Interview: Will Hutton
Media Society President Theo Davies-Lewis sat down for a quickfire round of questions with journalist, writer and patron of the society, Will Hutton, to ask about Brexit, newspapers, and social media.
The Oxford University Media Society: what did you think of the idea to re-launch the initiative?
I thought two things: it was a good thing to resurrect, the media has evermore become the vocal point of so much: the rise of social media and the decline of newspapers, for example. It should be an area in which students should be able to get involved. I thought as a former editor of a national newspaper and a current columnist I had an obligation to play my part. I wish you Godspeed.
Have you seen a greater change in the last few years in the way we use social media or was it a more gradual shift?
It has been building, but I think the 2015 general election, 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election marked together a bit of an inflection point. One thing that has happened is that newspapers, particularly right-wing newspapers, have ceased to have any border between news and comment. The papers are edited to produce a particular ideological outcome and the front pages are built that way. The way in which they campaigned so aggressively for Brexit, which I believe is going to be a calamity, raises fundamental questions about the character of the press in democracy.
They would say that a free media requires us to be free as ideological as we choose and then people can buy the papers or not. I think, however, there is a prior obligation; your leaders and comment pages will always come through a particular prism, but your news has to be as impartial as possible: it has to contain genuine information.
The rise of social media occurred simultaneously. It was very effectively deployed by, first of all, the Leave campaign in 2016 and then by the Corbynites in 2017. For the first time in twenty years, certainly during the general election, the newspapers were less influential than I expected them to be. They may have over-reached themselves especially since the general election, with the judges being enemies of the people and all the lefties running Oxbridge colleges, of whom I am one.
The continual “OTTness” of it may be beginning to be self-defeating when you’re using eighteen pages to persuade you that Jeremy Corbyn was a Russian spy or colluding with the Russians. The reader does sense disproportionality and, therefore, it’s losing its effectiveness as a campaigning style.
What’s your views on the change of newspaper style from Berliner to tabloid at The Guardian and The Observer?
I regretted the passing of the Berliner; I thought it was a beautiful format. The numbers are just cruel, circulation is falling across the press by between seven and ten per cent per annum, slightly slowing down over the past year.
The Guardian and The Observer’s percentage falls are slightly lower than the average, particularly The Observer.They just had to printed on cheaper presses, that’s the story with Trinity Mirror as well. A lot of journalists at both papers were regretful, but it was necessary.
Does social media produce good journalism?
I use Snapchat a bit, but I’m essentially a Twitter man, I hardly use Facebook. The reason I like Twitter is that it furnishes you with fast links to good content. I pick up articles I would not otherwise have seen through the people I follow. I guess it is the same for a lot of people, I don’t see the necessity to buy the newspaper or even read online. The salient things to read in The Guardian, Financial Times or The Times I get alerted to very quickly.
I am concerned about what is happening, especially the recent lack of coverage concerning the substantive change to China’s constitution, which was really pathetic. There just were not the people on the ground: there were not people in the London offices who understood it and there were not the people in Asia who could report on it
I’m simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. I’m pessimistic for all the reasons I’ve just said but I’m optimistic one way or another in the next twenty-five years there will be business models that are income generating that will allow content providers to do good work – there have to be. I think we’re going to start to see micro-payments, maybe 5p or 10p to read the article, and that will be how we make content economically viable.
What would you like to be see from the Oxford University Media Society? What can a student society actually do?
It is likely, but not certain, that a number of your members in twenty-five years time will be substantive figures in the British media. The kinds of things you discuss and the kind of debates you have will set people on a course and inform their decisions later on in life. I would really encourage you to celebrate all forms of investigative journalism and journalism under fire. One journalist was killed recently in Slovakia for investigating the mafia. The free press and the ability to express oneself are absolutely under fire.
You should get involved in debates about the character of the news. I think it is a disgrace that Leveson Two was abandoned lately by the government, a crucial second leg of the inquiry, which was abolished for no other reason than the government wants the centre-right press on its side.
It would have told us the nature of the cover-up behind what happened at News of the World and the relationships between the police and journalists. Where does privacy end and public interest begin?
Above all, be a forum for the joy of great broadcasting and great journalism.
Will Hutton is British political economist, author and journalist. He is Principal of Hertford College and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre. He was the Editor-in-Chief of The Observer (1996-1998) and is now a columnist for the newspaper.
Additional reporting: Ariane Laurent-Smith, Head of Media Content