Opinion Night: Both, One, or No Sides-ism

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Emily Maitlis’ MacTaggart Lecture online, which she delivered at the Edinburgh Television Festival. A gifted speaker, she was able to raise key editorial issues facing broadcast news for public service broadcasting in the UK, but arguably for news programming everywhere. Each of her general points, such as on avoiding self-censorship, were accompanied by apt examples drawn from her personal experience at the BBC.

A central theme picked up by news coverage of her talk was the concept that I believe she coined of “both sides-ism” – an imperative in news programming to cover both sides of an issue.[1] She was critical of this rule because she thought there were many circumstances, such as around Brexit, for which the two sides did not have an equal standing. She suggested that it was easy to find many economists ready to speak about the economic risks of Brexit but very difficult to find even one to talk about the economic benefits to Britain. So, she thought that presenting both sides created a “superficial balance”.

On the one hand, I get the point. Any rule of thumb is likely to be stupid on occasion. But on the other hand, it led me to worry about the alternatives.  

Emily Maitlis, MacTaggart Lecture

One Side-ism

One alternative is presenting only one side. You present what the journalist/editor/broadcaster believes to be the right side – the truth, the ideologically right position, the one that will get an audience, or whatever criterion the news caster views as most critical. On the one hand, this seems to increasingly be the most prominent default position today. Newspapers, television news, podcasts, cable news programmes in the US, and so on appear to believe in appealing to their base – a Trumpian notion, but it is clearly the new thing in gaining readers, viewers, and subscribers. Arguably, this trend is contributing to a polarisation of news sources that reinforces a polarisation of politics among the public. I would not want to endorse a superficial balance, but I really object to any one side-ism, which I increasingly see even in what used to be some of the most respected newspapers.

No Sides: Opinions are Easy, News is Hard

Since Emily Maitlis was a former BBC Newsnight presenter, I was also struck by the ‘opinion’ focus of her “both sides-ism” [what a wonderful term]. My problem is with the idea that you aim to get someone for and someone against any given proposal or policy, such as Brexit.[2]

Surely news programmes should try to explain and illuminate events, speeches, issues, and not be focused on finding proponents and opponents on each side of an argument. I am interested in watching Newsnight, and instead, I get ‘opinion-night’.

Opinions are cheap and easy to pull together, which might be the source of the problem. If news programmes do not have the resources to unearth the facts and analyze the issue so that it can be more clearly and fairly explained to viewers, then opinion seeking might be an attractive option. Perhaps I am wrong, but ‘both sided-ism’ – if it exists – seems to fit nicely with getting speakers with different opinions, but not getting different experts with different perspectives (economic, political, ethical, etc) on the same issue. Multiple perspectives would be better than two-sides of an argument and certainly better than one side or one perspective.

Just as getting the go-to commentators to provide their opinions is cheap and easy, so is getting members of the public to provide their contrasting views (one viewer who likes the candidate, one that dislikes the candidate). It is cheap to do if you are in the field but not very enlightening or representative. Explaining and deciphering an issue so that it can be better understood by the viewers is more difficult and time consuming.

For example, one of Emily Maitlis’ most recent success stories was her 2019 BBC Newsnight interview with Prince Andrew. It generated original content from Prince Andrew about his recollections of his time spent with Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. This was a journalistic success in generating new content on an important story as opposed to getting opinions from individuals not directly involved.

Sports programmes might provide an another example of good broadcasting. Sports commentators obviously have their own favourites, but the best commentators always focus on describing and explaining what the teams are doing well and poorly and why. They help people who are not footballers or platform divers or whatever sports person to understand why a performance was weak or strong.

Is the problem essentially an issue of properly financing news coverage? If news programmes are financially strapped, they might do things to attract audiences or subscribers and create cheap programming. It costs to invest in more in-depth and analytical perspectives that help inform the public.

Personally, my ideal of a news programme is to come away with a better understanding of the issues. I am not interested in the journalist’s opinion, even if they are a superstar, such as whether they are pro- or anti-Brexit. I am interested in what is at issue and what are the alternative solutions or approaches, and the evidence in support of the options. I might be interested in what a politician’s opinion was on an issue, but mainly to understand why they have taken one or another side. How sound is their evidence and reasoning?  

I guess that is simply my opinion, so draw your own conclusions. I hope to catch Emily Maitlis on LBC, a talk radio station headquartered in London and owned by Global. She has a new podcast and radio show with another ex-BBC journalist, Jon Sopel. I recommend you watch the MacTaggart Lecture yourself on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PzqezAV3x_8

[1] Alex Barker (2022), ‘BBC dismisses Maitlis attack regarding ‘superficial balance’’, Financial Times, 26 August: p. 2.

[2] As an academic, I would get calls from the press asking if I might speak about an issue and it was often clear that they wanted me to be on a particular side of an issue. If I could not speak for the side they were searching for, then they were off searching for someone else.

Comments are most welcome