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March 16, 2023updated 20 Mar 2023 9:41am

Clive Myrie blasts ‘appalling’ Fox News lawsuit revelations in speech defending press freedom

Myrie defended journalistic impartiality, arguing an opinionated BBC cannot expect licence fee payment.

By Bron Maher

BBC News presenter Clive Myrie has decried “appalling” revelations from the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News in a speech defending freedom of the press.

Describing “the powerful” and political “zealous true believers” as “the true enemies of the people”, Myrie also offered a defence of journalistic impartiality, arguing an opinionated BBC cannot expect people to pay the licence fee.

And he said that while the BBC had improved its minority representation during his career, it was failing to promote marginalised groups into leadership positions.

Myrie was speaking on Wednesday at the 2023 Society of Editors Media Freedom Conference, where he was the recipient of the award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism.

Scroll down to read Clive Myrie’s speech to the Society of Editors conference in full

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Accepting the award Myrie claimed: “Freedom of the press and media isn’t any longer, for some people, a signifier of a healthy democracy.

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“For the powerful; for the zealous true believers in any political party; for financial backers and influencers – freedom of the press is annoying, frustrating, even dangerous.”

Myrie argued these groups oppose impartiality and instead “seek propaganda and the bolstering of their own narrow point of view”. The erosion of journalistic neutrality, he said, leads to “ruptured societies”.

“I offer up as Exhibit A: America – a shining example of the toxicity of our modern age. A fractured society, atomised into cliques, where you can claim night does not follow day if you say it loud enough and with plenty of gusto. Where there is no comeback for lies and propaganda. Hell no! You’ll profit and succeed even more.

“Witness the appalling spectacle – appalling spectacle – of the contents of depositions offered up in the case of Dominion Machines versus Fox News, and the lie of a rigged 2020 presidential election.”

Ballot technology business Dominion is currently suing Fox News and parent company Fox Corporation for defamation over allegations aired on the conservative network that Dominion fabricated results in the 2020 presidential election.

In its deposition for the suit Dominion secured numerous internal communications at Fox News showing executives and senior editorial figures privately doubted the election fraud claims, which were promoted by Donald Trump and being given airtime on the channel.

A Fox spokesperson responded: “Dominion and its private equity owners join a long line of public figures and corporations across the country that have long tried to silence the press and this lawsuit from Staple Street Capital-owned Dominion is nothing more than another flagrant attack on the First Amendment. Fox News will continue to fiercely protect the free press as a ruling in favour of Dominion would have grave consequences for journalism across this country.”

Myrie connected the election denialism to an incident in which his BBC colleague Ron Skeans was attacked by a Trump supporter during the 2020 campaign: “Now of course, we all know what happened before the Trump fan attacked Ron: the President spoke of the fake news media and made claims about how the press had misrepresented him.”

Myrie’s comments recall a keynote speech given by Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy in July in which he said: “I fear the growth of opinionated broadcasting that seeks to recruit tribes, poisons the well and undermines us all.”

[Read more: Krishnan Guru-Murthy warns against ‘news that divides, shouts and builds personalities’]

Myrie went on in his speech to list attacks on press freedom in China, Russia, Egypt, Georgia as well as the UK, saying: “Two of my BBC colleagues in the UK last year were accosted and threatened by ordinary members of the public while simply doing their jobs.” He also denounced Hertfordshire Police’s arrest of four journalists reporting on a Just Stop Oil protest in November.

“We should never apologise or regret what we do,” said Myrie. “We must fight for our right to keep doing it.”

Myrie on BBC impartiality, the licence fee and representation

In an interview following the speech, Society of Editors president and The News Movement co-founder Kamal Ahmed asked Myrie whether pressure had been “increasing within BBC News for taking certain lines”.

The pair were speaking less than a week after Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker was asked by the BBC to step back from the programme over a tweet calling the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill “immeasurably cruel”.

