Over these past months of coronavirus, I, like many others, have been fixated on the news, and if you live in the United States last year we went through a presidential election and many of us were obsessed with the news. But there's this one nagging question, this thing that gnawed at me, which is, can I trust the news?
I called James Harding. He's the founder and editor in chief of Tortas, a new news organization, and the former head of the news for the BBC to sit down and talk to me about what the news could be, about what the future of news must be. This is a bit of optimism. James, I can't tell you what a treat it is to see you, it's been a while since I've sat down and talk to you. Yeah, and it's been a while since we've seen any other humans.
It's been a while since we've seen in other humans that, too.
Yeah. Yeah. I think we've learned a lot during covered a lot has been revealed to us the importance of space, the importance of gratitude and valuing our relationships.
But the other thing that has confounded me over covid is who and what to believe.
And I try and get my news from multiple sources and I try and get my news from sources that are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, because I'm always curious how things are being reported from both sides. And then I try and sort of make my own determination as to what reality is. But the question I have for you as a career journalist, a career newsman, where do I get the truth?
I mean, I've just gone through an election. Yes. Here in the United States. And much has been made of fake news, which is now in our vernacular and the extreme influence of social media, where now anyone can post anything. And it's held at the same standards as journalism. And so with such a massive influx of misinformation, disinformation, manipulation, I am finding it harder to know where to get the truth and who to believe.
And our instinct is to believe the people who sort of reflect our own political beliefs because, you know, it reinforces our own biases. But that doesn't make it the truth. That just makes it nicer to hear.
Let me try it on you. I think 20 20 may mark a lose to post politics news, by which I mean the biggest story of the year coronavirus has not been much helped by looking through a Republican or Democrat lens, a conservative or liberal lens. In fact, you really want to understand things in ways that are A data driven B with time scale of science. C, really interestingly, we've been in a decade where the political argument has been about the nation.
I think the thing about religion is that nationalism, whichever approach you take to it, has been really unhelpful in the coronavirus, which is something that operates globally and is experienced locally. And so that's the other thing is that there's been, as you said at the top, some about place places a big thing. It's been really, really evident that we think differently about the planet, but we also think differently about where we are, where we live and work.
And so I wonder whether or not we'll come away thinking, yes, I really do care about the news. I care about the news as regards the place. I mean, as regards the data that I get access to and the quality of that data as regards news in the moment, not isn't space news, but news over time. And so I think that that might give us ways of looking at what's happening in the world that's different from the thing that I think is so different now about news now than where it used to be.
And I think how social media has been able to penetrate standard news, you know, legitimate news is that in the past, the news was a trusted source where I could just turn on the television or open a newspaper. And I could basically trust even if there was some political bias, I could basically trust that the reporting I was being given, I could believe now I can't simply open a newspaper or turn on a television station, but rather you. What you're saying to me is I have to go on my own search as an individual to find what I believe to be the truth.
I don't buy that, to be honest with you. Not the not the last bit. I think that's true. I think that you have to be a consumer of news in the way in which you are going to have to be a consumer of streaming TV. You know, it takes a while to find the things that are really worth watching. And we don't have to learn how to navigate the guide. The thing I don't agree with is it was much better years and years ago.
OK, this idea that there was this kind of Delphic source of news, you could tune into it and it would tell you what was really going on and what was going to happen next. Yeah, it wasn't like that. I think there's a thing that we really underestimate is the extent to which there was enormous information inequality. I don't these nearly six, but it's much more fixable than what does that mean?
What information inequality means information quality means that if you were wealthy and college educated, you had access to much, much better sources of information than the vast majority of people. If you lived in certain in the United States metropolitan centres, you had way better sources of information nationally and internationally.
What I. He's happy when the news is not about left and right, left and right is the thing that enrages people. Mm hmm.
