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August 25, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:13am

Emily Maitlis versus populism: Five ways journalists can stop ‘normalising the absurd’

By Dominic Ponsford

Former BBC journalist Emily Maitlis has set her ideas for a new form of  journalism fit to tackle the challenges raised by Trump, populism and Brexit in her MacTaggart lecture.

Journalists need to move away from “cellophane wrapped conformity”, she says, something she plans to do with a new podcast series for Global.

In a lecture titled Boiling Frog: Why We Have to Stop Normalising The Absurd she set out five possible solutions to the challenges journalists when impartial reporting can lead to the dissemination of false information.

‘Show our workings’

She said: “First, I suspect, it’s about sunlight: We need to show our workings more. We need to be braver about explaining the pressures under which we come, and our own responses…”

“Name populist tricks”

“We also need to find a shorthand – a glossary if you like.

“We – the frogs – have to give names to the populist playbook tricks we encounter. The Infowars host Alex Jones (shortly to be 45 million dollars poorer) is not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ in the sense he believes the rot he peddles. That doesn’t appear to be the case. He peddles it to make money from subscribers to whom he then sells dietary supplements.

“Let’s not intellectualise and debate the merits of this as ‘free speech’. Any more than we would fake medicines. This is just a business model.

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“When we hear Donald Trump or Zac Goldsmith or Nadine Dories or Marjorie Taylor Green talking about ‘a witch-hunt’, or Boris Johnson going the way of ‘Deep State’ chat, our senses should be primed. This is often a precursor to the rejection of legitimate checks and balances. We should ask why they’re so afraid of scrutiny.

“We should beware the ‘parallel that is not remotely parallel’. The FBI search on Trump’s house at Mar-a-Lago this month was re-imagined by Trump for his supporters as equivalent to Richard Nixon’s burglary of the Watergate Office Building. It wasn’t. It is a trope. See false equivalence.

“Just as we now understand that when we hear the phrase ‘fake news’ we should see it through Trump’s own definition – a conscious attempt to discredit and demean – let’s not turn ourselves inside-out wondering if it’s true. The more we recognise these tropes as old, slightly sad and malign friends, the better equipped we are to call them out.”

“Move away from cellophane-wrapped conformity”

“Thirdly, perhaps the style of our reporting can change too. I’m excited to see how the podcast we are launching next week with Global and Persephonica, The News Agents, will allow us room to move away from cellophane-wrapped formality, to lift the curtain on why things happen, how we choose our stories and how we book our guests.

Instead of the cliched stagecraft of supporter X versus supporter Y, we might choose nuance as we did on Americast. There, a conversation might go like this:

“Us: What do you think of politician A?

“Member of public: He’s a liar, a charlatan and a hypocrite.

“Us: You voted for him last time. Would you again?

“Member of Public: Yes probably.

“Because people are complicated, not cardboard cut-outs. And an exchange like that might tell us more about, say, Trump’s appeal to the Latino gay Floridian businessman, or Johnson’s appeal to the Cheshire mother and fitness instructor in a way staunch advocates cannot.

“The News Agents podcast offers us a chance to build loyalty with people who like something with its edges on display. Daily news now accounts for ten percent of all podcast downloads and crucially is attracting newer, younger audiences. So it is imperative, for both them and us, we get this right.”

Scrutinise Twitter statements more closely

“Fourth, tweets. The Professor of Political Communication Claes de Vreese asks: ‘Would a news organisation publish a corporate press release in full without offering context or asking questions?’ And yet we do so with tweets. He believes we should hold social media messages to the same standard even if they come from, say, a head of government: ‘Tweets need the same level of scrutiny in terms of whether they should even be considered for publication.'”

“We are, at our most basic, the mediators between the actions of those in power and the public.”

Remain fair and robust

“So, fifthly – most excitingly – the challenge for us I think is how we live up to that responsibility in a way that is both fair and robust. Either without the other is useless. Let me finish up with an example my colleague Lewis Goodall threw in the path of ideas as we mulled over the voyage of the poor boiling frog.

“Let’s imagine, he said provocatively, the Supreme Court in America has overturned Brown versus the Board of Education. That 1954 landmark ruling that would forever end racial segregation in public schools. What would the media do then? Would we just document it as settled fact? Would we call it racist? Would we offer up ‘both sides’ and leave people to decide if they like it?

“Is it enough, in other words, to report things that might radically change the very fabric of our democracies and our societies as if they were merely a weather update? Leaving no discernible impact on the lives of those we address? It’s a big leap. And I’m not – by the way – suggesting anything of the sort is going to happen in America.

“But I ask the question here because it scares me. Because whilst we do not have to be campaigners, nor should we be complaisant, complicit, onlookers.

“Our job is to make sense of what we are seeing and anticipate the next move.

“It’s the moment, in other words, the frog should be leaping out of the boiling water and phoning all its friends to warn them.
“But by then we are so far along the path of passivity, we’re cooked.”

Read Emily Taggart’s MacTaggart lecture in full on Broadcast.

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