‘History bites back in all sorts of ways’ A conversation with Jonathan Marcus of the BBC

Jack Bolton 6 November 2017

“This talk is meant to pull together, in my own opinion, things happening in the world at the moment that worry me and should worry you.”

When the veteran BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus spoke at the first meeting of the Sidney Policy society, the odd thing about it was that he never really dwelt on himself. A veteran reporter, who had been present for the UN intervention in Bosnia as well as the Second Gulf War, he was more interested in talking about the wider trends he had seen emerging across the globe – from the political sphere, to the seemingly mundane but nonetheless troubling trends in social media bubbles.

In 1989 when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that his audience was witnessing ‘the end of history’, it seems as if one could be forgiven for agreeing with him. Marcus spoke of how for many the prophesied triumph of liberal democracy appeared complete; the West stood victorious, and the Soviet Union had begun to disintegrate. Europe had escaped the ravages of an expected Russian onslaught, and a calm had descended.

That lull was brutally punctuated by the violence and atrocities of the Yugoslav wars, and in an extraordinary fashion, the situation seems now to have reversed itself – Russia under Putin is once again a threat, the deification of the Party leadership in China could easily produce ‘a new Mao’, and across Europe a sense of unease has returned. With tensions steadily rising since the War in Donbass began, it appears as if the Cold War never really ended.

“I was never particularly impressed with the idea of the end of history and that all would be resolved by this moment of ideological triumph that would be in the West’s favour. There is a theme constantly in current affairs that there is not an ‘end of history’, but in a sense that history bites back in all sorts of ways.”

“I’m not sure exactly that ‘History repeats itself’, but you clearly have a limited palette of story lines, and as you see generations fade, so the story lines reappear. So, for example, contemporary Europe – not so long ago one would have thought the anti-immigrant far right viewpoint would have been consigned to history. Now there are a set of attitudes that have remerged in European politics that, immediately after the end of the Second World War, would have been anathema.”

This sense of ‘biting back’, he explained, is clearly evidenced in the ‘extraordinary developments’ currently taking place in America and in Europe, as indicated by the election of President Trump and the Brexit referendum result, respectively.

“But if you look more broadly, partly because of what is happening in these countries, and partly because of results such as Brexit, you also have a growing attack on academic freedom. No surprise that the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of The Year was ‘post truth.’ Because objective facts seem to be a thing of the past.”

The evening took on a very informal tone before long; Marcus had chosen to adopt a state of complete candour which made questioning incredibly fruitful. While clear to state that his views were his own, and not the BBC’s, he nevertheless had high praise for his employers of 30 years, but also talked of the difficulties it faced in a world in which neutrality is an almost untenable position:

“The issue is there is a shallowness to the debate as a whole. In the current environment something like the BBC, that is edited, sober, thoughtful, and attempts to be balanced, is more important than ever. But perhaps this is not enough.”

“As long as we can ground ourselves in consensus, we are alright. But when we tackle issues in an ideologically charged world, and butt heads with other, partisan organisations, it is much harder to see if there is a consensus at all. It becomes very hard to trace a middle path.”

When asked about the role social media was playing in influencing voters, Marcus had a lot to say about the plethora of websites peddling contentious facts and sensational news, which, he claimed, were enveloping people in bubbles and isolating them from the real debates:

“We can see now that Facebook and Youtube and everyone are trying to make some sort of gesture to editorial control. But good luck with that I say because their basic business model doesn’t accommodate that. And if information is the currency of democracy, then that currency has been devalued by inflation.”

“One of the great strengths and also a great difficulty of the BBC, which is paid for by everybody, is that you can’t be partisan. The BBC tries to maintain a consensus and it is enriching for doing so.”

After Marcus had finished his talk I decided to try and enquire a bit more into the media bubbles he had mentioned – to ask whether in fact they really were the new spectres haunting the mainstream media; after all, surely the trading of all ideas, and the choice to engage or distance oneself from certain viewpoints, is a key tenet of a liberal nation?

“We live in a free society, and people are free to hold their views and say what they like within reason. But the issue of new technology, particularly social media, enables extreme members of society to be less isolated and to reinforce their ideas. There is a microphone provided to marginal views that would otherwise have remained at the fringes of society. And as the bubbles grow, more and more we begin to see their influence.”

“But perhaps you’ll fix that,” he quipped, just as his taxi arrived. A quick handshake, and Marcus climbed into the back of the car and drove off, leaving myself and the others to ruminate on the evening.