What's happening is about places of darkness, by which I mean there are places where geographically there's just no provision of you start finding out what's happening in the courts and not finding out what's happening in the state legislature or the governor's mansion. You still finding out at all that community information? And then the other thing is there are parts of our lives. And until the coronavirus, science and medicine, health care, one of those parts of our lives where we got really, really odd, you know, occasional versions of the news.
That's my point about post politics. News is, can we stop thinking about the news in terms of CROSSFIRE or New York Times versus Wall Street Journal, CNN versus Fox? Because these these arguments. Right, the sort of, you know, what was Bill O'Reilly vs. Walters? Rachel Maddow, those arguments really make us feel good because they are some things that we feel they don't help us to discover, things that we need to know.
But I want to go back to something you said, how it's become our response and I hear you. And that, again, put the responsibility on the consumer to go, as you said, you know, like a movie that we want to watch on TV. We have to sort that. We sit there and watch all the trailers and trying to decide what to watch that that's how news has become.
But the problem is, is the algorithm that that is Google attempts to show you the thing it thinks you want to see, not necessarily the thing you're asking for. And so a study I was told about not that long ago was that people with left leaning politics who said, I'm trying to find the truth, I reject, you know, the political biases of the traditional news sources that are available to me. I'm going to do my own research and I'm going to go into Google and I type in Benghazi to find out what's really going on.
And if you have left leaning politics, Google shows you left leaning news items.
If you have right leaning politics, Google shows you right leaning news. So you get completely different answers. And the study showed is that if you're completely independent, have no political leanings. Google shows you travel advice.
Yes. Yeah, yeah.
And so even well-intentioned citizens who are attempting to use a search engine to find you cannot find news that doesn't play to their biases. No, no.
We've got a massive problem here, which is people who are responsible for the provision of information in society in which information is the most important tool in decision making. I have gone from saying they're just providing a platform to let everything let the chips fall where they may to acknowledging that their business model actually has impacts on the outcomes information. So now saying the way that I find really hard to swallow. Oh, you know what? We are now seeking regulation.
Let's face it, this is a systemic failure of the public square. That is just what's happened. I grew up in newspapers in the UK. We had a very clear understanding of our responsibility. We could be curious. We could lean into your life as long as it was in the public interest and the nature of the law that underpins the special privileges and prerogatives of journalists were that you could do so in the public interest. It was necessary for the citizens to know.
I moved out of newspapers, into TV and radio, and then we had a system which was known as Public Service Broadcasting, the BBC and the BBC. Again, you were able to not only be curious about people's lives, but finally put it on TV again as long as it meets understandings of what was in the public interest public service. But with digital, there's nothing at all. And I've been arguing for, well, quite a few years now, you need to have something that's the equivalent.
So I think the public standards for digital information and then it's incumbent on the owners of those platforms, Google and Facebook and all the rest of it, to say we provide information that meets a public standard that's not inimical to free speech, that's essential to the functioning of a public square.
OK, I think what you're saying is very interesting. And I think the newspaper industry in particular did this to themselves. Yes, they devalued themselves, which is to your point, you know, journalists go to school. There's standards inside newspapers. You separate the editorial staff from the publishing staff. And there's this thing that we herald called journalistic integrity that has certain standards. And when the Internet showed up and I remember this when bloggers started blogging, which is basically anyone with an email account could now be a newsman, write the newspapers.
They got so freaked out by the Internet that instead of doubling down on. Journalistic integrity in separating themselves from the blogosphere and saying, yes, those are bloggers and we are newspapers, they devalued themselves and told all of their journalists to start blogging and in so doing, raise the credibility of the blogosphere.
They allowed for a blogger to have equal ranking, equal standing in our society as a trained journalist with a degree in how to do this thing called journalism. And now we're suffering the side effects where the blogger and the journalist are no longer distinguishable.
We I don't the podcast is working because here's the problem. I am supposed to be know, darkly cynical and you supposed to be, you know, optimistic, borderline Pollyanna. And I'm now I'm going to say to you that you're wrong because you're much too negative on this. And so I think that something is really good. Is a lot of the journalism that you talk about 10, 20 years ago as being this integrity journalism?