Myrie said pressure to have an editorial voice had increased “among younger members of the news team… because they have been brought up in a society where individual truths are what’s important”.

Criticising that perceived trend, Myrie said: “Opinions are two-a-penny. Everyone has opinions. What the BBC was founded on was the idea, based on the fact that it gets its money from everybody… that you have to try to find that objective truth and cut through all the opinions.

“And that underpins the funding model. Get rid of that… why would you pay the licence fee? If the opinion that’s being reflected back to you on screen, or on the radio or online, is not your opinion?”

He suggested that BBC leadership held the same view, however: “I don’t feel any pressure from above to be part of the zeitgeist, of that idea of the individual truth. If anything, the pressure is to shore up the idea of an objective truth, because that’s fundamental to the whole point of the BBC…

“And that has to be the mission of the BBC, certainly in the news division. I don’t know about sport.”

Last year Myrie warned the Government against making the BBC subscription-funded.

Asked by Ahmed how he felt about representation and inclusion in the media, Myrie said that although “I feel more optimistic about it now than I did when I joined the BBC… It hasn’t changed a massive amount since I joined the BBC 30-odd years ago. But it’s getting better.”

Connecting it back to the licence fee, Myrie said: “If that levy is applied to everybody and you are a section of society that is not seeing yourself reflected in the output, why would you pay? 

“I am tired of hearing black and brown people say, ‘Well I only watch Channel 4 News because it gives me certain things I don’t think the BBC gives me.’”

Myrie suggested the corporation “has got a way to go” with diversity, “even though the BBC is better than most other media organisations in doing that”.

“At a certain level, there are black and brown people. [But] get higher and higher in the BBC and they thin out, you don’t see that.

“Even though I think the percentage of black and brown people in the BBC, ethnic minorities, is about 13%, 14% – which is the national average for black and brown people and people of an ethnic minority background within the general population.

“So the BBC, on the face of it, is actually doing really well… But is the power in those hands? Not necessarily. And that’s where we need to improve.”

Myrie answered a final question about getting into journalism by explaining he was first drawn to the trade by BBC presenter Alan Whicker’s programme, Whicker’s World.

“I just thought: I want to do what he does! He travels all over the place! This looks like fun!

“And then I saw this other bloke on ITV and he looked like me.

“And I thought, okay, so Alan Whicker can run around the world, and this bloke called Trevor McDonald looks like me. I could do that then.”

Clive Myrie’s speech to the Society of Editors in full:

This is wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Kamal, Society of Editors and everyone – thank you all very much indeed, wonderfully, for your words, most of which I didn’t deserve.

And I’m actually going to pick up on a lot of what you said, Kamal, and actually President Zelensky said too

Because I’ve been a journalist and a writer for well over 30 years now. And throughout that time, there have obviously been ups and downs, no question, when it comes to press freedom and the right of journalists to speak truth to power, whatever form that power takes.

Now, freedom of the press and media, certainly in democracies worthy of being called democracies, where the voice of the people really matters, is where press freedom has largely been understood to be a good thing. An important thing. A vital thing to the smooth running of a free society. I’m sure throughout the conference today you’ve all heard speakers make that point.

But we all know that’s changing. Freedom of the press and media isn’t any longer, for some people, a signifier of a healthy democracy.

For the powerful; for the zealous true believers in any political party; for financial backers and influencers; freedom of the press is annoying, frustrating, even dangerous.

A plurality of opinion is not what they want. They seek propaganda and the bolstering of their own narrow point of view. They seek affirmation, not debates. They want to shut down conversations, not open them up.

They are the true enemies of the people. They are the true enemies of democracy.

Now these vested interests are operating in an age that suits them more now than ever before, because we now live in a world of individual, not objective, truths. We all now have a greater ability than ever before to seek out views that reflect our own ideas of how the world should work, rather than be confronted with different ways of thinking.

The social media and online space allows thousands, and tens of thousands, and potentially millions of ways to hear and see one point of view – your own.

