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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

Save the media – from the media!

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

On 10 October, I delivered the annual British Journalism Review Charles Wheeler Lecture to an audience of journalists including Matt Frei, recipient of the 2022 BJR Charles Wheeler Award for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcast Journalism. Here is the text of my lecture, also published in the British Journalism Review.

Some years ago, I discovered what it is to be on the receiving end of a Matt Frei interview. He appeared benign. You might even say he twinkled. The questions, though, were razor-sharp, their edge intended not for me but to fillet out facts about our subject, Charles Windsor, at the time Prince of Wales. The location Channel 4 chose for this shoot was an Islington pub called The Peasant. I’m sure the name was coincidental.

It is good to see Matt looking warm and happy. We last glimpsed each other as we sheltered from the rain under neighbouring broadcasting marquees outside Buckingham Palace, live-commenting on the unfolding story of dying and renewal. The Queen’s death cut across a whirling news cycle of war and political convulsions, creating its own 12-day vortex – and challenges.

I don’t know what was going on under Matt’s marquee, but under mine we were dealing with technical glitches, at various times losing contact with the gallery and a roving reporter. Perhaps audiences might have found such behind-the-scenes struggles more interesting than our efforts – until confirmation of the sad news – to say very little very carefully, but broadcasters and monarchy share an impulse for seamless pageantry and an aspiration, increasingly difficult for both in this polarised, atomised world, to secure loyalty from the broadest possible swathe of the population.

Let me leave my views on the future of the monarchy for another occasion. This room is bulging with a different kind of royalty – British media royalty – and I would like in the short time allocated to me to address the future of journalism. I’m delighted to be here to celebrate Matt’s many achievements and journalistic excellence. And I also want to say this: excellence is the only route to survival.

Journalism, is embattled and some of the things done to try ensure survival – the blanding-out of content, the false balance, the trivialising of important opinions and issues – are not preserving our profession, but instead speeding its hollowing out.

I speak to you as an insider-outsider, a frequent visitor to the realms of broadcasting and of royalty as one of vanishingly few biographers to be granted direct access to the man who is now our king. I rose high in print journalism. I write books. I’ve won awards, if not this one. So far, so media establishment. But not British media establishment. I’ve only rarely worked on staff for British media organisations.

My first job, at The Economist, was a mixed experience. It didn’t help that I was American-born, young, female, hadn’t gone to Oxbridge, or that my first boss there told me he hired me because he fancied me. Later, in accepting a job writing in German for a German news weekly, I formalised my outsider status as part of the foreign press corps in this, my adopted country. Later still, I returned to my American roots in a series of senior editorial positions at Time.

So, for most of my working life, I have known the British media as your close and admiring colleague. At your best, you are the absolute best, world-beating (if Boris Johnson hasn’t ruined that phrase), great broadcasters, great journalists, role models and inspirations, funny, clever, irreverent, uncompromising.

I also engage with the British media as a punter, a voracious consumer of your product. I have experienced your darker sides too, observed you from the perspective of your prey. Friends and family have been hacked and chased and papped. Those involved in the pursuit have sometimes tried to convince me that a loss of privacy is the price of fame. Here’s the thing, though. It’s a short step from denying the humanity of the famous to dehumanising those who are not in the public eye.

In smaller ways, I’ve made the news myself, seen my own story told and mis-told, my views well represented and caricatured. And, since co-founding the Women’s Equality Party, I’ve acquired a granular understanding of the media reflexes that right now risk boosting and normalising exactly the populist politics that aims to kill off journalism – if we in the media don’t manage that trick all by ourselves.

For years, latterly as Time Europe editor, I covered the rise of the populist hard right across the continent and heard again and again from British politicians and UK media colleagues why this could never happen here… a robust electoral system built for stability… sensible voters… the bulwark of a constitutional monarchy… blah blah blah. Yet I was seeing something quite different: the Conservatives and Labour contorting themselves into remarkably Ukip-like positions to try to regain some of the support both were losing to that upstart party, while the electorate grew increasingly angry as their votes went uncounted, their voices unheard. All the while, social media simultaneously eroded the economic models sustaining older media and blew up trust in most institutions, indeed in truth itself.

At its peak, Ukip won just a single seat at Westminster, yet, in lockstep with new media (and arguably in league with it), it transformed politics, muzzling Labour opposition to Brexit and eventually – even faster than I anticipated – capturing the Conservative Party wholesale.

Ukip and its successor parties didn’t have to win controlling power at the ballot box to do this, but they did need to pose an electoral threat. In creating the Women’s Equality Party back in 2015, Sandi Toksvig and I hoped to harness a similar phenomenon to benefit women and equality. And our concept has proved successful again and again. Wherever we run, other parties seek to neutralise us by becoming more like us, fielding female candidates, stealing our policies. Tiny as we are, we have not only won seats in local government, but important changes in political process, policy and culture. Hurrah.

However, we also wrestle with media bias in a way that the Nigel Farages of this world, for all they present themselves as marginalised, never face. Just for example: ahead of the European elections in 2019, in the name of impartiality, the BBC pulled a programme featuring the Women’s Equality Party’s deputy leader Hannah Barham-Brown, talking not about the party’s electoral platform but about her experiences as a disabled doctor. Meanwhile, they splattered Farage all over the airwaves, even though the party he by then represented, the Brexit Party, was, at least in theory, a new entity and had never contested an election.

