People are always telling me there’s nothing but rubbish on television. Speaking as a man who, because of my advanced age, is more or less housebound most of my time, I have to disagree. In fact, when you are equipped with a recording facility, and the advance programmes of all the stations, so that you can pick and choose, it is amazing how much stuff there is that is definitely worth seeing or hearing.
Just in the last couple of days, for example, I have watched some learned and deeply illuminating and rewarding discussions about the hangover of apartheid in South Africa, and its impact even on young people born after that evil regime was ended; a programme on President Macron, and his mistaken idea that he could pretend to be General de Gaulle, with so far fairly disastrous results, a mistake that arose from his failure to distinguish between the qualities of leadership required of the French president, and those required of a lesser functionary, which the participants in the programme agreed that he has; and an equally stimulating piece on the American demarche from the Iran nuclear deal, argued from both sides, which included an extremely valuable exhibition of American bullying that in the old pre-Trump days was carried out more or less covertly, but that is now right out in the open. A guy who seemed otherwise reasonable was reduced to boasting about how the United States, having imposed sanctions on Iran by breaking the promises they signed to, is now spreading the sanctions to the rest of the world, demanding that every country buying oil from Iran must find another supplier by May 3 or else suffer the consequences. /for good measure he added that they were carrying out similar tactics in the hope of overthrowing the elected government of Venezuela, and also thinking they should extend the same tactics to overthrowing the government of Cuba.
This programme, if I had seen no other, would have rewarded my watching hours. But all of those took place within a programme called Inside Story broadcast by Al Jazeera, and changed every day. They gather three experts offering a variety of views on the given subject, and let them go at it. AlJazeera is owned by the Emir of Qatar and it was no surprise to me that when Egypt took up cudgels against some of its Arab Gulf states neighbours recently, Qatar among them, the closing of AlJazeera was among the first demands made. That is because this station provides a quality of investigative journalism that has probably never been reached before in the Middle East, opening its listeners to a wide range of opinions on most of the subjects that are exercising the world’s politicians at the moment. This simply demonstrates that freedom of information is about the last thing the dictators of these Arab states would want to see in their region.
For example it was Al Jazeera that some months ago made a riveting documentary on the subject of how the Israeli government has nakedly interfered in British politics by conducting a well-funded campaign to try to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn from his position as leader of the Labour Party. They had a man stationed in the Israeli embassy in London whose sole job, it seemed, was to sow discontent within the Labour Party, and they did not shrink from besmirching.. the reputation of responsible politicians, alleging falsely that they were anti-semitic. That programme was eventually withdrawn from circulation after intense pressure from Israel.
At the moment I have some 28 programmes recorded and waiting for me to find time to watch them. At one time I had 95; on the way to that I thought I had better look to see how much space I had left. I was amazed to find I had used only three per cent of the available space.
The stations I watch habitually are the CBC, the BBC, AlJazeera, and RT, the Russian programme that is so vilified as an arm of Russian propaganda in the United States. I find these charges ludicrous. RT is as much a programme of Russian propaganda as the BBC is of British, or any number of the mainline privately-owned stations are of American propaganda. RT broadcasts a wide variety of opinion, has some excellent interview programmes, (for example, by Chris Hedges, the former NYTimes reporter who has lost his faith in the mainstream media).
Just today I watched an interview conducted by Oxana Boyko, one of their regular stars, with Professor emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, Michael Brennan. When asked his opinion of charges that Russia was interfering in American elections, he dismissed them as “absurd”, but when the interviewer later in their discussion pressed him in slightly shrill tones to agree with her that many recent actions by Republicans in Congress merited the sort of investigations the Democrats are always threatening against Trump, he simply smiled, said he didn’t think anything would come of all these charges and counter-charges because it was getting too close to the elections, and advised her politely to calm down. It was one of the few times I have seen her almost lose her cool: she is a formidable intellect, appears to have had a lot of on-the-ground experience as a reporter, and seems equal to slugging it out intellectually with almost any level of intelligence. The view she transmits of Russia today is far from a blinkered one: she admits to most of the inadequacies that Western observers are always going on about, but adds of course other qualities that are never mentioned in the Western press.
On this question of having a broad range of opinion available to everyone, you can see, I hope, that TV given the right conditions, does fairly well. When I was working in London as a reporter for a Canadian newspaper in the 1960s, I used to have nine morning newspapers delivered to my door by 7 am. I always felt that only by looking through all of them was I able to get a fairly accurate account of what was going on in London. They ranged in opinion from the deeply Conservative The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Daily Mail, through some moderate Liberal party papers like the News Chronicle (until it was closed suddenly), and with strong representation of the Labour interest through the Daily Mirror with its circulation of more than four million a day, and the Daily Herald, actually owned by the Labour party at the time, and reaching right over to the Daily Worker, representing the Communist party, on the far left. There was one other division worth mentioning: that between the tabloids, usually dismissed as trashy by the intellectuals, and the quality papers.
From my point of view, this division was not determinative: when the Daily Mirror, at that time under the command of a young and brilliant editor Hugh Cudlipp, decided to produce what it called a shock issue, I was always amazed at the quality of the straightforward writing, easy for everyone to understand, and the skilful layout. These issues were every bit as good as anything produced by the quality newspapers, in my opinion.
I have not mentioned The Daily Express, at that time owned and operated by Lord Beaverbrook. This was a newspaper that espoused the interests of the Empire as it called the Commonwealth, and it made no apology for the fact that its reporters were under instructions always to slant their news stories to accord with the prejudices of the owner. I never met Beaverbrook but I knew a number of journalists who had worked for him, knew him personally, and without exception they all had great affection for him.
This was just before Roy Thomson became the major Canadian proprietor on Fleet street, after taking control of The Times, and the Sunday Times. I had worked for him in one of his small newspapers in Canada, and had nothing but contempt for him or his Canadian papers, which were run with one object in mind, to make sure that no unions ever darkened his doorstep. When he got in among the big boys in Britain, however he had the sense to realize he simply had to accept unions, and he did so with such success that in my humble opinion, in the middle 1960s, his Sunday Times was probably the best newspaper being published anywhere in the world.