Award-winning UK television journalist Jon Snow delivered the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival here this evening, calling for media to close what he described as today’s social disconnect — and launching an attack on Facebook who he said “prioritized fakery on a massive scale” during the U.S. presidential election.
Snow — not to be confused with his Game Of Thrones namesake — is a respected veteran newsman who has been the face of Channel 4 News since 1989, and since 1976 has covered many of the defining events of the last 40 years. Those include the fall of Idi Amin in Uganda, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela – as well as the elections of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Barack Obama and most recently Donald Trump.
The MacTaggart speech, which is seen as having the potential to set the agenda for the television landscape over the coming year, was titled “Worst and Best of Times.” It indeed comes at a significant moment for the news media, and the festival’s choice to invite Snow to speak is notable. The past several years have seen a mix of Murdochs, Kevin Spacey, Armando Iannucci and Shane Smith, each with their own powerful messages.
Snow made several references to Trump tonight. One of his key points was noting how concerns over Brexit as well as the American election stole airtime away in the past year from more important stories. Referencing the recent and deadly Grenfell Tower fire in London, he wondered, “How much time had we devoted to social housing in this year since the EU referendum, when day after day we found ourselves filling the airwaves with the negotiating positions of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, the Brexit Bulldog, David Davis, Jeremy Corbyn and the rest, before serious negotiations had even begun?
“Not just Brexit, consuming the airwaves with so much political flatulence. Stuff which we know from viewing figures whether you are pro or anti-Brexit, bore and frustrate the viewer. And I haven’t even mentioned the antics of Trump yet. Sapping airtime that could have and should have been devoted to subjects nearer the hearts of those who watch. We have learned that lesson this year.”
This was a key focus of his speech in which he also said, “The explosion of digital media has filled neither the void left by the decimation of the local newspaper industry — nor connected us any more effectively with ‘the left behind’, the disadvantaged, the excluded. Never have we been more accessible to the public nor in some ways more disconnected from the lives of others.”
He added, “But this is the challenge for us all here. Yes we embrace and revel in the digital age. But no we cannot let the massive power of its barons devour our local and national sources of information.”
Those sources are “vulnerable to the whims of one man — Mark Zuckerberg. He says he cares about news, but does he really? Or does he care about keeping people on Facebook?”
Snow blamed the social network for enabling the story: ‘Pope endorses Trump for President’ and said, “That same algorithm that prioritised many amazing reports of ours, also prioritised fakery on a massive scale.”
The newsman also called out “the duopoly of Facebook and Google” which he said “has decimated the market in digital revenue that many hoped would sustain quality journalism for years to come. Now we all need to work together and find another way of supporting it — before it’s too late.”
Towards the end of his address, Snow said, “It will take the effort “of every single one of us — the producers, the journalists, the platforms, the politicians and the public — to reconnect our disconnected world… If we in this room, can bind together, with our colleagues and yes even rivals across the world, we can prevail in the pursuit of truth.”
Following are selected excerpts from the address:
“We are in an age when everyone from Trump downwards is a publisher, where in every given year more photos and more information is published than in many decades of the 20th century.”
“Never, since the rise of the printing press, have two companies held such a monopoly over the world’s information. And never have such organisations taken so little responsibility for it. And no I’m not talking about Murdoch and Dacre. It is Facebook and Google to whom I refer.”
“In the past we’ve had the guarantee of reach through our number four on the TV remote. That was the beauty of public service broadcasting. Now we have our four million Facebook fans. They are hard earned but our reach is vulnerable to the whims of one man — Mark Zuckerberg. He says he cares about news, but does he really? Or does he care about keeping people on Facebook?”
“Many news organisations including my own, have asked too few questions about the apparent miracle of Facebook’s reach. For us at Channel 4 News it has been invaluable in helping us to deliver our remit – to reach young viewers, to innovate, and to get attention for some of the world’s most important stories. But the other side of the issue — the dark, cancerous side — Facebook enabled the story: ‘Pope endorses Trump for President’ to engage more than a million people during the US Elections. That same algorithm that prioritised many amazing reports of ours, also prioritised fakery on a massive scale. Facebook has a moral duty to prioritise veracity over virality. It is fundamental to our democracy. Facebook’s lack of activity in this regard could prove a vast threat to democracy. Facebook’s principles are seldom explained in detail and can change over-night at Mr Zuckerberg’s whim.”
“Still, there are many ways in which technology has changed both how we consume and how we gather the news for the better. No more: ‘Sorry mate we can’t do that — No satellite. No dish. We can’t get the film processed in time.’ We are liberated from the technical constraints of the past. There is virtually no place in the world we cannot reach and transmit instantly from. How amazing that you can now lash eight mobile phone sim-cards together and transmit perfect picture and sound instantly.”
Ultimately, he concluded, “It’s the worst and best of times to be on deck… but it still does have all the potential to prove to be the Golden Age. Let’s seize it!”