In one of my favourite scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, John Cleese heckles Brian, who’s preaching from a soap box, with the memorable words, “He’s having a go at the flowers now.” I know just how Brian feels. In the past week, I have been heckled from both Right and Left, who shouted in unison on social media and on The Telegraph’s comments page words to the effect that, “He’s having a go at the listeners now.”
What stirred their anger was my reporting of the fact – and yes, dear reader, it is an observable, measurable and global fact of media life – that a growing number of people now avoid news all or, at least, some of the time.
A recent Oxford University Reuters Institute report found that the number of people taking a strong interest in the news has dropped by around a quarter in the past six years. Less than half of people around the world – 48 per cent to be precise – are very or extremely interested in the news. That’s down from almost two thirds – 63 per cent – in 2017. Here at home the proportion who are engaged with news is lower than the global average, at just 43 per cent. Reuters found that more than four in 10 – 41 per cent – sometimes or often actively avoid the news in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, it is the most divided and partisan countries where there are the highest number of news avoiders. Japan and the US have the most folk saying they did not consume any news at all in the past week from traditional or online sources (TV, radio, print, online or social media). One in eight Americans are labelled “disconnected” by the researchers. The figure here is around one in 11 (9 per cent). In Finland, it’s one in 50.
The irony is that the reaction of those angered by what I didn’t actually say illustrates the point perfectly. Those who posted on The Telegraph’s comments page argued that the real problem with the Today programme was that it was – delete where applicable – too negative, too gloomy, too woke, too Remain, too disrespectful. On Twitter (or X as we are now supposed to call it) those of a somewhat different political disposition insisted that the same programme was – in their words, not mine – too cowed by the Tories, too pro-Brexit, too unwilling to challenge the lies of ministers.
I have no doubt that in the years after the most divisive political issue of my lifetime – Brexit – there are some listeners to Today who’ve switched off for the reasons listed above. What’s true of Brexit is also true of other contentious debates on sex and gender, race, climate change and much more besides. It would be amazing if that were not the case. I also have no doubt though that news avoidance is a phenomenon which is real and matters whether you love the nation’s most influential news programme, loathe it or, like many listeners, love it and loathe it at different times on the same morning.
News avoidance affects all news outlets. Yes, even The Telegraph. Some find the news itself too depressing – whether it’s about war, floods or earthquakes. Some people find what they see as the endless arguing too much for the start of their day. Many complain of feeling out of control – whether they’re listening to reports about climate change or controversies about Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. A few choose to switch off news and switch on instead something less challenging and more restful – from classical music to that funny podcast or a programme about gardening.
This phenomenon exists alongside a growing trend for people to consume “news” that reinforces a view of the world which they already have. Those dubbed “centrist Dads” listen to Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s podcast, The Rest is Politics, and agree that the Conservatives have lost the plot. Many who’ve switched to GB News probably agree that it’s the London establishment and the liberal metropolitan elite who have let people down.
Let me be clear, competition is good and healthy. I don’t want to see any news organisation shut down. I do, however, think we need to be wary of what we have seen happen in the United States – a polarisation of the media which exacerbates and inflames already deep political divisions. It’s a phenomenon which has destroyed that once great democracy’s ability to have a grown-up rational debate about the policy choices it faces. An overwhelming majority of Conservative activists get their “news” from Fox News. Liberals from MSNBC or CNN. There are, as a result, no shared facts which can act as a foundation for a rational disagreement – yes, ladies and gentleman, a civilised, adult disagreement and not a “toxic row” or a “bitter and damaging split”. The tyranny of online likes and shares driven by those three-letter words – WTF, LOL or OMG – tempt intelligent people to indulge in attention-seeking outrage or wild conspiracy theories.
I grew up in a Telegraph-reading household. Like many, I loved its comprehensive and intelligent news coverage, the sport and the features. For others, it is the crossword, the obituaries or the foreign news that attract. I am still a subscriber. I didn’t read it as a child – and I don’t now – because it reflects my views or tells me what to think. I read it because, at its best, it reports the news I want to and need to know.
And you know what? That makes me – and probably you – typical. Reuters found that only around one in 10 people ever comments online or on social media. That is another fact we all need to keep at the front of our mind. The people who post angry comments should be listened to and heard but we should not make the mistake of treating them as if they are representative of most readers, listeners or viewers of news.
Talking of facts, there is one other worth dwelling on. Despite all the increased competition – which is, by the way, good as people now have a world of choice unimaginable for those of us brought up with Radio 4 alone – the BBC remains the most trusted news brand in the UK.
It’s true that in recent years, as politics has become more divisive and the media more fragmented, the number saying they trust the BBC has fallen, but 61 per cent of people told Reuters this year they do trust the BBC. It’s also true that the Today programme has lost some listeners but our audience is five times the size of our nearest competitor and 25 times that of our newest one.
That said, we are anything but complacent. In the past year alone, we have committed to co-presenting 100 shows a year from outside London; hugely energised our social media presence; launched The Today Debate with Mishal Husain; and, from this Thursday, The Today Podcast, a weekly, in-depth analysis with me and Amol Rajan.
Those of us who work at the BBC and believe in the value of broadcasting news and discussions that are insulated from commercial pressures and the views and prejudices of owners, politicians or those who heckle online don’t claim to be pure or to always get things right. We can and always must do better. We do, though, insist that impartial broadcasting – whether at the BBC, ITN or Sky – has served and still serves this country well.
One thing we – I – would never do is have a go at the listeners, or even the ex-listeners, whose noise occasionally dwarfs their numbers.