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March 22, 2018

James Harding’s Hugh Cudlipp Lecture: Technology vs Democracy

By Press Gazette

James Harding’s Cudlipp lecture as delivered on 21/3/2018

It is a great pleasure to speak here tonight and it’s a privilege to honour Hugh Cudlipp, an editor whose memory still inspires style, purpose and values in journalism.

When I’m thinking about a speech like this, I always remember a moment at Party Conference nearly 10 years ago now. The then Prime Minister had finished speaking, I’d pulled together a few of the columnists and leader writers to discuss the line for the next day’s paper.

The conversation was meandering. And, so I asked rather earnestly, what do we think the speech was about. What was it really about? There was an awkward pause, then a colleague turned and said he thought it was about…an hour.

Tonight, I hope to be about 45 minutes. And, in case as it meanders, and you find yourself wondering what it’s about, it’s about the damage technology is doing to democracy.

In 1960, John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon took part in the first televised presidential debate. It was, as Theodore H. White famously reported in The Making of the President, a revolution in politics. A revolution “born of the ceaseless American genius in technology; its sole agent and organizer had been the common American television set.”

TV promised a new age of accountability. It brought the world into our homes. But it’s also delivered more than was originally advertised. Polarisation, the soundbite, negative advertising, the 24-hour news cycle, the industrialisation of spin and personality driven politics have all accelerated with the television age. Indeed, it was TV that gave us The Apprentice – the Making of This President.

Much like television, the internet promised to empower the individual and enhance the democratic process. But it’s also distorting it. The new media is remaking our politics in ways we didn’t expect, nor fully understand. Technology is disrupting democracy. Whether it destroys it is up to us.

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This may seem like exactly the kind of hysterical, catastrophic prediction that gives us journalists a bad name. After all, democracy has seen off fascism. It’s seen off communism.

It’s pretty much seen off the Liberal Democrats. More to the point, Trump, Brexit, the Italian elections are, in one sense, evidence of democracy in rude health: it’s the system’s greatest strength that, when things aren’t working, you can vote the rulers out and get a new lot in. It’s the safety valve in action.

Nor am I one for sniffing at populism. There is the whiff of tyranny when politicians claim that they, exceptionally, speak for the people and so the rules of law, honesty and decency don’t apply to them. But populism is such a baggy and ambiguous term – and, anyway, what would you rather have: unpopulism?

Nor am I a technogrump. Technology is a force for love. It’s no accident that it’s easier to love who you want than at any time in human history. Technology’s a force for laughter. It’s a force for justice: Black Lives Matter, Me Too, I Paid A Bribe. The internet has given each and every one of us the ability to speak truth to power. And it’s a force for progress.

As the chronicler of our contemporary enlightenment Steven Pinker will tell you, the last 30 years have been the most successful period in the history of our species. In our own business, technology is empowering – as a means of innovating in story-telling, fact-checking and doing journalism not just for people, but with them.

And I also recognise the media’s tendency to attribute too much importance to itself.

Whatever’s happening to democracy, the media’s only part of it. The driving forces in the politics of the past decade are the facts on the ground: the financial crisis, immigration, the Iraq war, inequality, stagnating living standards. But I set out this evening to consider whether technology is destroying democracy because, it seems to me, we are in danger of being complacent. While we’re busy reporting the news every day, we may be missing the story.

Around the world, democracy is in retreat. Authoritarianism – drawing self-confidence from the political circuses in the West – is on the rise. Press freedom is widely curtailed; propaganda is increasingly commonplace. In the West, belief in democratic institutions, particularly among young people, is on the slide. Politicians are less trusted – and less trustworthy.

The norms of our politics have taken a turn for the worse.

We shouldn’t be surprised that technology is disrupting democracy. It’s disrupting everything else. Marc Andreessen famously remarked that software is eating the world. But in taking a bite out of democracy, it threatens to devour the political culture that has so nurtured it. Mark Zuckerberg’s instruction to “move fast and break things” was cool once; less so, when it’s democracy.

What’s worse – and so staggeringly self-serving – is that the technology companies have wrapped themselves in the democratic flag, the flag of freedom of expression, to justify their inaction. Despite what they say, technology is not neutral.

It’s engineered by people and produced by companies: if they enable, either through indifference or incompetence, the poisoning of politics, the destruction of trust and the erosion of freedoms, then that’s a choice. What’s at stake is a system we can too easily take for granted.

When Amartya Sen was asked what was the most important thing that happened in the 20th century, he says he had no difficulty answering: “the rise of democracy”. And, characteristically, he’s precise in what he means by it: “We must not identify democracy with majority rule.

