It was Nick Robinson’s interview with Michael Caine on Friday’s BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that got me thinking. It wasn’t so much that it became a fairly uncritical opinion piece on what is maybe the most important political debate facing us in the next 18 months. Instead, I was wondering what expertise Mr Caine had on the workings of the EU that made him important enough to have his ramblings on in the prestigious 7:50 slot. Indeed, the actor admitted that he didn’t know very much about it, but was clear that Britain should leave the EU.
That’s the basis of opinion pieces. Opinions are like a certain part of human anatomy – in that everyone has one. The media has generally had a responsibility to distinguish opinion from factual reporting, although the line has become extremely blurred in recent years. The media defends opinion pieces on the basis that it stimulates debate.
One of the comments I made in the media training workshops I was giving over the weekend was that I don’t speak on something unless I’m reasonably sure I’m on top of the brief. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than uninformed opinion.
At the same time, Jeremy Clarkson had a piece printed in the Sunday Times which made various (ridiculous and unsubstantiated) claims about trans people, and trans children in particular. In common with problematic pieces nowadays, no individual was named, so no complaint can go to IPSO. But it does seem that, interestingly, the Sunday Times has removed the piece from their website.
Mr Clarkson, not just an expert in how to drive like an idiot around Argentina, but also (apparently) on the intricacies of the transgender experience. I’m expecting that Dr James Barrett is already processing his BAGIS membership application. Yet the press gives him, and others, space to spout their uninformed and uneducated opinion.
It’s as bonkers as giving me space to pontificate on the challenges facing the banana industry in East Timor (there is one, right?) or explain my curiously detailed thoughts on the decline of the Hapsburg dynasty (I think it was the noses that got in the way).
Petitions, apparently the sole remaining way that people think they can make a difference, have sprung up demanding that Amazon sack Clarkson. And this then changes the debate back into a “free speech” one – because everyone has the right to expose a certain part of their anatomy, or is that express an uninformed opinion?
And, of course, balance – in the same way that broadcasters feel it an absolute imperative to give holocaust deniers a space in a programme or series about the Holocaust. Balance is about informing a debate, not just “stimulating” one. What’s the point about stimulating debate if you don’t give real facts. Anybody can give made up ones – like “86% of statistics are made up on the spot”?
The real issue is persuading the British media that they have a responsibility for what they publish. Inciting ridicule on a set of communities that are just about finding their voice – and starting to horrify people about the struggles those communities actually go through – is easy but so, so unfair. In fact it’s damaging. In my own family I had to run the gauntlet of opinion that all trans people were sad, lonely and deluded – because that’s what had been on the media. (Hint – we aren’t!) Uninformed opinion used in order to prevent an outcome seen as undesirable.
I’m going to propose a new style of opinion piece, which isn’t designed to stimulate debate, but instead to heap ridicule on the writer. I mean, we’re already nearly there with Katie Hopkins on immigration and Lord Lawson on climate change. So, in addition to Michael Caine on Europe and Jeremy Clarkson on trans issues, I’m looking forward to seeing John Cleese on continental drift (he’s old enough – he must have an opinion), Harry Styles on African urbanisation, Nicholas Parsons on measuring school performance, and Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards on the long-term viability of the leather industry. Other suggestions are always welcome.
As I was saying, bananas in East Timor…