Tee hee: Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was caught out by Krishnan Guru-Murthy last week. The politician assumed that the journalist had read out a Jeremy Corbyn quote, and so dutifully proceeded to attack the words spoken. But Guru-Murthy then revealed that the quote was actually something that Boris Johnson, a Conservative colleague of Mr Fallon, had written in 2005.
There has been much anger expressed by the Corbyn-supporting left this week, after the Labour leader made a gaffe in a BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour interview. He could not remember the financial figures attached to a childcare policy. Many people (including myself) felt that Mr Corbyn was treated unfairly in subsequent media pile-on: its not as if he and his policy team have failed to publish any figures (which would be genuinely shocking) or that the figures they published did not add up. Rather, he simply did not remember the precise figure that the party had published. This kind of ‘gotcha’ journalism says nothing of interest about the man, the party or the policy. There, but for the grace of God, walk you and I.
If journalists do want to manufacture a gaffe, a headline and an embarrassing news cycle for their interviewee, then I think that the Guru-Murthy approach is far superior. Presenting quotes shorn of attribution is a far superior method for catching out a poltician. It forces them to engage with the idea itself; and it exposes the cynical hypocrisy that passes for much political discourse these days.
In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that such a practice becomes the journalistic norm: when putting a quote to a political interviewee, the journalist should never, (initially) attribute the author/speaker. This would force the interviewee to engage with the substance, and wean them off unhelpful ad hominem.
Of course, some words take their meaning from their context, and the author of the words often does matter to the context. (For a literary argument of this point, I refer the reader to ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘ by Jorge Luis Borges). But I do not think this applies to political policies, which should be argued for on their merits and not derailed by questioning the motives of the person who proposes them.
Many years ago I suggested that CGI graphics should be deployed to advance political ideas, because one can present an idea without it being tainted or discredited by reference to the speaker. Here’s the short video I created to make the point:
Keeping politicians in the dark may be enlightening for the rest of us.
Blind trials for news editors?
If ignorance of some details can actually be helpful to the discourse, then perhaps extending the lack of information to the journalists themselves would be helpful too: especially when we suspect those journalists of bias. Earlier this year I posted the following thought-experiment to Twitter.
I often daydream that we could do the equivalent of a blind trial with news editors…
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) January 31, 2017
I often daydream that we could do the equivalent of a blind trial with news editors… # e.g. have them write and lay out the story before they know terrorists ethnicity … # In my day dreams its justification for some kind of hoax or fake news, Terrorist initially reported as Muslim… # then source back tracks and says “actually it was this white man”. See how papers / media handle it… # Of course, outside of my day dreams that would be grossly irresponsible and hideous stunt to pull. #
Related idea: a fake news bot that takes a Daily Mail op-ed, flips gender or ethnicity, repackages as a Guardian op-ed.
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) January 31, 2017
Young male who was radicalized online fires assault rifle in a crowded restaurant: change his name and people would call this terrorism. https://t.co/DI2sWshYYK
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) December 5, 2016
Update: 3rd July 2017
Jamie Bartlett’s book Radicals points me to this Al Jazeera interview from February 2016, where the interviewer seeks to catch out far-right activist Tommy Robinson by reading parts of the Old Testament as if it were from the Qu’ran. The clear hope was that Robinson would condemn the passages and be revealed as a hypocrite.
Robinson did not fall for the scam, however, and the interviewer was put on the defensive. It is excruciating to watch. Clearly the interview strategy I set out above should be handled with caution. Two principles to follow might be, first, that withholding an attribution could be justified in a way that misleading the interviewee is not; and second, that interviewers and their editors should have a very clear idea of what it is they wish to achieve by withholding the attribution. Do they wish to reveal something new about the interviewees thinking or policies? Or are they merely seeking a ‘gotcha’? Had the Al-Jazeera team taken those considerations into account, they might not have been left with egg on their face.
Update 5th July 2017
Meanwhile in America, the publicly funded broadcaster NPR inadvertently provoked a revealing gaffe among a few Donald Trump supporters. NPR tweeted out the entire Declaration of Independence on 4th July, and some people interpreted it as a tirade against the president.