Interview with Justin Webb of the Radio 4 Today programme

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Roisin McCarthy
Investigations Editor

Roisin McCarthy speaks to Justin Webb on preserving impartiality, empathising with Trump voters, and the future of journalism

When sitting down for my 9am phone interview with Justin Webb, it strikes me that I am feeling fairly nervous. This makes a lot of sense given the fact a large proportion of my mornings are spent listening to Webb and his fellow presenters on Radio 4’s Today programme as they cover the pressing issues of the day. Whether this be a confrontation with Trump’s US ambassador on the careless hostility of the President’s tweets or an impassioned debate on the importance of closing the gender pay gap, a listener is constantly required to re-evaluate their outlook on various subject matters. In fact, over seven million listeners tune in every week – an insight that shows that I, like so many others, value the information that a show such as the Today programme provides. But how many other sources do people rely upon for their information? The world has become a congestion of news outlets all clamouring to have their say, and in some ways this has created an atmosphere of uncertainty where people collide over the truth and what they want to believe. For journalists like Webb, the task of untangling fact from fabrication must be a daunting one, not least because they themselves risk falling victim to bias.

The Glasgow Guardian: Ideas such as Post truth and Fake News have snowballed over the past several years. How accurate do you think it is to say that finding out the truth has become increasingly impossible and is it the responsibility of the media to improve their biases or for consumers of news to develop a more discerning outlook?

Justin Webb: I’m not at all depressed about the long-term prospects of the news business. We’ve had a wake up call in the last few years where our initial confidence in social media having our best interests at heart has reversed. We’re now very aware of how sites such as Facebook have really taken their eye off the ball and allowed themselves to be used by all sorts of people who don’t have our best interests in mind, whether that be the Russians or Trump. Take Italy’s recent election, it is very interesting that one of the parties coming to the fore actually thanked Facebook for their success. [Matteo Salvini, leader of far-right political party Lega Nord tweeted, ‘Thank God we have the Internet, Thank God we have Facebook’].

In some ways, social media has allowed all sorts of people the opportunity to enter the debate and of course this is progression in terms of democratization but we must also consider how this works. Sites like Facebook are using algorithms to skew newsfeeds and this has undoubtedly caused us harm and I don’t think any one really disputes that. But at the same time, there is a record listenership of the Today programme, whilst outlets such as the New York Times have recorded growing readerships. There continues to be plenty of people who are very keen to know what is going on and I really don’t think we’ve lost the need for and the desire to be exposed to properly impartial news.

GG: You recently published an article where you described the current environment that broadcasters have found themselves in whereby everything possible seems to have been politicised – to the extent that journalists are fearful of reporting on stories without facing retribution. What do you think has caused this?  Has it been around for a while or is the media undergoing a significant shift that will see the way news is reported changed forever?

JW: I think there has been a significant shift, which has been caused by social media and the ease with which people can get in touch. When I say people, it seems to be a certain sort of person who has the time and feels strongly enough about something to make their views public. All those who have strong points of view tend to get represented in the minds of a broadcaster and there is a tendency to believe that these views are representative of what ordinary people think when in fact it isn’t.  There is out there a much more sensible view of every issue and I’m not sure that it always comes through on social media. If you have a more moderate view, you’re very unlikely to put that in writing so that whole middle ground is drowned out, particularly on social media. I think broadcasters need to acknowledge this more and recognise that we cannot be bullied into taking lines that are unreasonable and really don’t represent the sort of view that most people have.

GG: You’ve spoken in the past about America’s misrepresentation in news outlets such as the BBC, Trumps election definitely seems to have cemented Britain’s prejudices of America – Have your opinions on America been swayed?

JW: No not at all, I still really love America; I like the way in which it is constantly striving to reinvent itself. That doesn’t mean its not a very troubled place, it’s a country in real difficulty – but fundamentally I like the American mindset and that hasn’t really changed. I’m also quite sympathetic to some of the people who voted for Trump as I genuinely think they were ignored. We have a tendency to dismiss America as being ‘crazy people’….  It’s important to recognise that a lot of the people voting for Trump weren’t evil, they weren’t trying to destroy the world. Trump won working class women by a huge margin and we have to ask why that was. It’s a much more challenging set of questions and we cannot simply dismiss these people in the way that Clinton did through her definition of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. In fact, millions of perfectly decent people voted for him and if we want to prevent those people from voting for him again, we have to engage with the bigger questions.

GG: In terms of events such as Trump’s election or Brexit, it seems as if the media failed to fully reflect people’s opinions. Why do you think this was?

JW: I think it comes down to a real failure of imagination. How did we not realise in both cases what was going to happen? In terms of Brexit, you could argue that we did know it would be relatively close. I think the bigger surprise was Trump, most people in the media just couldn’t believe it to be possible and in fairness it was a very long shot in terms of how the electoral collage works; he only had one path to victory and it was a few hundred thousand votes that actually swung it to him. In that sense there is a real argument in the media’s favour whereby their predictions in Clinton’s favour were highly probable. However, I don’t think that is a good enough excuse, the media failed to understand the points of view of many Republicans. There is too big a disconnect between the upper reaches of the American media and the people that they report on.