Friedman: Why I’m cutting down availability to some journalists

30 Mar 2016

Steven Friedman

Over the past few weeks, I have been cutting down heavily on my availability to the media.

This is aimed mainly at broadcasters but also at those print journalists who call and ask for one line comments. I am not boycotting anyone except eNCA and much of 702, who believe that commentators exist to fill in the spaces between real political news, which they define as a middle level civil servant or political party spokesperson reading a prepared statement (yes you can be cut off in mid-sentence as they cross to someone no-one has ever heard of).

My simple method is to not take calls. If people seriously want to get hold of me, they leave a message on voicemail and sms, which I answer promptly. If they are journalists trying to find ‘an analyst’ regardless of who the person is and what they know, they move on so that I do not have to talk to them (although some ring a dozen times without leaving a message which is a form of bullying) . It is a sign of the state of the media that simply doing this has cut down interviews by over 90%.

I am doing this because I believe that it is now very difficult to do what the media want commentators to do and still do what we are supposed to do – help the country to understand political events. With some important exceptions, I feel that the media’s interest in serious political analysis is so low that the only reason to appear most of the time is to draw attention to yourself either because you happen to be the sort of person who likes doing that or to advance your career. I have never appeared on media to draw attention to myself – I am interested in contributing to the political debate and this is becoming increasingly difficult unless you restrict yourself to a few outlets.

First, the space to do this has become much narrower because the panel discussions and debates which used to be fairly common have dried up. They are still aired on a few radio channels but hardly at all on television: the print media don’t much like giving people an opportunity to debate probably because most much prefer their papers to simply repeat the editors’ view of the world. And so ‘commentary’ is often reduced to a one line comment or a few sentences which don’t really convey much useful to the public.

Second, as I pointed out above, most media don’t really care what commentators have to say. That seems odd given their frequent obsession with finding ‘analysts’. But they are mostly looking for analysts rather than analysis – somehow the idea has taken hold that it is a good idea to have some licensed commentator say something. But that does not stretch to seeking someone’s opinion because you think they have knowledge which your audience could use. This is why most journalists see ‘analysts’ as inter-changeable – if you don’t get the one whose name begins with ‘C’ go onto ‘D’. Very often the journalist or broadcaster is simply looking for a phrase or sentence which can show their news editor that they found an ‘analyst’. Obviously that does not lead to informative comment.

Third, most journalists have already made up their mind about what the story means before they call and this shows in their questions. They have little use for commentators who have a different view even though logic suggests that they are the people you would most want to consult. And so the chances of what you said appearing as you said it if it disturbs the journalist’s made-up mind are slim (I told a foreign broadcaster whose questions suggested that they had already made up their mind that I would appear if they assured me that what they broadcast would be consistent with what I said. The journalist forwarded this to his superiors and I never heard from them again).

If we take this into account, what the public are being fed is mostly not informed political comment – it is mainly what a dumbed down media thinks you ought to hear (which mostly means what they want to hear). It is nice when my family see me on TV but not nice enough to justify participating in an attempt to pass off on the public as informed comment something which is nothing of the sort. While I will still do media work when I am approached by the few professional and serious outlets which are left, I will now only respond when I think I can say something useful to my listeners or viewers or readers. I am fortunate to write a column which allows me to say what I like in the way which I like and I have this space here in which a few hundred of you honour me by taking an interest in what I write. That allows me to make a far more meaningful contribution than passing off short answers to ill-informed questions as a serious attempt to inform the public.

Prof Steven Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy

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