Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are “cowards” for avoiding TV interviews, Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs has said.
Comparing Johnson to Putin and Trump in his attitude towards the media, Dorothy Byrne said politicians must not underestimate broadcasters’ importance to democracy as TV is still the UK’s preferred source of news.
Byrne made the comments in delivering the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival tonight.
She said: “In recent years, there has been a dramatic fall in politicians holding themselves up to proper scrutiny on TV and in recent months and even weeks, that decline has, in my view, become critical for our democracy.
“We have a new Prime Minister who hasn’t held one major press conference or given one major television interview since he came to power.
“That cannot be right. And we have a leader of the opposition who similarly fails to give significant interviews on terrestrial TV. We may be heading for an election very soon.
“What are they going to do then? I genuinely fear that in the next election campaign there will be too little proper democratic debate and scrutiny to enable voters to make informed decisions.”
Byrne (pictured) accused Johnson of being “virtually invisible on television” during the recent Conservative leadership campaign, throughout which he was the frontrunner.
He was the only candidate to snub any of the broadcast debate programmes, being represented during Channel 4’s show by an empty lectern.
Byrne also claimed that despite “promising” to do so, Johnson never appeared on Channel 4 News during the campaign. He also avoided ITV News and Channel 5 News, all of which are produced by ITN.
Last week the Prime Minister held his first “People’s PMQs” on Facebook Live, which Channel 4 and other broadcasters declined to cover.
“We were told it was ‘unpasteurised and unmediated,’” Byrne said.
“Of course, it was also unregulated and therefore under no duty to be duly impartial. We did not show that propaganda exercise. And we should not show this propaganda as a matter of course.”
Byrne said like Putin, Johnson “also likes to talk directly to the nation”.
She also suggested he got “his great idea about not having to bother with people like us” from Trump who makes announcements on Twitter and frequently takes questions only as he is getting onto a helicopter.
She also noted that Corbyn has recently only made once-yearly interview appearances with Channel 4 News, at the Labour Party conference in 2017 and 2018. “What does he think he is? My birthday?” she asked.
Noting the “irony” that both Johnson and Corbyn used to be journalists, Byrne called them both “cowards” and “frits”.
“If they really believe in the policies they promote, they should come onto television to explain them, to allow them to be scrutinised and to justify them,” she said.
Byrne went on to dub Conservative party advisers who have reportedly advised ministers to ignore the Today programme as “cowardy-cats”.
“I have previously described listening to Today as like accidentally walking into a knitting shop in Bournemouth,” the news boss said.
“But even I accept that millions listen to it and they have a right to hear from their political leaders on it.”
The above quotes are based on an embargoed copy of Byrne’s speech and have not been checked against delivery.
Picture: Plank PR/PA Wire