Impartiality and due impartiality are enemies to these people. And what’s the effect of all this? Divided ruptured societies. Us and them; them and us. A failure to unite in the best interests of everyone.

And I offer up as Exhibit A: America – a shining example of the toxicity of our modern age. A fractured society, atomised into cliques, where you can claim night does not follow day if you say it loud enough and with plenty of gusto. 

Where there is no comeback for lies and propaganda. Hell no! You’ll profit and succeed even more.

Witness the appalling spectacle – appalling spectacle – of the contents of depositions offered up in the case of Dominion Machines versus Fox News, and the lie of a rigged 2020 presidential election.

Now the pressures upon journalists these days to dish out not facts but fiction are immense. To toe a party line; to pump out a particular point of view; to ignore the truth and disregard that crucial duty we have as journalists to properly inform the public of what the hell’s going on.

The battle lines are already being drawn in the run up to the next US presidential election. And I hope to be there.

And Ron Skeans is someone I suspect none of you will ever have heard of. But I guarantee some of you will have seen his work. He is the bureau camera operator for the BBC based in North America, in Washington.

He’s a great guy and a great shooter. And I worked with him when I was the BBC’s Los Angeles correspondent in the mid-1990s and Washington correspondent for three years from 2004.

We’ve reported from Guantanamo Bay together and covered so many US midterm congressional elections I’ve lost count. And we’ve reported on every single US presidential election since 1996.

So imagine my shock when I heard the news that a Donald Trump supporter had attacked Ron at a campaign rally in El Paso in Texas during the 2020 campaign.

The thug was wearing a Make America Great Again cap and had shoved and swore at Ron and other news crews before being pulled away.

Now thankfully Ron didn’t suffer too serious injuries. The BBC later had to write to the White House asking for a review of security arrangements for the media attending Trump rallies.

Now of course, we all know what happened before the Trump fan attacked Ron: the President spoke of the fake news media and made claims about how the press had misrepresented him. 

He pointed to the ranks of journalists and said, and I quote: “Look at all the press pack. Can you believe it?” To which the crowd responded with loud boos.

The BBC correspondent Gary O’Donoghue says he’s been spat at by Trump supporters. And at one rally I went to in Tucson in Arizona during the last presidential election I heard some in the crowd voice their anger at what they disparagingly called “the mainstream media”.

The UN has called Trump’s attacks on the press strategic, designed to undermine press freedom and verifiable facts. By attacking the legitimacy of the press Trump undermines what they say. It means the public won’t believe objective truths. Rather, they’ll be more willing to believe the truth as peddled by Trump. Now the 2024 run for the White House is really going to be a barrel of laughs. 

Away from America, where you might think journalists should be safe anyway, the usual suspects are doing their bit to clamp down on the freedom of the press.

At the end of last year a member of the Chinese delegation in Bali in Indonesia, where the G20 summit was taking place, shoved a US journalist who tried to ask about China’s human rights record.

White House officials were forced to intervene as the woman who worked for a US television network was pulled backwards by her backpack, causing her to lose balance before being pushed towards the door by an unidentified Chinese official.

The BBC’s long-serving China correspondent, John Sudworth, was hounded out of the country over his reporting of the mass detentions of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Indeed, foreign journalists are having an extremely tough time getting visas to work in China.

Outside scrutiny is a no-go zone for the Chinese. And its leaders don’t care what that makes the country look like – even to the point of manhandling a reporter to shut her up on foreign soil.

In the most recent World Press Freedom Index, which lists the countries with the lousiest reputations for the way they treat journalists, a record 28 nations – 28 – were rated very bad places for journalism.

Things are getting worse every year. Billions of people in countries including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan struggle to access journalism produced without intervention from politicians, with reporters in these places often facing threats to their wellbeing. Autocratic regimes are increasingly willing to crack down on independent media outlets.

