Jonathan Dimbleby on living in a post-truth world

Sriya Varadharajan 23 November 2016

Speaking after Radio 4’s Any Questions? was recorded at the Union on Friday, Jonathan Dimbleby was more than happy to sit down and talk politics. Having worked for the BBC reporting current affairs since 1969, he is one of the organisation’s most recognisable faces, and with Any Questions? celebrating its 30th anniversary next year, one of its most recognisable voices, too.

So having been in the business for so long, are the political events of this year – which many of us have treated as nothing less than historic and unprecedented – just par for the course? I asked him whether, as students, he thinks we just aren’t old enough to have got used to it.

“Oh, I never think students aren’t old enough to get used to things,” he said,. “I don’t think I’m more used to things because I’m not a student any longer.”

Does this particularly turbulent political moment, then, have anything to do with the way that there are more ways of getting news than ever before – especially when compared with his early days at the BBC?

“I think it’s a very important question. The speed with which truth and falsehood travels is so rapid, it’s incredibly difficult to get to grips with it. There’s an old saying – ‘a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has time to get its boots on’. In the case of the media, they’re running to catch up, all the time. Running to catch up, assessing, and judging.”

“We do live in very turbulent times, there’s no question about it,” he continued. “Mercifully, we don’t live in the same sense of potential doom, which you haven’t lived through, of the Cold War, when we had the so-called protection of the nuclear umbrella over us. When that went, there was a great feeling of liberation.” Dimbleby made a series of documentaries about the Cold War when it was at its height, and his father Richard was known for his presentation of Panorama documentaries about it, revitalising the series. 

But, he argued, the end of the Cold War brought its own problems.  “[It ushered] in a whole series of conflicts, attempts to create spheres of influence, economic competition, that are not resolved in the simple way of the Cold War. We don’t know where we’re headed or where we’re going. There is a lack of clarity. Yeats said in that poem, ‘the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity’. I have a degree of sympathy with that sentiment as we live now. So do we live in really turbulent times? Yes. Do we know how to escape that turbulence? No.”

“And,” he continued, “if I were your generation, I would be thinking to myself – ‘Hmm, this is a very choppy, rough sea for me and my children, if I decide on one day having children’. Not easy. I like to be someone who’s glass-half-full; I’ve got a grown-up family of children and I’ve got young children as well. And I feel sometimes, ‘what world have I brought you into?’”

On that quite bleak note, I asked him whether he thought that this barrage of information was going to reach a saturation point at any time soon, and whether there was any truth to the recent claims of many that we live in a ‘post-truth world’.

“I think we live in a post-truth world. I think people find it exceptionally difficult, and because there is a barrage of information, as you put it, no-one has the time to sieve it, interpret it, turn it into a coherent analysis. Unless you’re paid to do that, and some people in universities or media are lucky enough to do that, you take it, what is said most strongly, what is said most powerfully – I’m quite impressed by that.”

He has previously criticised the media handling of Brexit as being overly simplistic, and hinted at this again. “During the Brexit campaign, I spoke to various people privately who would say things like – if I remonstrated in privacy with them, saying ‘you completely overstated that! You know you overstated it.’, the response would be ‘Yes, but when you’re in a marketplace and other people are shouting the odds, you have to shout louder.’ That is not a great way to achieve understanding. If it touches a nerve, it’s not a bad way of attracting a vote. And that I find quite unnerving.”

“But then,” he said, wryly, “I’m old, you know.”