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BBC's Nick Robinson rallies hacks to "a willingness to call it"

Image: Caroline Scott, Journalism.co.uk

BBC Today presenter Nick Robinson has made an impassioned plea for more journalists to show a “willingness to call it” in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump.

“You have got to make sure your best journalism is when it matters most”, he told a packed Media Society audience in London this week. "Notwithstanding the danger of being patronising to very talented journalists in America, there wasn’t enough willingness to ‘call it’. They’re discovering it now".

While acknowledging that the BBC had a proper Charter commitment to ‘impartiality and balance’, he told Phil Harding, himself a former Today editor, that it was “undoubtedly” the case that the Corporation “sometimes lacks editorial self-confidence.”

'We are not obliged to give perfect balance'

During the Scottish Referendum, for instance, “there was safety to be found in saying the Yes Campaign says A and the No campaign says not A, in roughly equal time. That actually isn’t reporting. We are not obliged to give perfect balance in those terms. Reporting is using knowledge, expertise, contacts to make an assessment.”

And when Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, had raised “the big problem” of an independent Scotland sharing the pound, “some of the early reporting was of the A, not A variety”. But both he and Robert Peston subsequently said it represented “an exocet at the heart of the argument” and “a stink bomb”, respectively.

 “We were both right. But it is ‘calling it’.”

Editors of authority and special status

Robinson gave “an illustration” during the Brexit campaign where 99 Nobel Prize winning economists say leaving the EU would be disastrous while a junior minster would read out a press release written by a 24-year-old saying it’s not a disaster, and Remainers would say ‘you are covering them equally, how dare you, that it not your job’. 

“But economic predictions are not science, they are forecasts, we know they are often wrong and therefore they can win as many bloody Nobel prizes as they like, that doesn’t mean they’re right,” said Robinson.

“In the end, the reason why people have editor in their name – economics editor, defence editor, political editor whatever - is they have a special status, an authority to give their judgement on air - so more of that please. Let’s have more of those kinds of assessments.” And while not wishing to criticise the BBC’s coverage because “bugger me it was hard”, “the 99 prize winning economists, they were bloody well wrong, their forecasts have not been borne out by events.”

'We were out of touch with a large part of our audience'

Genuinely surprised by the Brexit result, Robinson reflected that “we were out of touch with a large part of our audience.” As an example, when he had invited Nigel Farage to speak at a pan-European conference session on news in Copenhagen, some of “our German, French, Dutch colleagues were appalled that we, the BBC, had invited him to speak”.

He also recounted a documentary he had made, ‘The Truth about Immigration’, in which he had said on air – “and I wish I had made it more strongly” - that he thought the BBC, along with Sky and many of the newspapers, had “totally failed to see the anger about immigration.

“I included a vox pop in the report which was not quite of the ‘send ‘em home’ variety but quite strong, and when it was aired it had been edited out and I was absolutely bloody livid. One of the producers thought it was racist and we thought ‘we don’t broadcast that’.

'We paid a price'

"We paid a price. And I think behind some of Trumpery, is ‘you know what – I’m just going to play back to what you have always thought but have always been told by right-minded, right-thinking people, you’re not allowed to think it, let alone say it. And part of the power of Trump’s connection via Twitter, is saying ‘you know what America. I think like you’. The danger the media got into was suggesting that people did not actually think like that on race, on immigration, on sexuality, on speed of change, on wages.  That was a terrible mistake to make.”

Lastly, on ‘Fake News’, Robinson listed five factors he thought had recently and uniquely combined: the internet and social media, democratising the media, making the costs of entry zero so anyone can publish; the gradual decline of the economic model of conventional media so that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter take all the money without any going to journalists; the investment by non or anti-democratic states like Russia and China, not just in black propaganda but also hacking; the rise in political mistrust in the establishment; and the rise of populists, willing to take advantage of all of the above.

'Trumpspeak'

“Donald Trump is willing to use the new media, to use the fact that the mainstream media, as he likes to call it, are in economic decline in order to destroy them, to use mistrust of the political establishment, and yes, and to use the fact that Russia and others are hacking people’s accounts and producing black propaganda, he’s willing to surf that wave. And that combination presents us with a huge challenge.

“So we have to ‘call it’ like never before. I did a Tweet the other day about Trumpspeak when I said, according to the President, ‘judges are not judges, crowds are not crowds and bans are not bans’. And part of what we have to do and part of the American media is already doing it is to say, no, I’m really sorry. It’s what we call in English - not true.”

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