Democracy has complex demands, which certainly include voting and respect for election results, but it also requires the protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements, and the guaranteeing of free discussion and uncensored distribution of news and fair comment.”

So, let’s consider the evidence in the first chapter of the 21st century:

Xi Jinping has just removed term limits on the Chinese presidency, approved by a laughable 99.8 per cent of the so-called parliament, the National People’s Congress. (I don’t fancy the prospects on the Politburo for the 0.2 per cent.)

In what must have been a real nailbiter for him, Vladimir Putin has just won another term as Russian President with 75 per cent of the vote, 60-odd percentage points clear of his nearest rival.

Around the world, command and control is supplanting freedom and choice.

In Turkey and Egypt, Hungary and Poland, the Philippines and Venezuela, we are witnessing pseudodemocracies taking hold. Meanwhile, democracies that once inspired – South Africa, Brazil – are now marred by depressing stories of corruption.

For the 12th consecutive year, Freedom House released its annual survey of democracy being pushed back: between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries; 71 countries suffered “net declines in civil and political liberties”.

History is back.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous essay – the End of History and the Last Man – declaring that the collapse of communism resolved the great argument between communism and capitalism, proving the triumph of democracy and its inevitable spread as the universal system of government.

The sequel – the Return of History – is now showing: one party rule vs free and fair democracy is the contest of our times. And, currently, the momentum is with the autocrats.

In the West, too, democracy is having a hard time of it. On the evening of November 8th 2016, I was in Times Square – where the BBC holds its US presidential election night broadcast. By two or three in the morning, the shape of the night was clear – much like the Brexit referendum result – and I’d left the studios to get a little air and see what people were making of it down on the street.

When I got there, my phone went and a fabled journalist was on the line: “Just remember,” she said, “the American people are always right”. They had a choice, she explained, between watching their TVs over the next four years and seeing the Return of the Clintons or Life with the Trumps. “It’s going to be the Kardashian Camelot,” she said, “it’ll be amazing TV.”

And, indeed, it’s proved so good that the President himself can’t resist it. The White House has a phrase for the time Mr Trump sets aside to sit upstairs and watching the talk shows talk about him – it’s described as “Executive Time”; we’d probably just call it Presidential Gogglebox.

Whether you believe in Trump’s rejuvenating mission to Make America Great Again or see him as a disgrace to America’s values and standing in the world, we can agree that a new set of norms is taking hold in public life. Politics is more emotional, less factual, than before. Stephen Colbert’s term “truthiness” – what simply feels right – is often more pertinent and persuasive than the truth.

What Mr Trump once called “truthful hyperbole” is part and parcel of the debate. Likewise, it’s commonplace for politicians to say things that they’d like to be true, but can’t possibly be sure they will be. If you want to be entertainingly, succinctly, intelligently disillusioned, read Matt D’Ancona’s smart little book: Post-Truth.

What is driving this? When I once asked Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s formidable press secretary, he answered casually: we are living in “an information war”. And, I’d argue that in that war, technology is squarely on the hook for the weaponisation of the news.

In particular, technology is responsible for post-truth in four ways:

First, the battle for attention. By definition, the more information that’s created, the less attention we have to give it. The internet may have given us the tools for a more rigorous interrogation of policy; but it’s also given us a lot more noise and, to cut through it, politicians have become less substantive, more shrill and showy.

The battle for attention rewards those politicians who can grab it – even if that means being sentimental, simplistic and loose with the truth.

Second, filter bubbles. Algorithms, it turns out, are not impartial. Networks of friends, families and followers tell us the things we’d like to – and we’re likely to – hear. They don’t naturally point us to different experiences, opposing opinions or a balanced point of view.

Nor do they push us towards moderate, measured arguments: instead, they drive us to extreme content, further into our communities and, ironically, out of touch with the other. The filter bubble fuels hyper-partisanship.

Third, the exploitation of data. The patient, determined journalism of The Observer, The New York Times and Channel 4 over the past few days has made this point better than I ever can. Cambridge Analytica looks like a case study in the abuse of data for political ends.

And, perhaps what’s just as breath-taking, is what you can do legally and uncontroversially: Facebook boasted of its help “triggering a landslide” for the SNP in the 2015 elections; at the same time, the Tories are said to have issued 2,000 versions of their campaign messaging, tailored for different profiles gleaned from personal data acquired from social media.

Bob Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 may or not tell us something conclusive about Russian collusion: it certainly tells us something undeniable about the vulnerability of Western democracy to anyone with a few million dollars, a bot factory and a sense of mischief.

