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Why we need rational public debate

The New York Times Headquarters on 8th Avenue between 40th and 41st street in New York City
The New York Times Headquarters on 8th Avenue between 40th and 41st street in New York City
ORJAN F. ELLINGVAG - Getty Images - The New York Times Headquarters on 8th Avenue between 40th and 41st street in New York City

Mark Thompson is probably one of the best-suited and bestqualified people in the world today to talk to about the media and current affairs. Currently CEO of The New York Times Company, a job he has held since 2012, he was previously Director-General of the BBC for eight years.

In autumn 2016, his thought-provoking work, Enough Said – What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?, outlined the death of public debate. It proved a landmark success and gave us a taste of what was to come: the polemics following the election of Donald Trump and the phenomenon of ‘fake news'. Thompson's argument is that there is now an urgent need to reconstruct shared public discourse.

We met him in Milan, at his Italian publishers, Feltrinelli (La fine del dibattito pubblico, Feltrinelli 2017), to discuss the issues he has raised and the role of the media – the New York Times first and foremost — in our rapidly-changing world, in which new technologies are exerting a considerable influence on the media and political debate. 

Portrait of Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson
Portrait of Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson
HARRY BORDEN - Getty Images - Portrait of Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson

Q: Nowadays it seems that more and more people are oversimplifying issues and providing easy answers to what are, in reality, complex questions. Do you believe there is still a way to make complexity interesting?
A: I believe there is. And I think one of the failures of the so-called ‘elite' is this: they've stopped trying. There's no need to hark back to ancient times: just look at the 1990s, at Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Both successful leaders extremely skilled in explaining difficult issues in very simple, infantilised terms.

I get the impression that people have given up on rational political discourse. Let me give you an example: the free market, currently one of the most central and controversial issues around the world. During neither the US election campaign nor the Brexit referendum in the UK did I hear anyone attempt to defend the free market and provide a truly convincing explanation of the reasons behind it. I'm not saying that to do so would have led to immediate success at the polls, but why were people unwilling to try to explain how the free market might be positive for their country?

I feel people are making the mistake of thinking that rational discourse is pointless, a bit like not bothering to question the firm convictions of those opposed to the usefulness of vaccinations or those denying the consequences of climate change. What's the point? 

Yet there is a point to public debate: you might just change their minds. It's all too easy to say, “That's what I think and I know I'm right; if you can't understand that, you must be stupid.” In fact, we shouldn't be talking less to those who don't think like us, we should be talking to them more. We shouldn't be insulting them and standing our ground; we should appeal to them and try to convince them, not put up barriers and distance ourselves.

Populism has slipped into this growing gap between the elite and the common people. And it has done so by saying, “Do you see these experts and professors? They keep saying that everything is all so very complicated. But it's not, it's really very simple. Let us explain…”

Q: Given your profession, what do you think the role of the media should be in this scenario? 
A: The media run the risk of ending up on the side of the so-called ‘experts' and out of touch with public opinion. Let me give you a practical example: the dinner for White House correspondents. This is basically a club: the President and the most important politicians, along with the mainstream journalists, are all dressed for a black-tie event, laughing, drinking and patting each other on the back. It's a show. The New York Times has boycotted it for years, believing this not to be part of our job. 

It's no coincidence that this year President Trump did not attend, to make a point. I think he was right to keep away, for the public good. The media's job is to help the public understand politics and understand the decisions politicians are faced with. The media should take the middle ground, between politicians and the public. Given the present situation, this should be valued more, not less.

Q: In this regard, when should the media engage in impartial journalism and when should it take a firm stand on important issues? It seems that the election of Trump has made this a hot issue for the New York Times and other American media. Indeed, doesn't he accuse you of being “the true opposition”?
A: I'm always of the opinion that, when talking about news, our job is to present it and not adopt a position one way or the other. That's what editorials and opinion pages are for, after all. But what you say is true: we now have a US President who says that the true opposition to his administration is not formed by the Democrats, but by the media, such as the New York Times. It's his view that we are the enemies of the people he believes he represents. We mustn't get dragged into this way of thinking. Our job is to be scrupulous reporters. Of course, this doesn't mean that it's easy or that we always succeed, especially under present circumstances. 

Q: Let's turn to the question of so-called ‘fake news', a major issue today, especially when talking about the media, politics and communication. Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment: don't you agree that there is some justification in the belief that the fake news produced by Trump and other populists has led to a decline in rational discourse in mainstream politics? A huge problem, I know, but sometimes it just sounds like a giant excuse.
Whenever you lose, it's only human to blame others. Yes, it's true that the free, liberal world and, in part, the media often do so – and have done so in the past. However, this is what I think is happening: many websites, some TV stations and even the President of the United States himself are muddying the waters, in practice making matters less clear and less visible. And they do so without backing up what they say with actual proof. 

When Trump says his predecessor tapped his phone, he offers not a crumb of evidence. Then he justifies what he's claimed by saying that he read it somewhere, quoting some website or other. This is what they do: they confuse matters, so that people feel less certain and no longer understand what has really happened and what has not. This is a truly worrying problem. Its importance shouldn't be underestimated. 

Q: What role does technology play in all this? 
A: A prominent role. Speaking for the media, it's clear we've lost our monopoly on news. Today, everyone has the means to be a reporter, to film or photograph events: all you need is a smartphone to film a cop shooting someone... anyone can record an incident and quickly distribute the images around the globe. 

All this can be very useful and positive. Just think of the role played by technology in trying to raise a pro-democracy movement in Egypt. However, somewhere along the line people started thinking that they could do without the newspapers and journalists, that ‘citizen journalism' would suffice, that algorithms would be enough to decide for us what was newsworthy; what we need to know and what we don't. It sounds so wrong now. 

Journalists and their outfits offer something extra: they are accountable. If you write something wrong or offensive, people know who you are. They can complain to your publisher. After all, everything is very transparent: everyone sees exactly what you do and each individual can then decide whether or not to trust you. The only way to make yourself heard above the cacophony on the web is, I believe, to be clearly spoken, to stand out from the background noise. Indeed, in terms of public discourse, noise is the real innovation introduced by technology. You have to speak even more clearly, and you have to show that you can still listen to those who want to speak their own mind. You have to rise above the noise. 

Q: One last question: are you optimistic about the future of the media? The other side of the coin here is a hard search for a sustainable business model for journalists. 
A: At the New York Times we have a very firm belief: by investing in quality journalism we will attract committed, loyal readers and clients willing to pay. We now have two million digital subscribers around the world, in addition to the one million who buy the actual paper. I'm sure a figure of 10 million subscribers is within our reach. We believe that the best possible business model is to continue to trust in an audience hungry to understand what's going on in the world and to have the courage to invest in the quality of what we do.


Mark Thompson became CEO of the New York Times in 2012 after eight years as Director-General of the BBC. He is a staunch defender of the media's role in public discourse and recently published a fierce criticism of the trend to oversimplify complex issues and offer easy answers. He believes quality journalism can continue to attract "committed, loyal readers and clients willing to pay”


The book
Enough said: what's gone wrong with the language of politics?
In his 2016 book, Mark Thompson condemned the kind of political discourse that is “just a fight to the political death, a fight in which every linguistic weapon is fair game”. He also noted how technology is changing the nature of political communications: “Words hurtle through virtual space with infinitesimal delay. A politician can plant an idea in 10 million other minds before she leaves the podium.”