Edinburgh TV Festival: Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow has lambasted digital giants Facebook and Google in his Edinburgh TV Festival MacTaggart lecture, while also accusing broadcast journalism of being disconnected from the lives and concerns of those not in the elite.

Throughout his speech, a recurring subject was the Grenfell Tower disaster, which he cited to describe the ‘disconnect’ in modern society.

“Grenfell Tower is a wounding centerpiece of my talk today, and I’ll return there amid my two main themes. Firstly, that in the age where everyone is a publisher, public service broadcast journalism has never been more vital. Secondly, humanity needs to match the dramatic growth of social media with a rebirth of social mobility.”

Snow said that the explosion of digital media “has filled neither the void left by the decimation of the local newspaper industry – nor connected us any more effectively with ‘the left behind’, the disadvantaged, the excluded.”

“Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact? Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain, to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their story?

“We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell and who, across the country, now live on amid the combustible cladding, the lack of sprinklers, the absence of centralised fire alarms and more, revealed by the Grenfell Tower.”

“How much time had we devoted to social housing in this year since the EU referendum, when day after day we found ourselves filling the airwaves with the negotiating positions of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, the Brexit Bulldog, David Davis, Jeremy Corbyn and the rest, before serious negotiations had even begun?

“Not just Brexit, consuming the airwaves with so much political flatulence. Stuff which we know from viewing figures whether you are pro or anti-Brexit, bore and frustrate the viewer. And I haven’t even mentioned the antics of Trump yet. Sapping airtime that could have and should have been devoted to subjects nearer the hearts of those who watch.“

Snow described his own link with Grenfell Tower. He had been a judge at a debating contest in April, where the winner was Firdows Kedir, a ‘remarkably poised” 12 year old from West London who was confident and used language beautifully. She died in the Grenfell Tower fire. “Firdows has been described as “the most intelligent, wise and eloquent girl.” I was fortunate to witness that first hand and since then I often think what might she have become?”

Snow went on to say that “Grenfell speaks to us all about our own lack of diversity, and capacity to reach into the swathes of Western Society with whom we have no connection.”

Snow said a key problem was that the “echelons from which our media is drawn do not for the most part fully reflect the population amongst whom we live and to whom we seek to transmit information and ideas.”

Pointing out that 80% of editors went to public school, Snow added: “Our elite is narrow and deep … but the throng of those who have borne the brunt of austerity and not shared in the lives we have experienced is WIDE and even deeper. We can as a country no longer allow ourselves to be SO ignorant of the lives of others, or the conditions of people who lived in Grenfell Tower. It should no longer be possible to live in ignorance of the very present danger in which the residents of several hundred UK tower blocks are living."

Snow said that public service journalism remained vitally important “in an age when everyone from Trump downwards is a publisher.”

“Never, since the rise of the printing press, have two companies held such a monopoly over the world’s information. And never have such organisations taken so little responsibility for it.  And no I’m not talking about Murdoch and Dacre. It is Facebook and Google to whom I refer.”

Snow added: “Many news organisations including my own, have asked too few questions about the apparent miracle of Facebook’s reach. For us at Channel 4 News it has been invaluable in helping us to deliver our remit – to reach young viewers, to innovate, and to get attention for some of the world’s most important stories. But the other side of the issue – the dark, cancerous side – Facebook enabled the story:  “Pope endorses Trump for President” to engage more than a million people during the US Elections. ”That same algorithm that prioritised many amazing reports of ours, also prioritised fakery on a massive scale. Facebook has a moral duty to prioritise veracity over virality."

He also said Facebook and Google, which benefited from the stories researched and written by public service news providers, have to do more to support them.

“The duopoly of Facebook and Google has decimated the market in digital revenue that many hoped would sustain quality journalism for years to come. Now we all need to work together and find another way of supporting it – before it’s too late.”

Snow explained: “We have to look at the new players in this digital age. Facebook needs to pay more taxes; Google needs to pay more taxes, the rest too. The digital media duopolies have to pay more to carry professional journalism."

”It cannot be beyond the bounds of human understanding to come up with a way of ensuring that these mega entities have to pay to play. Facebook feasts on our products and pays all but nothing for them. This cannot last, Governments, the EU and others have to play an even bigger part in forcing them to pay. I’m a fan of Facebook, but I’m not a fan of playing fast and loose with the products that we in this room generate at great expense. “

Tim Dams

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