Krishnan Guru-Murthy speech: Fears of danger to 'citizen-serving media'

Krishnan Guru-Murthy warns against 'news that divides, shouts and builds personalities'

Krishnan Guru-Murthy at the Oxford Media Convention 2022

Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy has warned against the arrival of broadcast news that “divides, shouts and builds personalities” in the UK, in a speech to the Oxford Media Convention.

Pushing back against cuts to the BBC licence fee and the launch of GB News and Talk TV, Guru-Murthy said: “A challenging media is a prerequisite for any healthy democracy.”

Guru-Murthy gave a keynote speech emphasising the importance of “citizen-serving” media at the IPPR Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday. Scroll down to read his speech in full.

The government is currently working on a controversial plan to privatise Channel 4, which is government-owned but not publicly-funded.

Although Guru-Murthy did not directly address that plan, he spoke at length about the channel as “the definition of a citizen-serving media entity”, citing Channel 4 News’ journalistic achievements, its hosting of the first forthcoming Conservative TV leadership debate, and its high trust ratings.

Guru-Murthy also warned “expertise is draining out” of the BBC and that real-term cuts to the corporation’s budget mean the UK will not be covered “to the same depth” as it has been. His warning came as, on Thursday, BBC News staff were expected to be told more details of the merger of the BBC News and BBC World News TV channels.

He criticised broadcasters – later name-checking GB News – that borrowed from the model built by speech radio stations like Talkradio and LBC “who have convinced the regulators somehow that so long as an openly biased presenter is balanced out by an opposite-biased guest or co-presenter, impartiality has been satisfied”.

Guru-Murthy said: “My opinion – and that’s all it is – is that this is a dangerous road. Impartiality is not a precise science, obviously. It’s an ideal to which we aspire, and it is worth preserving.”

Dismissing presenters who might “quote critics who contradict each other and conclude briefly that they must be impartial as a result”, the Channel 4 News host said: “The centre is not neutral: it is a political position, which often wields power. It is a bias, and it needs to be guarded against by journalists.”

In a Q&A session after the speech, he described right-leaning opinionated news channels GB News and TalkTV as “micro-serving certain audiences”, arguing: “The mainstream audience is not showing any sign of wanting that.”

Asked by Press Gazette about the partiality of Channel 4’s famous 2019 choice to no-platform Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a climate change debate using a melting ice sculpture, Guru-Murthy defended the decision.

“We didn’t express any opinion,” he said. “We made the same offer to all the political parties. We had the same response ready for anybody who didn’t turn up. It wasn’t focused on any individual – in fact there were two,” he added, referring to the fact then-Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage was also represented in ice.

[Read more: Ofcom rejects Tory complaint over Channel 4 News climate debate with stand-in ice sculpture for Boris Johnson]

“And I actually bent over backwards in the programme – to quite a lot of criticism on social media, but it was regulatorily required – to put the arguments that were not represented by people who didn’t turn up….

“That’s not the only time there’ve been empty podiums in debates. And probably won’t be the last time. But I hope we’ll have full podiums on Friday,” he said, referring to the Conservative leadership debate he will host for Channel 4.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s speech to the Oxford Media Convention 2022 in full:

Good afternoon, everyone.

This is a good time, of course, to consider what a citizen-serving news media should be about.

There are big policy questions in play. The futures of all public service broadcasters are being debated. That is the job of politicians, and we’ll wait to see what they decide.

I’m going to concentrate on the central purpose of regulated broadcast news in our democracy and the apparent changes new players are ushering in.

I fear that citizen-serving media is in danger of becoming opinionated news: news that divides, shouts and builds personalities, rather than news that informs democracy with a deep commitment to impartiality.

Let me start, then, by laying out the mission of my own programme, Channel 4 News, as defined by our remit. 

Channel 4 is the definition of a citizen-serving media entity. It is owned by the public, but costs us nothing. It has a legally defined and enforceable mission to serve the public. The current remit of Channel 4 – what it must do by law – is provide a broad range of high quality and diverse programming, demonstrate innovation and creativity, appeal to the tastes of a culturally diverse society, include programmes that are educational and distinctive.

Ofcom, the regulator, then further defines that remit: Channel 4 must appeal to young people, support the development of people with creative talent, promote alternative views, and stimulate well-informed debate.

That, for example, is why we are hosting the first debate between Conservative leadership candidates on Friday night.

