Dorothy Byrne has revealed that several high-profile journalists privately backed her for calling out politicians for lying in her MacTaggart lecture, but have shied away from showing public support out of fear of political backlash.
Writing in her book, Trust Me, I’m Not a Politician: A simple guide to saving democracy, the Channel 4 head of news and current affairs states that the “most extraordinary result” of her lecture at August’s Edinburgh TV Festival was that “a significant number of well-known people in television journalism told me privately that it was time that someone spoke the truth; politicians did lie and also failed to put themselves up for in-depth interviews.”
Her book, published this week, features the MacTaggart lecture and Manchester University’s annual Crockford Rutherford lecture, alongside more recent observations and reactions to her views on media, politics and the treatment of women in the industry.
In it, Byrne also reveals that one presenter of a rival news programme contacted her from his personal email account.
“You might ask why, as we don’t live in Putin’s Russia, these people felt they couldn’t support me publicly? A number had also given me information to help me write the speeches in the first place but didn’t want to be credited.
“I don’t blame them; they were afraid that the limited access they receive to leading politicians could be reduced.”
She describes the “chilling effect” on the degree to which journalists who count on politicians for daily stories, feel they can criticise.
“If you criticise them, they may take it out on you.”
Byrne also says the public furore caused by her MacTaggart was “astonishing”.
She writes: “As I have a degree in philosophy, affirming the primacy of truth seemed pretty uncontroversial.”
With trust in politicians plummeting to just 9% in the run-up to the election (according to a Channel 5 survey of 2000 voters), the book is a timely reminder of the importance of political accountability, honest and fair debate and broadcaster impartiality.
“Politicians have a big job to do if they want us to trust them and the two most important things they can do to win back trust are to tell the truth and come on TV to be held accountable. My message is even more relevant now that the level of trust in politicians is even lower,” Byrne told the TV Festival this week.
Byrne also spoke about the menopause in her lecture, describing it as a taboo that in her own case, was mistaken for her being “ill.”
Channel 4 has since become the first broadcaster in the UK to adopt a menopause policy.
Byrne also argues in her book that politicians need some “outside assistance” to help them address the issues around language and tone that came to a head after her MacTaggart lecture.
“Could you imagine your employer allowing you to bray like a donkey at someone who disagrees with you at work? But some scenes in the House of Commons in autumn 2019, as I write this, have been truly shocking. The Times Political Editor, Francis Elliott, said that he could not remember, in his twenty-year career, ‘hatred being so nakedly expressed’.
In her MacTaggart lecture, Byrne was also frank about her own experiences of sexual assault and some of the inappropriate behaviour still prevalent in the industry.
“In the day after my speech, about a hundred women I hadn’t met before embraced me, one in a toilet for goodness sake. If you come from Paisley, you are not used to human touch. But it’s good to learn new things late in life.”
This week, Byrne’s Guardian article looks at just how common harassment, assault and rape against women are and includes her own experiences – one of which includes her cab journey with a serial rapist.
The book is published by Short Books.