry professional journalism.
It cannot be beyond the bounds of human understanding to come up with a way of ensuring that these mega-entities have to pay to play.
Facebook feasts on our products and pays all but nothing for them. This cannot last. Governments, the EU and others have to play an even bigger part in forcing them to pay.
I’m a fan of Facebook — it’s great, it’s terrific — but I’m not a fan of playing fast and loose with the products that we in this room generate at great expense.
But this is the challenge for us all here. Yes, we embrace and revel in the digital age. But no, we cannot let the massive power of its barons devour our local and national sources of information.
There are two possibilities: we could end up in a vicious circle, with ever more extreme and partisan sources of information reinforcing people’s prejudices, and an ever more vitriolic news feed where it is only the reliable dissemination of local news that dies, but national news too.
Or we could make a real effort to provide news literacy, to create a society as concerned with what it reads and views as with what it eats.
For every Waad al-Kateab, there is a video spreading conspiracy theories on the war in Syria. For every Grenfell Action Blog we find, there are many more we don’t. We have seen what can happen when people shout and we still don’t hear them.
The mainstream media must reconnect with society. We have seen what can happen when people shout and we still don’t hear them pic.twitter.com/oQmUTMCiy9
— Jon Snow (@jonsnowC4) August 23, 2017
That’s why it will take the effort of every single one of us – the producers, the journalists, the platforms, the politicians and the public – to reconnect our disconnected world.
We owe it to the memory of twelve-year-old Firdows Kedir and so very many more. I’d like to believe that if she had not passed away, well, we would have one day heard her voice from a stage such as this.
We must turn this pipe dream into a reality for the very many others like her out there.
Well, 44 years ago a young chap walked out of a day centre to pursue a career in journalism. Four decades in which we have travelled from the typewriter to the iPad, from film to smart card, from three hours to record a transmissible image to 3 nano-seconds.
It’s a privilege to be in the midst of a revolution that can yet deliver liberation, but which if wrongly addressed can lead to a terrible tyranny of untruth.
I’m an optimist. I have to be otherwise I would never have dared give this MacTaggart lecture. If we in this room, can bind together, with our colleagues and yes even our rivals across the world, we can prevail in the pursuit of truth.
I shall go on doing what I do as long as they let me, and I know that very many of you will do the same. It’s the worst and best of times to be on deck… but it still has all the potential to prove to be the Golden Age. Let’s seize it!
About the MacTaggart Lecture
The MacTaggart Lecture has formed the centrepiece of the Edinburgh TV Festival since 1976. It offers a unique and authoritative platform to help shape debate in the global television industry. In the past, it has been delivered by leading authors, playwrights, journalists, media titans and actors, including Rupert Murdoch, Kevin Spacey, Elisabeth Murdoch, Armando Iannucci and Shane Smith. It has provoked, inspired and frequently set the news agenda.
To see previous lectures, and a host of masterclasses and panel debates with the greatest talent from across the TV and digital industry, visit the Festival YouTube channel.