It was we were just putting out like three, four, five stories a day. I mean, I remember when I started out as a reporter at the FTC, you know, we built this huge company, Mexicos report. It's telling there's a press release. Here's another company results. I remember from The Wall Street Journal saying, look, I'm not good, but I'm fast. Right?
And that was that was that was that was appealing. There was a reasonable bias. What's happened to us is that we are all being forced to identify not just information that's new, not information I have that you don't write, but information that's really valuable, insightful, that tells you something that you need to know. I'll give you a kind of example in our own year. So, you know, when we first started talking, which is nearly three years ago, what we were talking about on the BBC, I'm going to set up a slow newsroom.
Part of the idea was it will be better by being slow, but by not chasing after headlines. And part of the thinking was it would be different by being open. But we have our news meetings to be open. But what's happened? I think this is the first year we've had an amazing year, but I know everyone's knackered and I can't see straight. But the appetite for slow news, the appetite for. Yes, the latest data, the latest press conference be huge, but also a real growth.
And people say what's driving this other forces behind this? So there's an appetite for mass and processed terms. So it's really changed. We are much, much more focused on once we've identified the subject that matters, then how do we distill that to find the story that tells you the different elements of the issue? So what we found has really changed is that it's one thing to say, hey, why can't we pass a trillion trees to deal with the climate crisis?
Second, we can do better. We can find the person who counts trees and then we can tell the story of Tom Crowther, who counts trees and the battle over tree counts. That is itself a proxy for which countries in the world and where are we really dealing with climate. And that is and for me, what that says is just your bigger point is that I don't take the 10 year view that journalists became global and vice versa. Actually, journalists have been forced to raise their game because there's just so much more information.
So this is very interesting where there's an appetite not just for the news, but for an explanation of how the news came to be. We want to understand the reason because it is in the reason of how it came to be. That's more objective and I can now draw my own conclusion. Yeah, and what you're suggesting is that in this 24 hour news cycle, news is a business when you make your revenue from advertising, especially on television, that's a problem because ratings become the thing to drive.
But what you're saying is, is that simply reporting what has happened yesterday or this week is insufficient. I want to understand the underlying meaning route and people involved.
And I don't have the time or attention to go research that. So I'm looking for what you're saying is the new raise standard of journalism to go investigate that for me.
So I'll give you some concrete example, which is we talked about how would you tell a story and create elements of the story that gave people greater access to your thinking? We started I don't know why this was with a why we started it.
I like it. I like it. Go on. Go on. This is an idea. I want to pick up. I can't believe I'm telling you all my best. The idea was after we you. That's what I'm saying at the top of your story, you have a box every time you tell a story, which is why the story. Yeah. Why this story matters. So we introduce that.
That was quite good, actually, in my world that was massively innovative. People were going, I love the fact that every time you do a story, you've got a box that says, why the story? And then you as the editor, explain why you've chosen to tell the story. The thing that was interesting was that was an innovation.
I think that what you're talking about is it's an old fashioned industry that is being disrupted in a very positive way. Yeah. And so what you're doing a tortoise. What's happening at Axios?
Yeah, these are career news people that I think are disrupting and offering alternatives to what it were considered the standards in journalism.
Yeah, because I like disruption. You know, just like when industries get old and stale, they deserve to be disrupted in journalism.
Surely it's being disrupted. Well, journalism, by the way, the truth is journalism is being disrupted not by the journalists. We are just responding to the fact that the old models don't work. They don't work for consumers in terms of information, and they don't work for the commercial side either. But Bukovsky, an example of where I think culturally things have changed and take people who kind of, if you like, not in the same swim as me.
So whatever you think about Fox News, the really interesting thing that happened in the course of election night was Arizona. And the thing that people most liked, of course, was Jared calls. Rupert doesn't necessarily respond. They stick by the call they've made on our SO but culturally road show was that they brought in the team of psephologists that are on the desk making the judgments and they show you their workings. They say, look, we've made this just because our is that there's a one in four hundred chance that Trump picks up Arizona.
