Guest lecturers debate human rights reporting and television ratings

Dorothy Byrne, the head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, and Mike Jempson, the director of Mediawise, a media pressure group, debated whether “Ratings rule? Has human rights reporting had its day?” in a guest lecture at the University of Lincoln on Monday, November 23rd.

Jempson, a journalism lecturer at the University of the West of England, argued that important issues such as corporate crime, ethnic minorities, immigration, and global warming were not covered nearly enough.

Programs should be covering things such as “how our ability to control our own lives is being whittled away”. “Human rights are indivisible and shared by all of us,” he said, and it wasn’t just about children in Africa.

He pointed to “The Great Global Switch-Off” report by Phil Harding (PDF), which said that coverage of the world and global issues “is under serious threat”.

“There is more anxiety about markets,” he said. “Pulling in audiences and advertisers is what turns on television producers.”

Byrne pointed to Channel 4’s “Unreported World”, and held it up as an example of good human rights reporting. No one disagreed, but it was pointed out that it is in an obscure corner of the television schedule.

The two were asked about the Iraq war, and what was essentially the complicity of mainstream journalists.

Mike Jempson mentioned Jeremy Paxman’s recent comments that journalists were “hoodwinked”, and said: “Nobody wants to plow lonely furrows. It’s a risky thing that I don’t think any executive would want to do.”

Byrne said: “I do not think television, and British journalism in general, did a good job of exposing the lies.”

“It was not our finest hour. The enormity took people by surprise.”

On another massive failure of mainstream journalism, that of failing to expose the causes of the financial crisis before it happened, Byrne said: “I think we were reliant on people who [journalists] knew in some way warning them and telling them,” but those warnings never came.

What was particularly interesting is that Byrne seemed to consider these two events in isolation, though the mainstream media’s “failure” to uncover the truth in both cases helped serve closely-linked interests.

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