We need to know more about possible foreign meddling in the UK’s recent series of votes. We also need to understand better how political campaigns purchase and use our personal information – and how technology platforms market the data. For this is not a loophole; it’s a business.

This data doesn’t come cheap. So, it means campaigns getting more expensive, more money in politics, a greater voice for the wealthy and lesser one for the poor. It means that politics on the internet doesn’t reinforce common ground, but subdivides it, shaping messages to suit you, fostering identity politics.

And it means that we are witnessing the privatisation of personal data for use in politics – in other words, the tech companies, aided and abetted by the political parties, are exploiting privacy and the privilege of being private sector businesses to remake the public square.

And, fourth, virality – aka clickbait. Connectivity currently rewards crap and punishes quality. In the digital world, an hysterical message is likely to carry further than a considered one – a fact that’s being gamed.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, the author of Chaos Monkeys and a former employee of Facebook, has sparked an extraordinary row with an article in Wired. He demonstrates how the Trump campaign exploited the Facebook algorithm to get more media for less money than the Clinton campaign: it posted provocative content that created buzz, drove likes and shares, that went viral.

As you’ll have noticed, I haven’t put fake news in my list of four. There are many different varieties of untruth: propaganda, spin, partial reporting. I remember walking across the newsroom floor in The Times a few years back and hearing Ruth Gledhill, our extraordinary religion correspondent, getting increasingly worked up.

“You told me you’d gone to Jerusalem. You told me you were there,” she was saying, “But then I discover you weren’t. You lied to me. And you’re…a bishop.”

It’s not just politicians, fishermen and people on dating websites who struggle with the truth. And it’s not new. Fake news, as originally defined, is an overstated problem. When the term was coined, it meant the deliberate creation of misleading information to attract eyeballs for commercial gain or political advantage.

The Pope endorses Donald Trump is a classic of its kind. If the tech companies put their minds – not to mention their engineering might – to it, they could detect and deter such behaviour online easily. Fake news should be like spam in the early days of the internet – a nuisance but fixable.

But, of course, Fake news has come to mean much more than that. It’s been appropriated by everyone to cover news they don’t like. It’s become an excuse for politicians to rubbish journalism. And for readers and audiences it speaks to a genuine feeling, a weary sense that it’s harder than ever to get a grip on reality.

Politics feels like a confidence trick. And, as with all confidence tricks, the result is that, in the end, you lose confidence in it. Yascha Mounk, the Harvard academic and political scientist of the moment, looked at people’s views on democracy in Europe and the US.

The results were startling. In the United States, over two-thirds of older Americans believed that it was absolutely essential to live in a democracy; among millennials, less than one-third did. Twenty years ago, one in 16 Americans thought that “army rule” was a good system of government. A few years ago, one in six did.

The charge sheet against Big Tech runs to more than damaging democracy.

It includes: facilitating hate speech and terrorism, enabling child pornography and paedophile rings, shielding criminality and corruption by defending encryption, plundering privacy by gathering personal information, screen addiction, anxiety, inadequacy, online bullying and chronic mental health problems; giving jobs to robots and taking them away from humans; avoiding billions in tax, thereby not paying to help fix the huge public policy problems they’re creating; concentrating fortunes in the hands of the few and dominating the internet space; investing in unfettered and unregulated AI that may, eventually, run all or part of our lives. And that’s the short list.

For a couple of years now, I have argued that the argument of our times is between the Valley and the Hill – Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill, a shorthand for technology and politics globally. It seems clear now that 2018 is seeing that battle come to life. A techlash has begun. My friend Benji Vaughan’s prediction at the start of the year that we’ve hit Peak Platform looks like one to watch.

In determining what happens next, all of us as citizens have a part to play. And, in particular, there are questions for three players: tech companies, politicians and journalists. The tech companies face a stark, but obvious choice. Either they are going to set new standards by which they operate – or their future will be decided for them.

They should delete or demote dangerous information online; they should be transparent about what they’re doing with our data, particularly in politics; they should take responsibility for public outcomes, not just take an interest in individual engagement.

They have done precious little to halt the destruction of the business model for journalism; there’s plenty they could do to help rebuild it. Unlike many others, I’m at least faintly optimistic that they will. No business is perfect. But companies change and improve: Google has. I suspect Facebook will. How much, how soon is up to them.

Judging by the gathering political storm, it’s unlikely to be soon enough. Politicians have, until now, been flimsy and partial in their willingness to take on tech. But they are now limbering up to set the rules by which these companies operate – or break them up. Of course, this is risky. Regulators will often fix a problem of the past at the expense of the possibilities of the future.