And when I started out as a reporter, everything was behind closed doors, editorial meetings, behind closed doors. The investigative team operates behind closed doors, but even the sharing of our data operated behind closed doors. One of the things that's happened with the disruption is that you are seeing much more of that shared publicly.
This is this conversation is not helping me the most.
But the things about it was a preposterous idea. You said let's have a positive conversation about the new right.
I mean, let me just tell you the jumble of thoughts that are going through my head that are sort of they're not depressing me. I'm just left just as confused right now as I started off at the beginning. So the television news used to be a public service. And in the United States, you know, a deal was made that the FCC would allow the TV stations to prosper and make money off the public airwaves in return for a public service called the News.
And it gave rise to people like Walter Cronkite. And it happened in nineteen seventy nine during the Iran hostage crisis, that for the first time ever, the ratings of the news went, whoo!
Yeah. And Ted Koppel and the NewsHour all of a sudden had the potential to make money.
They could no longer be a public service.
And in the 80s, there's this conversion where the business people at the TV stations just ignored the news and let them do their thing. And so integrity was the thing. And then all of a sudden it became a business. And unlike in the newspapers where you had the separation of the business side and the journalist side here, you now had the business people getting involved in the news room dictating what things should be reported and what things shouldn't be reported. And advertising became a thing.
So if it bleeds, it leads because it drives eyeballs, which drives ad dollars and the gross influence of money in business. Intertwined now we can't distinguish, but really in the 80s gave rise to this this screwed up system to the point where we now reach, where if I turn on one of the apps from one of the TV stations where they now report opinion as if it's news. So they have a headline that's a standard headline. And then I notice what they do.
It's very sneaky.
They'll put the name of the TV personality, not necessarily a journalist, and then comma, and then the headline that they said their opinion, but it's reported as a headline, you know, the news is biased and has no place in the world.
Harding And my point is, as we are now at the point because of business that we are no longer presented. Forget about distinguish that we're no longer presented news as news versus opinion. It's all become a blur.
Yeah. So I think that what you're talking about are systemic failures in the media in the way in which we were talking about systemic failures on the Internet. And when I say systemic, the thing that's important to me is I was in a conversation earlier today with someone said to me, what's the difference between responsible business and responsible capitalism? Among responsible business is operational, but it's a company saying we're good on emissions. Responsible capitalism is systemic. It's where you introduced expectations around carbon taxes or emissions or, you know, behaviors.
And what happened, I think around the media, I think you make it easy to demonize business and you let journalists and journalism off the hook. You know, the journalists like the attention to they like the success and they like the prosperity that came with it. So I'll give you the UK version of it. It really.
So we ought to culturally between two marketplaces for information, a Fleet Street, the newspapers and the BBC and Fleet Street kind of founding myth is John Wilkes, a man who fought for freedom of speech and against the licensing of newspapers. Individuals would be free to say what they wanted. And in the US, I think the closest echoes probably Jefferson Jefferson's argument that a society where there was freedom of expression was safer than any other society in the world, and he sort of championed the pamphleteers in that way.
That was a kind of founding myth of Fleet Street. The founding myth of the BBC was different in nineteen twenty two, as people began to wrap their heads around the possibility of broadcasting on the idea of journalists reaching into the minds of millions of people, the government in the UK got spooked. They thought themselves good. If we allow journalists or even worse proprietors to have that kind of power is terrifying. So they created in the UK a licensing regime in which anyone who was getting a receiver and anyone who had a transmitter had to have a government licence and with that licence kaisa regulatory requirements on standards of output and the BBC more was willing to provide the best of everything to everyone.
So that had a high public purpose. You had a high global purpose. That kind of motto of the BBC is Nations will seek peace alternation. But there is quite a detailed regulatory regime, which is not just you will have to deliver news in order to get that access.
It's quite clear what kinds of news and the culture of the news that's required. And so you have these two competing information marketplaces, three, three, three, four unregulated BBC and that tension.
