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January 17, 2018updated 19 Jan 2018 8:49am

Former Sky News foreign editor Tim Marshall: ‘It’s not job of reporters to be snide, sarcastic or insulting about Donald Trump’

By Thomas Kavanagh

In his former role as diplomatic and foreign affairs editor for Sky News, Tim Marshall has seen first-hand how far divided societies can fall.

The broadcaster, who has reported on civil conflicts from Bosnia and Gaza to Iraq and Syria, has written a new book, Divided, in which he examines the polarised state of contemporary society.

One contributing factor to this polarisation has been social media, Marshall, who edits his own website at thewhatandthewhy.com after having left Sky, tells Press Gazette.

“Social Media has given us a platform whereby people divide themselves into tribes and into an echo chamber.

“Connected to that, given the crowded marketplace in the media, many people think the best way to get noticed is to scream loudly and scream by insulting and going for the most contrarian point of view, just to get clicks.

“It’s something we in the media should all resist, but increasingly even formerly respectable members of the ‘mainstream media’ are not.”

Marshall has spent most of his career in UK broadcast media, where Ofcom guidelines demand impartiality in news reports. But that is not true in America, where networks are free to be partisan, much like the UK printed press.

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But Marshall says he thinks some stateside broadcasters are forgetting their journalistic role.

“In spite of Trump, journalists should do what they’ve always done,” he says. “You have to report and analyse without getting personal.

“I watched some of the American broadcasters and, although I share their absolute distaste for this deeply unpleasant man, I don’t think it’s their job to be snide, sarcastic and even insulting.

“I think the mainstream American broadcast media has crossed the line on a daily basis and they make clear their utter disdain for this man. They need to remember they’re reporting to the American people, not to each other.

“Some journalists are so sure of their worldview, that they think it’s OK, even in broadcast, to put a slant. I don’t think a reporters worldview matters…

“Even in the UK there is a tendency by some, I stress some, broadcast journalists to, maybe not even knowingly, express their own worldview.  It’s not prevalent, but you do see it more than you used to.”

Marhsalls website aims to analyse the events of a changing world and provide “a forum for non-partisan views” – he says its name, The What and The Why, reflects his own view on what’s important in a news report.

“It’s named what it’s named for a reason. I’ve always felt strongly that you need to explain the why of what is happening, not just the what,” he says.

But Marshall is clear on his website that “the why of geopolitics is far from an exact science”, adding: “To a great extent ‘why’ comes down to opinion, based on an interpretation of facts and experience, but it should not come down to bias.”

The “why” of 2017 could easily get mired in the “what” because so much has happened, but with that tumultuous year behind, Marshall sets his sights on 2018’s biggest stories.

“North Korea, because of the potential for a war like nothing we have seen in recent decades. We need to get that right,” he says. “I’ll also stick my neck out and say Putin will win the Russian election.”

In 2017, Marshall’s website made some fairly accurate predictions on Brexit, European Nationalism, Donald Trump’s slow to materialise border wall and the beginning of the end to the Syrian conflict.

This year he hopes to stay ahead of the curve once more.

“It’s not difficult to predict a trend,” he says, “but it’s hard to predict exact events. It’s fairly easy to say that the split in the UK over Brexit won’t be healed, the migrant crisis won’t go away, that the drift to the extremes of politics will continue right across Europe, that the splintering of Europe will continue, especially if there’s a real drive for a federal Europe.

“All the trends are fairly easy. As a real prediction, I’ll go against conventional wisdom and predict the Republicans will hold on to the Senate. Most people think that because of Trump it could switch. I don’t think so.”

Having been arrested in Serbia, ejected from Croatia, shot at in Egypt and hit with a plank of wood in London, Marshall says he now prefers the quiet life in West London, where he writes his books in a café.

He says the world has become a more hostile place for journalists since he first started reporting three decades ago.

“Without any question it is far more dangerous now than when I started. It was always dangerous for people covering conflict and riots, but a number of things have changed…

“With satellite television reports could be seen from the conflict area, so local stations would pick up reports from CNN, Sky, and BBC News.

“Combatants were watching reports and drawing conclusions and that drew hostility. Snipers will shoot at TV cameras. Moving forward from there it seemed to spread to every conflict. “

Even in the UK, Marshall says he thinks the ground has shifted with a polarised society leading to the increased targeting of journalists.

“Social media has allowed people to say some very nasty things to and about journalists,” he says. “Even in the UK, at demonstrations, if some horrible little pretend warrior can sneak in a blow at a journalist, they will.”

“When I first covered demos in the UK you’d have to watch for the odd rock being thrown, but now you have to watch the demonstrators themselves.”

Divided is set for release in March, until then you can read more from Tim Marshall at thewhatandthewhy.com website.

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