The new wave of NOTMWTS
Laura Kuenssberg trots out the old "no one tells me what to say" line and we tap the Chomsky sign again.
Previously: Reith Laying Ceremony
Emily Maitlis' MacTaggart Lecture was less about morals and more about marketing.
“No one tells me what to write.” “No one tells me what to say.” And, of course, their mirror twins: “No one tells me what not to write.” “No one tells me what not to say.” These are incantations of the British media, phrases that readers, listeners and viewers are expected to receive as articles of faith.
Those assurances are trotted out so often that Noam Chomsky’s retort to Andrew Marr in an interview from 1996 has become a cliche, shared on Twitter as an almost autonomic response to the performative ignorance. Asked by Marr how he knew the interviewer was “self-censoring”, Chomsky replied:
I’m not saying you’re self-censoring; I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.
When a variant of NOTMWTS1 appeared in the headline of Laura Kuenssberg’s Times interview this weekend (Laura Kuenssberg: ‘I’ve never been told what to say or not to say’) — one of two big features trailing her debut as the host of BBC 1’s flagship Sunday politics show2 — I thought about skipping over it. I’ve written a lot about the problem with NOTMWTW and NOTMWTS. But the idea that not being explicitly told what you can and can’t say is any kind of defence or even a description of how media organisations work needs revisiting often.
Emily Maitlis’ MacTaggart lecture (which I covered in the last newsletter) included a number of anecdotes where her internal censor — a littler Richard Littlejohn, perhaps — jumped up and down on her shoulder demanding a bigger say for the right. But it also, in a drop intro set on the night of Donald Trump’s election, had Maitlis recalling that then-Newsnight editor Ian Katz3 told her explicitly: “Do not normalise this.”
In The Times interview, a comparison of Kuenssberg to Marr and Maitlis, who have both abandoned the indifferent ship, Auntie, for the LBC lifeboat, leads in to her invocation of NOTMWTS:
Many journalists consider the BBC’s impartiality limiting — with Marr saying he was getting his voice back by leaving — but Kuenssberg sees it differently. “People say, ‘Well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that, you’re terribly restricted,’ ” she says. “For me, that’s totally upside down, because the whole point at the BBC is that you’re not following the line; all you’re doing is trying to find the truth … I’ve never been told what to say — or what not to say, maybe more importantly.”
There are layers that contribute to knowing what can and cannot be said without the need for anyone to tell a reporter explicitly where the red lines are. Culture is in the air like cigarette smoke in pubs before the ban, but it’s also pinned down in editorial rules and style guides. It’s there in tropes and cliches, precedent and the dread line “just how we’ve always done it”.
Above all, if Laura Kuenssberg had needed to be “told what to say — or what not to say” she would never have been appointed Political Editor, spent seven years in that role, or been promoted to the titular host of its Sunday political spot (now called Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg) following in the footsteps of Frost and Marr.
NOTMWTS is a shield intended to bat away further questions, to avoid closer scrutiny of how stories are chosen, framed, and reported. “All you’re doing is trying to find the truth,” is a line that comes from the same place as claims of journalistic impartiality and objectivity. The latter is one of the greatest self-serving lies in media; purporting to offer true objectivity is like saying you can draw a perfect circle freehand or that you’ve bred a unicorn by glue-gunning a Cornetto onto a Shetland pony’s forehead.
All journalists can do is be honest about their biases and the perspectives they come from while presenting the competing voices involved in any particular story. The Times piece quotes an unnamed friend of Kuenssberg, who says…
Laura takes the rule that the journalist should never become the story incredibly seriously. And then there’s her total commitment to BBC impartiality. I have no clue how she votes.
… while an unnamed political editor says:
Laura likes a gossip — that’s one of the reasons she’s so good at her job — but even while talking about politicians she doesn’t express partisan views… And she’s always ‘on’ — her overriding characteristic is her professionalism — she never lets it slip. There’s a veneer that very few people can penetrate.
You could argue — and people do — that, regardless of who has the mantle, the job of BBC Political Editor is a Rorschach blot in which both left and right are certain to see bias against them. But I think the notion that there are no clues to Kuenssberg’s politics or worldview in the thousands of hours of broadcasting she undertook in that role is downright insulting to viewers and listeners.
Even in The Times piece — which makes a big play of how reticent she is to talk about herself and sit for interviews4 — there are plenty of tells. Whether it’s the almost Molly-Mae style homily on “grafting” and “niceness”…
When I ask about her childhood, there’s a sigh — she’d rather not go there. The household was happy, she eventually says, and her parents laboured hard, instilling a strong work ethic. “[It was] if you work hard, and you’re nice, then you might get to do really amazing things,” she recalls. “Because working hard is probably the most underrated thing. When people talk about ‘How did this person get to do that?’ grafting is not mentioned as much as it should be … And I was brought up to think that you should do something worthwhile with your life.”
… or her views on interviewing:
… she does not see the politician “as the enemy”, adding of her approach:
“I don’t think there’s a point being aggressive for aggressive’s sake. But firm? Absolutely damn right.”
However, when you look at incidents like her inaccurate report on Jeremy Corbyn’s comments about the 2015 Paris terror attacks or her tweeting in defence of Dominic Cummings (which The Times piece mentions) or repeating the baseless phantom punch story during the 2019 general election and prodding a shadow cabinet minister to resign on Politics Live (which the Times does not), reporting “the truth” and “not following a line” get quite muddy as concepts. That’s without even getting into the notorious “this is him here” tweet.
The Times argues:
The challenge as political editor is to walk a delicate tightrope: you need to be close to ministers and advisers without becoming a mouthpiece for them.
It’s a statement so disconnected from the reality we have witnessed for years that it’s hard not to respond with a hollow laugh. Kuenssberg is far from alone in having provided a megaphone for anonymous sources, “not told what to say” but happily parroting lines to a huge audience; it’s an epidemic in British political journalism, where WhatsApp messages whip onto Twitter with undue weight and ceremony.
Whenever a journalist glibly pulls out NOTMWTW or NOTMWTS, you can be sure that they are not really interrogating what leads them to certain conclusions or what ideas they are immediately hostile towards. Their beloved Orwell — writer of two of the handful of books that every columnist leans on at some point (1984 and Animal Farm) — wrote in an unused preface5 to the latter that:
Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.
But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
We can kid ourselves that the orthodoxy Orwell wrote about in 1943/44 has dissolved but it’s just that: kidding ourselves. The unfashionable opinions have changed and shifted over time but the silence around them prevails. Behind the handwaving of NOTMWTW and NOTMWTS, the orthodoxy is still there, maintained by professional requirement and self-preservation.
Still, no one told me what to write in this newsletter…
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It’s fun to abbreviate it like this — for me, at least — because it makes me think of NWOBHM (the New Wave of British Heavy Metal), which was a big thing in the music press of the early-80s.
Formerly Deputy Editor of The Guardian and now Chief Content Officer at Channel 4.
It was published as The Freedom of the Press by the TLS in 1972.