And it's often quite an aggressive tension between the two, I think is really important. What's been lost in states is that for a long time, network news was a very American echo of the BBC. So it wasn't the BBC, but it was an alternative. And the metropolitan dailies had a culture because of place where they were weak.
But what happened is, yes, cable news and then to on digital news drove a coach and horses through both of those.
That's such an interesting point, which is what makes a democracy work is that we have multi parties. Yeah. We don't have oligarchy. We don't have one party who runs the show. And it's the tension that's supposed to keep the society in balance. Yeah. You know, in a business, you'd say that it's the tension of the visionary and the operator. Yes. It's that beautiful tension that makes something work at its best. And what you're saying is that in the news media, the thing that's been lost is that we're quick to blame or demonize.
But the reality is it's the loss of this special tension. Yeah. And the reason it feels on. Balanced is because it very much is unbalanced, because there's no opposing party that has a different point of view about how news should be delivered.
And the irony is, you know, when he was saying we did this to ourselves, I think we did this to ourselves ideologically as well as commercially. And by that I mean that people like me who spent their lives really believing in jobs and I still do, I really believe in the importance of information. The news also spent 30 years campaigning against the propaganda machines of Eastern Europe or the Soviet bloc has wars or communist China. And even today, we fight for freedom of speech because there's never been in some ways a worse time to be a journalist, given how many are being kind of suffocated and out.
And so when if you like, the tech crew came along and said, are you for freedom of speech? We were like, hell, yeah, that's absolutely what whistle. Right. We don't want to have government regulating what you say because look what happens in Belarus or Moscow or Beijing. And the problem is in that process, we've lost, as you say, it's not even a balance. It's a contest, isn't it? It's two worldviews around information that both must be operating at the same time.
You know, one of the things I know about your organization, Tortas, and what I know about Axios is Accio says if you want a job here, you may not express any political opinion in your personal Twitter feeds or social media.
And you may not go to a protest because we are journalists. We stay out of the fray. And if you don't like that standard, don't work here. And what I like about this is it's creating a necessary tension, which is what you want, which is you want the opposing side, which is what we consider the traditional media now, where we're getting most of our news to look at that and say you're crazy and we want that little tension.
We want that little battle to happen because it's in that tension. It's in the different points of view of how news should be delivered, that we're more likely to get a better quality news.
I think that the the thing I find myself saying again and again and again this year, it's revealed more than it's changed. And, yeah, it's revealed. This generation gap, it's revealed, obviously a global gap, east versus west, I think it's revealed a real gap between centers and regions that this gap of place. But I also think that it's revealed an ideological gap and it doesn't need to be. And it's not one that is the only policies that take you back to the post.
Politics is a silly point to make, because the truth is politics will shift to consume any arguments. So the differences that we have now around responsible information and trust will be championed by different sides in a political argument because politics moves to a doctor or is into an argument.
And I think the reason I love this, I think the idea, the need for attention and that the news media has lost the tension and it's old school news, people like yourself who've come up through the system and have now you're looking at a system going, no, no, no, there's a piece that's missing.
Doesn't mean I reject the system I came up in, but there's a piece that's missing that needs to be included in this system to create balance.
Some you smoke. Yeah, I I'm really intrigued to know if you're having these conversations with a bunch of people and you're inviting them in on the grounds that this has been a tough year. But let's find a bit of optimism. Frankly, it's a very English title is an. So what are you honestly feeling? Hasn't been a year that has given you grounds to be optimistic, or do you think you are sifting for optimism when the trend in what you're seeing and thinking is the other direction?
My answer. Is neither or if I want to be optimistic, it's both, I have really been practicing, always seeking balance.
And so when something bad happens, it's my instinct to say, well, hold on a second, what good has come out of this also or what's the positive side of this? And when something good happens, it's my habit to say, well, hold on, let's not get too carried away. You know, I seek balance. And so I have two answers to your question. One is objective and one is subjective.
