Not only is it fun watching politicians being tied up in knots on Newsnight – it’s an essential part of keeping our government honest
NB: This was originally written with a British undergraduate audience in mind. Any American opinions very welcome. After all I don't really know what I'm talking about on that front, except what I read or watch.
Sky digital is brilliant. You get a million movies every month, the first look at spunky American teen sagas, and all the football you can eat. Also, ten minute freeviews on the porn channels.
But as much as I enjoy these offerings, when it comes to truly compulsive viewing, it has to be channel 531: the home of Fox News, the most convincing vision yet of a world where the distribution of information is controlled by rich old men whose fingers are so deeply embedded in brutally capitalistic pies that they’re in danger of losing the Rolex. It’s completely addictive, and completely terrifying. Personally, I can’t take it for very long without recourse to a lie-down or a stiff drink, so after a few minutes of, say, rabid NeoCon attack dog Bill O’Reilly’s laughably misnomered ‘no-spin zone,’ I tend to head over to 507, and the greener pastures of BBC News 24. And what a tonic it is: no flags in the top corner of the screen, no TERROR ALERT LEVEL graphics at the bottom, and, above all, underpinning the whole thing, the guarantee that this is the BBC, and the BBC answers to no-one but the public.
For all its obvious strengths, though, no-one can deny that the Beeb’s news division has been through the mill lately. The Hutton inquiry and subsequent resignations knocked the stuffing out of the organization, and, whatever one thinks of the fact that the only people to lose their jobs over the war in Iraq have been Gavyn Davies, Greg Dyke, and Andrew Gilligan, it’s indisputable that mistakes were made. New chairman and director-general Michael Grade and Mark Thompson have subsequently instituted a series of rigorous self-examinations, and they’re right to have done so: these are dangerous times for the corporation.
But a year has passed since Hutton now, and perhaps it’s time for the breast-beating to stop. The beeb is still engaged in a cult of public self-flagellation, and it’s no longer doing any good. Consider Michael Grade’s speech earlier this week, which argued, in a thinly-veiled dig at the interviewing style of the likes of John Humphreys and Jeremy Paxman, that the BBC must work harder to avoid the ‘knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses every statement from every politician as, by definition, a lie.’
Well, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who will confess to being in favour of ‘knee-jerk cynicism’; except, of course, that that’s not what Grade really means. There are certainly instances in which the Paxmans of this world overstep the mark – when what has been termed the ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ approach becomes rather too literal - and they are less than ideal; but the vast majority of tough interviews are tough because there is something the politician involved is trying to avoid saying, which everyone knows to be the truth. Paxman put it rather well himself, when questioned a couple of days after the Grade speech: when the Guardian charged him with the responsibility for a climate in which people trust politicians about as much as they do tabloid hacks, he suggested, not unreasonably, that "the way to remove people's cynicism is, when asked a straight question, to give a straight answer. The cure for cynicism is simply to engage honestly." The truth shall set ye free.
The great irony in what Michael Grade said is that it rather resembles the euphemistic approach to the matter in hand that makes so many people cynical about politics. Grade’s remarks were superficially uncontroversial, articulate, and indeed admirable in their apparent spirit; and, at root, mean something rather different from what they claim. One needn’t be a heartless cynic to imagine that if the chairman of the BBC can employ such strategies, so can our politicians.
Here, by way of comparison, is another admirable sentiment, which I’m sure everyone would agree with: “In the long term, the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder. If whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred, they will be the recruiting grounds for terror.” Hear hear. And guess who said that? Why, George W Bush, in his 2005 State of the Union address. There can be few clearer indications that to unearth the uncomfortable truths behind the smooth rhetoric, a venue for robust interrogation is essential.
That Bush won another election in part because much of America currently subscribes to the view that dissent is the same as treachery, and that Fox is the most watched news network in the USA, are, it seems clear, not unrelated phenomena. Should you need any more convincing, consider the tenor of the interviews Dubya conducted in the build-up to the poll. He got some real doozies from the Fox team, but the most spectacular of them was probably this: "Do you think that when he says these things, John Kerry, your opponent, do you think he knows he's not telling the truth?"
Well, that’s another way of getting after the truth. I expect it’s the one politicians would choose; personally, though, I prefer the BBC’s.