But this debate about regulation is well overdue. For too long, we’ve laboured under some myths. One is that you can’t regulate the internet age because it’s international, abundant and fiendishly complex. Another is that the politicians will be out-foxed by the geeks. And a third is that the genie is out of the bottle, that Silicon Valley is too rich and powerful to be tamed. This laissez-faire fatalism flies in the face of what we’re seeing in China, Turkey, Russia.

Let’s not underestimate the power of the state. If it wants to require companies to behave in the public interest and sustain our system of democracy, it can.

The disruption of democracy represents a specific challenge to the institutions of journalism – and us as journalists. So, what should we do about it? The answer is…I don’t know. Too rarely, we journalists say we don’t know. We live in an age where there’s a tendency to overclaim – so my starting point these days is to be honest and say this is a difficult problem and it will take some work.

My instinct is that the right response for us it to be more democratic. This means, first and foremost, getting after the story. We are not powerless to fix this. In fact, covering technology’s impact on society is one of the essential tasks of journalism in the 21st century.

If you go and see The Post or Spotlight or All the President’s Men – or, indeed, the character of Hugh Cudlipp in Ink – and think nostalgically, ah, those were the days, then go back and watch them again. Those days are now.

The powerful exist in many more guises than just the government. More than ever, we need journalists to reveal what’s being done to us and, often, in our name. Practically speaking, getting after the story means we need fewer people in Westminster and more on the West Coast – one of my regrets at the BBC and The Times is that, in both, we’ve had great people covering technology, but too few of them.

And, when we talk about diversity in our newsrooms, as well we should, we must change the mix of mindsets: we need more engineers and scientists if we are going to have a chance to report effectively on algorithms and AI. In choosing sides – in being more democratic – we must do more to stand in solidarity with fellow journalists being persecuted for doing their jobs. What’s happening in Turkey is shocking and, whether it’s the trial of the 18 Cumhuriyet newspaper or other journalists incarcerated by the state, we need to keep it in the headlines.

We need to focus on the fate of the editors, reporters and bloggers in Russia, Congo and Chad held in detention in connection with the reporting. There’s the obscene incarceration of two Reuters journalists reporting murders in Rakhine in Myanmar. And, closer to home, the persistent harassment by the Iranian government of friends and family of the exceptional journalists working for the BBC’s Persian service.

Being more democratic also means defending the institutions that enable good citizenship. To my mind, this means we should stand up for Sky News when people suggest it should be shut down to smooth the way for a merger. It’s an important part of the range of views, the plurality of TV news in the UK.

It means we should stand up for the independence of the BBC. It is – and must be seen to be – independent of the government. So, while I’m a firm believer in the licence fee, the manner by which it’s set – basically on the say so of the Chancellor – should, I think, be reconsidered come the next Charter.

Likewise, I favour an independent commission to organise future TV debates, similar to the US Commission on Presidential Debates. As it happens, I think the best form for testing the mettle of our future leaders is Question Time.

But the fact is that politicians can and do game the media in the run-up to the elections; camera-shy politicians, typically incumbents, can duck debates and bend them out of shape; broadcasters can say little about this chicanery at the time without imperilling their impartiality; all in all, the public loses out.

Strengthening our institutions also means backing the BBC. I realise I am addressing the great and the good of Fleet Street this evening – not, I suspect, the most receptive audience for the case to increase the funding of the BBC. All the more reason, I think, to make it. The idea of the BBC having “imperial ambitions” online looks increasingly absurd – and self-defeating.

The BBC’s dwarfed by the giants of Silicon Valley, not just in technology and size of audience, but, now, in content spend, too. In the 24/7 news business, the likes of CCTV, RT and the other shiny propagandists vastly outgun the BBC’s resources. For the voices of British journalism and, by that I include British newspaper journalism, to be heard around the world, the BBC needs to be expanding what it’s doing globally in English.

I would argue for an increase in Government funding for the BBC’s World News TV service to complement what it’s done for BBC World Service language services. In a Brexit world, it speaks volumes for who we are and what we stand for.

And, in the UK, rather than trimming what the BBC is doing online and on social media, we should be investing and expanding it. We need to strengthen the public square in the digital space. We need to create common ground and room for civilised disagreement. We need to ensure young people can easily get the information they need to be active citizens. We need safe environments to inform and entertain on the internet.

Heaven knows, I know how annoying the BBC can be. No-one shouts at the radio as much as the people who work – or have worked – there. But if the BBC hadn’t been created in 1922 to ensure the enormous power of radio was used to give the best of everything to everyone, today you’d create the BDC – the British Digital Corporation – to serve, just the same, the public good in the internet age. If we want to strengthen the system of freedom and choice, both in our country and around the world, we should strengthen the BBC.

