In the magazine this week I have written a piece about the Canadian Professor Jordan Peterson. He has been in the UK over the last week to talk about his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Among many other things – much more of which I go into in the piece – his visit showed up the UK’s broadcast media in a very bad light.
On Saturday morning, Peterson made an appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme. They gave him a hurried four minutes at the end of the show. They could have quizzed him on almost anything and got a point of view different from almost any other they had ever allowed their listeners to hear. Instead they decided to treat him in an alternately jocular and hostile manner. First: ‘Look at this whacky Canadian from out of town’. Then: ‘warning signs: heretic’. The Today programme wasted the opportunity.
But they scored a veritable home-run compared to the interview Cathy Newman did with him yesterday for Channel 4 News. The full half-hour interview is available online. If I was Channel 4 I would take it down. If I was Cathy Newman I would sue or seek a super-injunction. I don’t think I have ever witnessed an interview that is more catastrophic for the interviewer.
Whatever else anybody might think of him, Professor Peterson is a man of remarkable learning and experience, and does not appear to have arrived at any of his views by the now common means of ‘I reckon’. Yet Newman, who approaches the interview with the trademark sourness she employs for everyone she expects to disagree with, treats this is just another chance to burnish her own social justice credentials and expose her guest as a bigot. Big mistake.
Storming straight in with the differences between the sexes, in the opening minutes it is clear that Professor Peterson is willing to back up all his views with references, data and calm analysis. By 4 minutes in Cathy Newman is saying ‘What gives you the right to say that?’. One answer to which is ‘Because you invited me on your show.’ Another being ‘Because I have years of experience in these fields as a psychologist and academic as well as being a human being with eyes.’ Peterson is too polite to say this. But it becomes clear that in the face of the facts Channel 4’s prize interviewer has nothing more than stances. And not even especially intelligent stances.
By 11 minutes in she is saying ‘I think I take issue with (that)’, before demonstrating that she can’t. Soon she is reduced to dropping the bombshell observation that ‘all women are different’. By 16.45 there is a palpable win, as Peterson points out that Newman has exactly the disagreeable and aggressive qualities that allow certain types of people to succeed. By 19.30 she is having to throw out things to him that he hasn’t even said, such as ‘You’re saying women aren’t intelligent enough to run top companies’. A minute later and she is reduced to countering empirical evidence with anecdote. Peterson presents the data about men in general and Newman responds with the ‘I know plenty of men who aren’t (like that)’ card. Shortly after that (at 22.25) Newman is reduced to spluttering and then silence. She tries to pull herself together. But she can think of nothing to say. She tries to whip herself back up to a fever of indignation, but that doesn’t work either. And then finally she tries to finish off the interview in the same way the Today programme did by taking up a half-humorous evolutionary case-study Peterson has written about (lobsters) and used it to try to present him as some kind of madman or imbecile.
The general British broadcast media treatment of Peterson was not just ignorant and parochial (and aren’t some ‘internationalists’ just the most parochial people of all?). It showed that it has become acceptable for an interviewer to go in with nothing other than an ambition to demonstrate their moral superiority at the expense of the interviewee. This may be fun and help burnish the sense of moral preening of the presenter. But it allows the audience to learn nothing. Indeed the only thing it does do is to replace serious discussion with an embedding of existing prejudices. It is in places like this that the ‘division’ that we hear so much occurs. If you happen to share Cathy Newman’s views then you want her not only to show them but to crush or expose any and all enemies. But if yesterday’s interview is anything to go by, all she has is attitudes. And lazy attitudes at that. In the face of facts she is reduced to talking about people she knows.
That isn’t news. It isn’t even interviewing. It is grandstanding. This nation’s broadcasters should feel ashamed.