S tewart was one of a vanishingly small number of broadcasters who understood the problem
ITV’s unceremonious sacking of the veteran broadcaster Alastair Stewart following a minor Twitter spat seems an outrageous decision, reeking of ageism and injustice. It is also as unsurprising as it is depressing. Ours are harsh and merciless times, in which a gaffe can cost an entire career, intention means nothing and forgiveness is impossible .
Stewart stands accused of making “errors of judgment” in his use of social media. The tipping point apparently came when he responded to a black man on Twitter with a passage about “an angry ape” taken from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure , triggering accusations of racism. In context, however, this seems a wilful misreading of Stewart’s words, since he had previously used the same passage responding to at least one other tweeter who was not identifiably black. His only clear fault was in failing to spot that a determined offence-taker could possibly view the quote as offensive, and he has since apologized in any case. Yet cancelled he must be. Like the government spineless decision to eject the late Sir Roger Scruton from its “Building Better ”Commission last year, I suspect this will backfire horribly on ITV.
T Hat Twitter should be Alastair Stewart’s undoing is doubly ironic when the medium has caused so much harm to journalism already, removing the invisible barrier that once existed between presenters and the audience, and making it greater clear where their private sympathies lie. Stewart seemed one of a tiny minority who understood viewers ’growing dissatisfaction. He often tweeted thoughtful, muted criticisms of contemporary broadcasting, highlighting overt bias and pleading for a return to the old-school “show not tell” approach practiced by the likes of Robin Day. His contributions were generally polite, unlike many of his colleagues in the profession.
As made abundantly clear during the last General Election, the cult of the TV news personality is getting out of hand. Miniature fiefdoms have sprung up around presenters such as Sky’s Kay Burley , who behaves as though she had a divinely-ordained right to compel any minister to sit down in her studio. After Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly missed his slot on her breakfast show, she decided to humiliate Cleverly by “empty-chairing” him live on air, during a period of purdah when broadcasters are legally committed to provide balanced coverage.
Sky is not the only offender. Over at Broadcasting House, Sarah Sands’ resignation as editor of the Today program in part revers her disregard of complaints that the program was anti-Brexit and anti-Tory, such that the Government no longer fields ministers. Channel 4 boss Dorothy Byrne has unwisely trumpeted her private views towards the Prime Minister, whom she branded a “known liar” and a “coward During the election campaign, the channel “empty-chaired” Environment Minister Michael Gove from a debate on climate change when the PM refused to attend, thus opting for petulant point-scoring over scrutiny.
B ritain is never far behind the USA in anything, good or bad – from jeans and peanut butter to campus censorship and the worst excesses of social justice warrior ideology. A fierce culture war is the latest transatlantic import to reach our shores. Though I dislike many of the clumsy Trump-Johnson comparisons, both are already profiting from this mounting clash of sensibilities. Johnson, like the President, has started to communicate more directly with his audience through social media broadcasts. The excesses of producers and presenters have democratic implications, giving politicians a neat excuse to boycott their programs and evade questions. Given the kind of underhand treatment the PM and his party received from conventional broadcasters at the last general election, many would conclude, who can blame them?
I recently took part in a discussion hosted by the online outlet Tortoise about the future of the mainstream media. Overwhelmingly, the audience’s main complaint was anger at the often blatant editorializing of broadcasters, and the blurring of the lines between comment and news reporting across the media landscape. Perhaps spooked by the advent of social media, TV executives are encouraging their talent to embrace the ‘Sky Views’ ethos, pushing a more partisan line while feigning neutrality. The result has been a damaging blend of blatant activism and journalism.
U nlike the editorial lines adopted by newspapers, familiar to readers and already factored in, it is the veneer of impartiality which stings . In the case of the BBC and Channel 4, the element of compulsion via state subsidy adds a new and more harmful dimension to the social contract. Small wonder that viewers are stead switching over to YouTube for genuine plurality of opinion, and radio stations like LBC , with its opinionated anchors from across the political spectrum who are quite open in their affiliations.
This needn’t become the norm – and it would be a crying shame if impartial broadcasting were the next casualty of our outraged, social media-addled culture. There is already a healthy middle-ground between hatchet jobs and fawning obsequiousness – presenters like Gillian Joseph, Sophy Ridge, Laura Kuenssberg and of course Stewart himself prove that rigorous grilling can still be respectful. Andrew Neil’s brand of “equal opportunities booting” leaves no one in any doubt that his private beliefs do not compromise his commitment to making politicians squirm.
In this diverse media landscape, it has never been easier for disgruntled viewers to “empty chair” TV channels – with the off button. Alastair Stewart was one of a vanishingly small number of broadcasters who understood this. Let’s hope he won’t be silenced for long.
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