Finally, being more democratic requires us, the news media, to listen. If we consider the criticisms that are made of us, they go something like this: you missed Madoff and Volkswagen, you missed the financial crisis and the fiction of WMD, you missed Grenfell, you missed Brexit and Trump. You bombard us, mostly depress us, with news, but offer little context for understanding or constructive solutions for the future. You pile in on politicians, but your newsrooms are as bound up in the arcane processes and outdated thinking as they are

You’re samey: your products, people, business models are all so similar. You’re cosy with the powerful; you’re out of touch with the people. Even now, we tell you that Brexit is done and we’re bored of the process and, still, you give us reams of Brexit. You’ve never made the off button look quite so appealing. And let’s allow for the fact that some of this criticism may be overdone. Some of it, sure enough, comes with the grinding of axes.

But, if we listen, we must hear that the public is demanding a renewal of journalism. Like the politicians, we journalists are being asked to do things differently. For more than two decades, every newsroom I’ve worked in has produced more. It’s clear, this is a fool’s errand. The business of making more doesn’t work. The advertising model doesn’t support it. The customer doesn’t value it. If we want to do valuable journalism, we need to do less, better.

To my mind, this also means doing more, slowly. I recognise the imperative of speed in news – being first, breaking the news. But so much of the work that has really counted has, in my experience, taken time. When I was at The Times, whether it was investigating child sex grooming in Rotherham or Rochdale, reporting on the family courts, campaigning on adoption, pushing for cities fit for cycling or exposing tax scams, it all took time – and it was worth it.

Likewise at the BBC, getting inside prisons, immigration centres and juvenile detention, examining the police’s conduct of Operation Midland, tracing the stories of migrants into and, then, across Europe, deciphering the Panama and the Paradise Papers, investigating sex abuse in football, they all took time – and they were worth it. From the New York Times on Harvey Weinstein to the FT on the President’s Club, The Times on Oxfam to The Sunday Times on FIFA, the journalism that stands the test of time takes some time.

Slow news – original investigations, thorough analysis, informed opinion – is, I like to think, what more and more people want. But my enthusiasm for it opens me up to parody. My leaving video from the BBC had a lovely clip of slow news in action: Kathy Clugston languorously mouthing the words to the morning bulletin, while John Humphrys sat back, feet on desk and leafed through a copy of Heat magazine.

The strange thing is that the longer I’ve been a journalist, the more idealistic I’ve become. I believe our job is to empower the individual, expose injustice and examine the ideas that improve our society. That means that we journalists – and our newsrooms – need to step away from party politics and lean further into the problems we face and the answers we can generate.

I’m more interested in technology, the 100 year life, business, culture and the planet – the five things that touch us all every day – than I am drawn by the goings on in our political parties. Increasingly, our current politics looks old – reheating isms of the 19th and 20th centuries; socialism and nationalism on the left and right, liberalism in the centre. It’s increasingly unclear that any of these hold the answer to the problems we face in the decades ahead.

Again, I think this is a spur to renew journalism. It falls to us to do the work. To ensure our newsrooms identify the information and examine the ideas that will fix the 21st century. We can and should recommit to that purpose.

When I took over as Editor of The Times, I went to see the great William Rees-Mogg and we had a conversation, like two children in a playground, about which is your favourite page in the paper. William loved the Letters Page, carrying, as it does, all the expertise, enthusiasms and eccentricities of Times readers.

I loved the Leader page, as it was the experience of Leader conference every day that forced me to recognise what we knew and what we didn’t, to come to a clear point of view that became the lens through which we saw everything else.

Since leaving the BBC, I’ve been rather fixated on how you might combine both, the openness of Letters and the discipline of Leaders. I want to see if we can develop a format and a set of products that, in effect, offers people a seat at the news table – a system of organised listening.

Tonight, you have done more than your fair share of listening. Thank you. If you find yourself wondering, what was that about? The argument, in 140 characters or less, goes like this: We’re in a democratic recession. Technology is rewarding bad behaviour in politics. Let’s do something about it.

For just 10 years after Kennedy debated Nixon, as many people struggled to make sense of what the US said it was doing in Vietnam, Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, assured herself that the facts would win out: “Under normal circumstances,” she wrote “the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality.”

The “help of computers” is greater now than she could have possibly imagined. But, still, it is up to us journalists to ensure that those “normal circumstances” prevail, that the liar is defeated by reality. Democracy is getting disrupted. What we make of that disruption falls, unusually heavily, on the world of journalism. It couldn’t be a more rewarding or exciting time to be a journalist – or a more consequential one.

Thank you.

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