Many rules and guidelines meant to achieve impartiality are woefully out of date in the digital era, but at least media gatekeepers can see their quirks and unfairnesses, even while protesting that nothing can be done to change them. It’s harder to persuade the media to take a good look in the mirror.

Last year, I received the following invitation: “We have a six-minute segment called Culture Roar where we will be asking the question ‘Has feminism gone too far?’. We were wondering whether Catherine Mayer would be interested in coming on the show for this segment?”

Hilarious enough to think I’d engage with such a wrongheaded, loaded question against whichever Toby Hopkinspole they fielded against me for a WHOLE SIX MINUTES. More hilariously still, the date of the proposed debate was March 8, International Women’s Day. What a way to celebrate female achievement that would have been.

Now, if I tell you the invitation came from GB News, many of you will relax. Oh, you’ll think. GB News. No wonder it was crass. We’re different.

No, you really aren’t.

Since founding the Women’s Equality Party, I’ve been asked by broadcasters and newspapers to debate whether feminism has gone too far, whether Me Too has gone too far, whether gender pay gap reporting goes too far and so on, ad, almost literally, nauseam. Worse still, such debates are typically constructed for fireworks rather than insights, pitting women who know their stuff against controversialists, often female – cat fight! – whose arguments rely on wilful ignorance. This pattern was already established in 2015 but the War on Woke has taken things to a new level, successfully rebranding debate on what was settled consensus.

Thus it is that anti-racist or pro-equality positions are treated with no more weight than any others. Thus it is that reports about Roe v Wade and efforts to limit reproductive rights in many countries, including this one, deploy phrases such as “pro-life”, and platform extremist views in the name of balance. I’m not saying it’s easy to make the correct editorial calls in an age in which those extremist views win electoral representation, but the rise of populism makes it imperative that we do so.

During my years in journalism, I watched us get better at improving diversity in newsrooms and working towards the inclusivity essential for a wider range of voices to inform editorial decision-making. Then, as money got tighter and teams shrank, diversity took a battering too. The unfortunate homogeneity of newsrooms breeds groupthink, feeding through in skewed coverage that misses the impacts of policy decisions on different sectors of the population and categorises stories involving women, whether about violence or childcare, as women’s issues and not of huge importance to everyone. It helps to explain how editors signed off on the nuclear-grade misogynoir that greeted Meghan Markle’s arrival at Prince Harry’s side. It helps to explain how any of them bought into the notion, as the pandemic struck, that we were all in it together, even as Covid exposed and exploited every conceivable underlying inequality.

Journalism isn’t just about ferreting out stories. Sometimes it’s about seeing things that are right in front of us – or, like a pantomime villain, behind us. The broader the range of experience in any newsroom, and the better the channels for sharing insights and ideas, the less danger the obvious will go unseen.

A quick example. From the Queen’s death and through to the end of state obsequies, I was lucky enough to work with a great team at ITV News to try to provide commentary that was properly informative, but also challenged and analysed what we were seeing and acknowledged dissident views. This felt important to me and in no way disrespectful. I had spent time with and around the Queen, a shrewd woman, and not one to honour with lobotomised coverage.

Anyway, I was in the ITV studio when the queue for the Queen’s Lying In State first opened. As the excellent Nina Hossain spoke to an ITV reporter on the scene, I realised, with a jolt, that the queue ran along a stretch of wall between Westminster Bridge and Lambeth Bridge on the south side of the Thames. In that instant I knew exactly what we weren’t seeing: the 220,000 hearts painted on that wall behind the reporter. Those hearts are inscribed with the names of the Covid dead. One of those hearts I inscribed myself, with the name of my beautiful husband Andy.

So it was a gut punch to realise where the cameras were and that they were pointing not at the wall but away from it. Still, I was able to tell viewers what they were not seeing, what other journalists were not seeing.

When I went down to the wall the next morning, our colleagues were leaning on it, stacking their equipment against it, ignoring it, despite the signs every few metres proclaiming it the “National Covid Memorial Wall”. “It’s nothing to do with the Queen,” said one reporter, when I challenged him. Well, yes and no. In her last two Christmas messages, the Queen spoke about and for the Covid bereaved better than anyone in government ever managed. Journalists were quick to seize on the Queue as another narrative of “we’re all in this together”, yet if they had but stopped for a minute to think about the significance of this location, they could have told a more poignant tale, one directly affecting huge numbers of their viewers and listeners and readers, about the intermingling of private grief and public mourning in a run of years marked by loss upon loss. Instead, most news organisations missed this story – and the opportunity to connect with their audiences. The Facebook group for Covid Bereaved families bubbled with disdain and distress. They felt unseen, like the hearts of our loved ones. Erased.

This room tonight is full of brilliant people. You make a difference. The work you do has always been essential and is ever more urgent as existential threats to freedoms, rights, protections and life itself multiply. I want you to connect so that you and your organisations flourish. I want you to see so that everyone flourishes. So thank you for all that you do. Please do more of it, and even better.

Words ©Catherine Mayer 2022

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