It is absolutely core to our public purpose that we host things like that, because our remit says we must challenge established views.

The fact Channel 4 give the makers of Channel 4 News, ITN, a generous budget means we can do an awful lot beyond just telling you what happened today or putting on a news chat show. 

Channel 4 News doesn’t just cover the news, it uncovers the news. It is the reason our investigative unit could pursue a company like Cambridge Analytica and reveal how it was manipulating democracies around the world, using Facebook data to reach into people’s political preferences.

[Read more: Channel 4 News picks up TV Bafta for Cambridge Analytica undercover investigation]

Using old-school, but expensive and risky undercover techniques, they could blow open, on secret cameras, how executives were boasting about honey traps and worse to deliver political victories.

Of course, for every investigation that makes it onto the programme, there is an expensive investigation that hasn’t quite made the grade. For the same reason. Channel 4 News could invest significant resource and effort into telling the stories of civilians in the Syrian war, cataloguing the horrors until one day – almost by chance – there was enough material to make a feature documentary, For Sama, that would go on to win almost every international award and even gain an Oscar nomination.

[Read more: Bafta-winner Waad Al-Kateab discussed burying Channel 4 News Syrian war footage in case of her death]

And because the brief is to be fearless, our journalists could spend months detailing how election expenses were being spent by political candidates in the UK, leading to a prosecution. 

That’s risky: getting it wrong would have been damaging. It requires editors and commissioners with the stomach for it. But a citizen-serving media’s primary focus must be delivering to the public – not worrying about the repercussions of its journalism.

Right now, Channel 4 must provide over 208 hours of news that delivers against the remit in peak viewing times (that’s between 6pm and 10.30pm), and 208 hours of current affairs – 80 of which must be in peak.

The mission is to tell the stories other programmes don’t. To speak to people whose voices were unheard and unreported.

What you might say is that’s all very well and high-minded, but there is a crisis of trust in the media right now. And on the face of it, that is true.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report has shown that since the Brexit referendum, trust in the media in the UK has fallen sharply. After a small recovery during Covid, it fell again this year to 34% as a rating. That’s an average, across broadcasters, newspapers and news websites.

But take a closer look at the data and the public service broadcasters shine as relative beacons of trust, with the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 at least 20 points ahead of that 34% average. Only the Financial Times amongst newspapers gets a similar trust rating.

[Read more: Six charts that sum up the state of the global news industry in 2022]

And Channel 4 is the least distrusted broadcaster. So if you net for trust and distrust ratings, Channel 4 actually comes top as the most-trusted news provider in Britain. 

Of course there are problems of trust, even for public service broadcasters. The public’s relationship with the media has changed: as consumers we are much more questioning, more critical, less accepting of tablets of truth handed down. And it is clear there is a very vocal minority who are actually angry with public service broadcasters.

Some – and these tend actually to be on the left politically – think the broadcasters have been guilty of a false equivalence, of giving airtime to people whose values or beliefs are patently wrong in their view; that the principle of impartiality and equal time to different sides on topics such as climate change, racism, are misguided. 

Others, who tend to be on the right, think media is infused with social liberalism, will generally side with identity and progressive politics.

It is important for us in broadcast journalism to understand more what the problem is, and to be less dismissive of the views of these minorities. For much of the last 40 years or so, the broadcast media satisfied itself that so long as it was being criticised by people on the left and right – or Leave and Remain in recent years – it must be getting it right. That balance has somehow been achieved. How many times have you seen a presenter quote critics who contradict each other and conclude briefly that they must be impartial as a result?

This is clearly a trap, and one of the reasons our critics feel so aggrieved and ignored by our response. Because the centre is not neutral: it is a political position, which often wields power. It is a bias, and it needs to be guarded against by journalists.

For some it is tempting to argue impartial news is impossible: to succumb to the American argument that free speech is more important; that letting a state regulator adjudicate what can we said on TV news is anti-democratic; that everyone is biased and to pretend that you can be truly impartial is a lie.

The idea underpinning Fox News and others is that there is more honesty in presenters who tell you what they think and where they’re coming from. It’s already taking hold in some of our broadcast media.

Having opinionated presenters is increasingly common in the UK now. The entrants to the market are going down an increasingly personality-driven road. Big names – often escapees from impartial broadcasting – are now free to express their views.

