The American presidential debates were notable for their unpleasant personal attacks. Clinton is ‘nasty’ and Trump is ‘deplorable’… it couldn’t happen here could it? Well, yes, it could… and it will. There a new bias against understanding in the media which has changed the discourse of politics. In the early 1970s, John Birt (now Baron Birt, former Director General of the BBC) wrote a series articles for The Times about television journalism. He argued that most television news and current affairs contained a “bias against understanding” because pictures had taken precedence over analysis. Together with Peter Jay, he developed “a mission to explain”, out of which they created a genre of influential TV current affairs programmes.
Today’s bias against understanding is not about use of pictures but about polarisation. Digital has created division. In the past you read the newspaper that best represented your world view, but you received a balanced mix of news and factual information on TV and radio. Now, digital devices serve up the news and opinion. We may laugh at creationist Trump supporters who get all their news through Fox and Shock Jocks, but here in the UK we face a similar problem. 51 per cent of people with online access use social media as a news source. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, social media have overtaken television as young people’s main source of news.
There is nothing wrong with digital access to news, but the bias against understanding begins when the portal takes control of what you watch. The portal serves up content in a process similar to Netflix and Amazon recommendations – that is fine if the recommendation is ‘you have bought Pride and Prejudice, now read Mansfield Park’ – but the news you will only be offered is not what is happening in the world, but the material that supports your pre-conceived ideas. This morning, Google offers me headlines based on its search algorithm and my interests. Embarrassing! It recommends articles about Pippa Middleton’s future wedding… have I really shown an interest in that guff? Otherwise, it is a comforting series of suggestions about Brexit and Russia, which are my present news obsessions. Comforting, because it gives me the news that I want. My bias is confirmed in what I choose to read and supported by the gateway through which I receive my information.
The potential danger for democracies all over the world is that the electorate becomes polarised. There were early signs of this during the referendum. If you talk to management consultants, you will hear how their role encourages them to look out for ‘organisation silos’ where one part of the company does not speak to the other. In our work life, the management consultant will encourage us to break down the barriers of communication and encourage innovation, but in our private lives we allow technology to obstruct open thinking and new ideas.
What is more, the gateway on computers and mobile phones has financial consequences for the news providers. It has destabilised their business model. If you find your news through Facebook, then the majority share of the advertising revenue goes to Facebook. So newspapers such as The Guardian, which has a massive digital presence worldwide, are under pressure – not just because print is uneconomic but because 80 – 90 per cent of advertising revenue is taken by the portal that serves up their stories.
You might think that the answer lies in the BBC, our wonderful balanced news provider. But no, they have jumped on the differentiated news bandwagon. Just click onto ‘My News’ and only watch the stories that interest you. You will never have to watch angry American politicians again. Your world view will be reflected back to you in a bubble of content that surrounds you and reinforces your prejudices. So, debate in the UK is moving towards personal insults politics, with David Cameron describing 3.9 million of the electorate as ‘swivel eyed lunatics’ or Amber Rudd accusing Boris Johnson of being ‘not safe in taxis’. Anger and alienation is just a taste of what is to come.