Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Balanced broadcasters a rapidly diminishing breed

Aggressive: the BBC’s Eddie Mair interviews Boris Johnson
Aggressive: the BBC’s Eddie Mair interviews Boris Johnson

The bar on broadcasting standards has been lowered again. The BBC's Eddie Mair has taken opinionated and aggressive interviewing on television and radio to a new level of disrespect for people in authority.

He weakened the corporation's reputation for balance, fairness and objectivity when he leaned forward in his chair on the Andrew Marr show, looked the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in the eye and said: "You're a nasty piece of work, aren't you?"

If I were any of our local politicians, or former paramilitaries, I would be wary of appearing before Mair on one of his programmes.

If he could condemn the likes of Boris Johnson to be a "nasty piece of work", heaven only knows what derogatory judgment he would have in store for someone who spent years involved in violence and is now holding public office in Northern Ireland.

Mr Mair has done a service in reminding us of how far the broadcast media has travelled in the past couple of decades in its attitude towards elected political leaders and public servants in positions of authority.

His comment to Johnson betrays a level of disrespect, verging on contempt, which has become the hallmark of some broadcasters today.

I doubt if they realise the extent to which they are role models, conditioning society in general to have less respect for authority and the democratic process.

The danger is that a few broadcasters are getting too far ahead of themselves, subjecting people in their interview chairs not simply to legitimate, forceful interrogation, but humiliating them before the cameras and microphones, as Eddie Mair certainly did with the mayor of London.

Neither Mair nor the BBC accepted that he had done anything wrong in his sweeping judgment on Boris Johnson's integrity and character. Indeed, the BBC appears to take the view that the "nasty" comment, taken in the context of the entire interview with Johnson, was okay.

Objectivity and balance, two of the foundation stones of the BBC, are being squeezed between two dangerous influences – snooty, arrogant and intellectually-superior interviewers and the lynch-mob style of journalism personified by phone-in radio.

Somewhere in between, the old virtues of balanced broadcast journalism can still be found in the work of many mainstream reporters and correspondents, but they are a diminishing breed.

The prima donnas of broadcasting make a name for themselves, scorning public figures who appear before them, treating them with disdain, or even ridicule, and subjecting them to aggressive, combative, interrogation techniques.

At a moment's notice, anyone in a position of responsibility can be summoned to a studio and subjected by professional interrogators to intense inquisition.

No is not taken for an answer and failure to co- operate is the blackest of marks to be impressed on the audience.

The tweeters of society, like schoolboys in a playground egging on a bully, are tweeting in their thousands that Boris Johnson was "monstered" and Eddie Mair is their hero.

That is the judgment of the viewing and listening lynch mob, to whom it has become trendy to pander.

The individual against the big corporation. The patient complaining about the health service. The people against the politicians.

Of course, Boris Johnson is no shrinking violet. He has a lot of skeletons in his cupboard, personally and politically, which are fair game for exposure.

None of that justifies a high-profile broadcaster sitting in judgment with the words: "You're a nasty piece of work, aren't you?"

In my lifetime in journalism, I have listened and watched the BBC and its commercial counterpart change from factual to comment reporting. The News at Ten has become views at ten. Many of today's political correspondents opine, rather than report.

Newspapers, too, have become viewspapers and this very column is but one small example of that trend. However, newspapers are different. They are independent and varied and a wide choice is on offer.

In contrast, the BBC and ITV/UTV enjoy a privileged monopoly and influence on everyday life, nationally and locally.

Lord Justice Leveson's brief to investigate and regulate the behaviour of the media did not stretch beyond newspapers.

Perhaps it is time someone clipped the wings of those in the broadcasting world who seem to believe they rule more than the airwaves.

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