TV is borrowing from talk radio stations, who have convinced the regulators somehow that so long as an openly biased presenter is balanced out by an opposite-biased guest or co-presenter, impartiality has been satisfied.

[Read more: GB News ratings one year on: How is channel faring versus TalkTV in airwaves battle?]

My opinion – and that’s all it is – is that this is a dangerous road. Impartiality is not a precise science, obviously. It’s an ideal to which we aspire, and it is worth preserving.

We try to leave our opinions at the door, to check our innate biases, to examine arguments we might find instinctively unattractive and ferociously scrutinise the arguments we are naturally drawn to.

As an interviewer my approach must always be the same: whoever is in power, wherever I am in the world, to think about my interviewee’s arguments and question it with evidence, to pick up the weak points and inconsistencies, to explore the potential strengths.

It doesn’t make you popular. But it is not my job to be friends with people in power, to be the one they leak their stories to. It is my job to represent viewers and their concerns, to hold power to account, to ask the questions people at home might ask.

For me, as a viewer, I’ve always felt that means it’s better not to know the opinions of the questioner, because they have to represent everyone. And if viewers know, that is what we’re all striving for, they will hopefully continue to trust us.

As a viewer and as a citizen, I fear the growth of opinionated broadcasting that seeks to recruit tribes, poisons the well and undermines us all. If Fox News looks the same as the BBC – presents itself with the same visual grammar and visual cues – it becomes harder for viewers to tell them apart, or to believe that one is truly seeking fairness and balance, while the other has no real interest in it at all.

Importantly, there is no evidence the public wants opinionated news or deregulation. Personally, as a viewer, I don’t care what the views are of news presenters. And again, the Reuters survey tells us three quarters of people want news to be impartial.

And if you compare trust in the public service broadcasters to the new, more opinionated channels, it is clear what the public thinks: against a trust score of 54% for Channel 4 News, GB News, for example, was at 27%.

And yet there is deep uncertainty around what the future of news for the big public service broadcasters will be. The effective closure of the BBC News Channel seems to have passed largely without comment. People seem to assume that going from two channels – one domestic and one international – to one means that the news channel we know here in this country will basically continue and be broadcast around the world.

It won’t. The significant cut in real terms to the licence fee by freezing it against inflation has big consequences for BBC News, and it’s causing many job losses. Expertise is draining out of the corporation. The new BBC News Channel will surely end up being a mostly international channel, effectively a rebranded BBC World.

[Read more: BBC annual report – £1bn savings made in five years as more cuts needed]

A lot of UK news and politics just won’t be covered the same way, to the same depth and with the same expertise on television. The BBC will say that the news website gets many more viewers online, so closing the TV channel doesn’t really matter.

Maybe that’s true. But the last channel they said that about was BBC Three, which is now widely accepted as having been a mistake that they are now correcting.

Sky News too, which is not a licenced public service broadcaster but is a high quality impartial news provider, also faces uncertainty.

Once the ten-year promise to keep Sky News going is over, will its owners Comcast keep funding it and guarantee its editorial independence? The promise it made when buying the channel expires in 2028 – there is nothing to stop them closing it down after that.

Of course there are always going to be some who say: good! Public service broadcasters are often unpopular with people in power, and as I discussed earlier, it is literally in our remit to challenge established views.

But it’s important to defend against any idea that there is something party-political about it. Conservatives are in power right now, so get the scrutiny that goes with that. But Labour never liked it in power either: ask Alastair Campbell or Tony Blair when Channel 4 News got the legal advice for the Iraq War.

It’s not personal or political – it is citizen-serving. A challenging media is a prerequisite for any healthy democracy.

What is undeniable is that there remains an extraordinary thirst for information. People are not losing interest in news, current affairs or analysis. Since the start of the war in Ukraine Channel 4 News audiences leapt by 50% on television.

The number of young viewers aged between 16 and 24 almost doubled on a year ago. And there has been huge demand from young viewers for impartial explainers on everything from Ukraine to the Conservative leadership crisis.

Millions of views on Snapchat and Tiktok, adding to the now traditional platforms of Twitter and Facebook, show young people are developing a sense of what are trusted news brands in an age of disinformation and a government that said things which turned out to be untrue.

The job of all public service broadcasters right now is to constantly find new ways to serve those citizens wherever they are and whatever platform they prefer.

It is up to our MPs now in the new government to set the public service broadcasting environment in which we will operate.

Thank you very much.

Picture: Press Gazette

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