Now that list of dodgy places to be a journalist is produced by the campaign group Reporters Without Borders, and it surveys the state of the media in 190 countries and territories. It blames what it calls “globalised and unregulated online information spaces that encourage fake news and propaganda” for the worsening situation in many of those countries.

Russia is of course a case in point. A place that has now banned me and some of my BBC colleagues from entering over our reporting of their illegal war in Ukraine.

In Russia, of course, if you call the events across the border a war, you’re liable to 15 years’ imprisonment.

There is no independent media in Russia. All TV channels are Kremlin propaganda mouthpieces, trumpeting the party line that Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil to save the people and their actions are part of a “special military operation”.

More than a dozen reporters have been killed in Ukraine, some deliberately. Two dozen have been injured by gunfire; there have been scores of attacks on more than 100 journalists targeted in the course of their work.

At least six complaints have been filed by reporters with the International Criminal Court as well as the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office.

Attacking journalists doing their job is a war crime.

In Egypt, on the face of it, there is no shooting war. But there is a battle over the freedom of the press.

Three journalists from the country’s last remaining independent news outlets have just gone on trial in Cairo on charges of misusing social media and offending members of parliament. They face up to two years in prison and hefty fines. The trial stems from a complaint over reporting on corruption at the highest levels of government.

In Georgia, the ruling party tried to introduce the so-called foreign agents law, which would have severely limited press freedom and civil liberties.

It required non–governmental and media organisations who received more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as foreign agents or face hefty fines and possible imprisonment. But mass street protests forced the government to back down and scrap the bill, which of course was styled on similar legislation in neighbouring Russia.

But it’s not just tyrants and bullies in power who think abusing the press is the way to go. Two of my BBC colleagues in the UK last year were accosted and threatened by ordinary members of the public while simply doing their jobs.

A few months ago five men, so called “anti-lockdown protesters”, who verbally attacked BBC Newsnight political editor Nick Watts in the streets, were found guilty of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress. 

Footage of what happened showed Nick being shouted out as he walked through Whitehall. He was branded a traitor and then chased as he tried to find a safe place away from the crowd. 

This wasn’t in Russia. This wasn’t in China or Saudi Arabia – this was up the road. The prosecution in the case said he was targeted solely because of his job and he was picked out because he was wearing a BBC lanyard around his neck.

The judge said the crimes were committed against someone who was providing a service to the public.

My other colleague, James Cook, BBC Scotland editor – he was yelled at by demonstrators outside a Conservative Party leadership hustings in Perth last year. He was branded a traitor, a scumbag rat and a liar. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had to issue a statement saying: “Hurling abuse at journalists is never, ever acceptable; their job is vital to our democracy. And that job is to report and scrutinise, not support any viewpoints.”

Then, of course, there was the case of the LBC reporter, Charlotte Lynch – arrested by Hertfordshire police while reporting on Just Stop Oil’s M25 protest last November. 

Charlotte was detained for seven hours. Seven hours for doing her job. She was carrying her press credentials and an LBC-branded microphone. She admitted she was “absolutely terrified” throughout the ordeal.

“Charlotte’s amendment”, now that it’s called, and her experience, led to a change in the public order bill offering special protections for journalists covering protests. 

The fact that this amendment had to be written, in our mature democracy, in 2023, is shameful. And makes this country look no better than Russia or China or Iran or Saudi Arabia. But at least we can say it was written.

This trade, our trade, that we are all engaged in, is a noble craft – and I love that, Kamal, that you used the word craft, because that’s what it is.

It is a noble pursuit, that as the towering figure of British journalism James Cameron once observed, allowed him to meet “people of significance; people with great stories to tell; meaningful people who wouldn’t have had the slightest time for me as an individual, but did have time for me as a reporter”.

James goes on: “I’ve been what friends call a journalist and what non-friends call a God-damned reporter all my life – because I loved it. And I never regretted it.”

We should never apologise or regret what we do. We must fight for our right to keep doing it. 

Thank you.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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