The subjective one is we've all gone through all kinds of emotions. No one has escaped the trauma of covid.
And somebody asked me this morning, in fact, how have you been sleeping? And the answer was, I've had some good weeks and I've had some bad weeks.
I've had weeks where I've slept incredibly well and I've had some weeks where it's been really bad. And she said, Oh, good. If you said I've been sleeping well all the time, I would have hung up and said, you're lying to me. The point being is the subjective part is there are days that I've struggled to be optimistic and there are days that I'm only optimistic. The objective side is in all of this trauma and tragedy that is around us, there is a lot of good that has happened.
Yeah, and I think it's important for us to to find the balance. Yeah, I believe in those tensions and those balances. I think that's that's important.
The reason I was to because I've thought about this a lot. I talk about a lot, partly because I'm kind of a positive person. I've got a sunny disposition. And also, I think like a lot of people, I've been really touched by the nature of patience and generosity and love this year. So I don't see all of that. And along the lines of the criticism that journalism just always harps on about the negative and doesn't actually tell the human story that is often good.
I get. So that's sort of the problem, of course, is. One song in the U.K., if I were trying to distill my critique of the reasons why we have had such a high excess death rate and the reasons why we are so hard hit in terms of livelihoods, and it's been so much worse for some than druthers. If I were to some that I would say optimism bias that time and time again, the problem has been that we hoped things would turn out better than they did and then scramble to make a difference.
And so I didn't want to get to the end of this conversation without lighting up. But I think that I think the optimism itself has had a bit of a kicking 20, 20.
I'm going to push back here. I agree with the the premise. I think it's a positivity bias, not an optimism bias. What's the difference?
So in my mind, positivity is what you're talking about. Everything's fine. It's fine. It's going to be fine. We're fine. It's fine. Right. It's overblown. We'll get through this. It's fine. Right. Where optimism is not a denial of the current state. Optimism is the belief that the future is bright, but it accepts current darkness. So positivity would say everything's fine. Go about your business and we'll get through this just fine.
You'll see. And then there's the scrambling to your point. Optimism says this is a dark time. We have to hunker down. This is going to hurt. But I know that the future is bright. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I know if we come together and work together that we will come through this better and stronger than we went in.
I think, by the way, I'm not sure that you may not want to do a U-turn in twenty twenty one and games of pessimism business, because I think everyone's going to be crowding into this optimism, space and pessimism.
It's just going to be exaggerated. You're going to be OK.
And in the theme of tension and maintaining tension of optimism gets too much, too many headlines. I think I better I better go pessimistic to maintain the tension and also be good for the brand.
So it'll be good for seems to be an actual story like some. I used to be such an optimist, but I've had to rethink.
Yeah, right. Exactly. Exactly.
OK, let me see if I can sum this up. Let me see if I can sum this up. OK, which is just like nature abhors a vacuum. So do people.
Yeah. We need attention, we need balance, we need yin and yang.
We need good and evil. You know, we need these tensions. And in this news journalism industry that as it's matured and become a thing, it's become sort of a mush.
And unfortunately, because the way news and journalism is delivered is largely the same, regardless if it's liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, it's kind of the same mush, the tension that has been exaggerated because human beings need that opposition, because it's not come from the news media itself. It's become very political. So the tension has become left and right, and that's the tension in the news. But the reality is the tension that's actually needed, the healthier tension is an entirely new way to deliver news.
And the tension has to be between the traditional news media, regardless of their political bias and new sources of news that are challenging the system. That's what we need.
Yeah, by the way, I like that I even got a headline for you, which is a tension deficit. Very good. If you like that. Very good. It all together is packaged a tension deficit. Yeah. So thank you for inviting me on.
It's really, really nice to chat to you.
I don't think there's ever been a time where I've talked to you, where I haven't learned something or walked away a little wiser. And this is no exception.
I like will take good care of yourself. You too. If you enjoyed this podcast and if you'd like to hear more, please subscribe wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Until then, take care of yourself and take care of each other.