#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Ayala Panievsky, PhD Gates-Cambridge scholar

Ayala Panievsky is a PhD student in the Sociology department, University of Cambridge. She is a Gates Cambridge scholar and her current project explores the ever-changing relationship between media and politics in contemporary democracies, and in particular, the encounter between mainstream media and political extremism in the age of social media and big data. 

Ayala will be taking part in a live in-conversation with former BBC News Journalist Emily Maitlis, chaired by Dorothy Byrne, President of Murray Edwards College on 20th March at 6pm.

Why does your research matter? 

Journalism under attack is one of the most influential global trends in recent years. We tend to talk about how populist media-bashing affects the public’s trust in journalism, or how it shapes journalists’ daily lives and well-being. But what I found in my fieldwork is that the populist campaign against “the fake news media” and the “enemies of the people” also transforms the way journalists are doing their work, and therefore, the news that we get. It has become fashionable to accuse social media of the state of our information environment, but, to be honest, the institutional media – which takes pride in being “the fourth estate” – has failed to shield us against anti-democratic forces just as much.  

What led you to research media responses to populism? 

Growing up in Israel, I had the “pleasure” of witnessing the impact of populism in power long before it has become a hot topic worldwide. Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as Israel’s prime minister for over a decade (and is now on his way back into office), preceded many of the global leaders in mastering the art of bashing the media. The Israeli media was already transforming in front of our eyes when Donald Trump declared that he was running for president and the Brexit campaign was launched in the UK. As a former journalist myself, I felt how baffled my colleagues were in the face of this new challenge to their credibility and legitimacy. I knew that in order to better cope with anti-democratic forces worldwide, we needed to take a closer look at what was happening in Israel, which has become a lab for anti-media populism.  

How do you see this playing out in the UK press?  

A few months ago I was contacted by Emily Maitlis, the renowned years-long BBC presenter and now The News Agents podcaster. She had read my research on strategic bias in Israel and was horrified to realise how much it resonated with her own experience here in the seemingly safe and free-press British democracy. In August 2022, in a packed venue at Edinburgh TV Festival, Emily gave a speech that sparked turmoil in the UK news industry. She exposed the hidden impact of populist attacks on leading news outlets like the BBC. When covering Trumpists for the BBC, she said, “I would spend half of our allotted interview time trying to defend our objectivity – and the rest bending over backwards to reconcile their strangled version of the truth, just to prove the criticism of me wrong”. Emily is an exceptionally serious and devoted journalist, who bothers to look back and reflect on her work. But her colleagues are rarely as self-critical. You can see the British tabloid press playing into the hands of populist figures all the time, either because it “sells” or because they share their ideology. And you can see how the institutional media shifts rightwards to prove their “impartiality” and make false equivalences to signal that they are “balanced”. As Emily put it: “The populists won, the BBC lost”. But the real losers are, of course, all of us. The news we are exposed to doesn’t serve us. 

Are there any effective strategies for withstanding the pressure? 

There are a few dos and don’ts by now, and they will all be covered in the book I am currently working on :) I promise to share a few in my conversation with Emily and Dorothy Byrne at the upcoming Cambridge Festival! 

How worrying are the links between big tech and the press in terms of the pressure for clicks on stories? 

Well, I would say that the links between big tech and anything else are a problem at the moment – the fact that Elon Musk is in charge of a significant part of the global public sphere is concerning to all of us, not just the press.  

We tend to think about technology as inevitable, but it isn’t. There is an anecdote I ran into in Alan Rusbridger’s book about the many years he served as the Guardian’s editor-in-chief. He recalls how in the early days of the internet, the Guardian reporters were excited about the new opportunities that the online world presented for journalism. They came up with a brilliant plan: purchasing thousands of printers and shipping them to all their subscribers so that they could print their newspaper at home every day… Sounds funny, right? To me, it’s a reminder that technology can play out very differently according to the decisions we make as news consumers, governments, media activists, news producers. Nothing has to be the way it is at the moment. The lesson is that we should be active about the role of social media in our lives, and reshape the opportunities and risks posed by technology in ways that don’t leave us hanging at the hands of a few unchecked individuals, however virtuous they may be (and as we now see, they are not always). 

Is a big part of the problem to do with finding a sustainable financial model for the press in an online era? 

Absolutely. Thousands of journalists and media scholars around the world are now trying to come up with a better financial model for journalism, but I haven’t seen anything that has been tested and proven useful and sustainable yet. We need to remember that this is partially due to a historical and consequential miscalculation by the leaders of the news industry: the fact that online news came about didn’t mean that news had to become free. People could have continued paying for online news, just like they did before. It is now difficult to reverse this process, but this is another reminder that we need to consider the potential future risks of new technologies and regulate them accordingly. It’s encouraging, in fact – we have a lot of agency when it comes to designing better and more democratic media. 

Were you surprised to be cited by Emily Maitlis? 

Hell, yeah! First, I got a message on my Twitter DM from someone claiming she was Emily Maitlis; naturally, I assumed someone was pulling my leg. I replied politely, just to be on the safe side. This little Twitter chat has quickly turned into an intensive email exchange and a long thread of WhatsApp messages. The ridiculous number of exclamation points that were used in this ongoing conversation reveals how passionately we both feel about this issue. I’m sure it will be felt at the festival too. 

I must say that what impressed me most about Emily – apart from her remarkable journalistic work – was her deep self-reflection. As someone who speaks to many journalists in different countries, this is certainly not their main virtue. It requires courage, humility and care, but this is the only way forward if we are to save the future of journalism. 

Has the press in a way created populism by going down the controversy/polarisation/simplification route because it gets more clicks? 

There is a lot to say about the reasons behind the rise of populism, but it is clear that this story cannot be told without accounting for the current state of the media. Politicians who thrive on conflict and outrageous bogus claims get disproportionate media exposure, even when they call journalists “traitors” and “enemies”. There are new partisan media spheres where these messages have become the official agenda.  

But clicks are not everything. It’s not the case that public media – from the BBC in the UK to the public broadcasting company in Israel – covers populism much better than commercial media. Based on my research findings, this might be explained by the fact that some of the worst journalistic practices when covering populists are not driven exclusively by ratings or traffic considerations, but rather by journalists’ professional ideals and good intentions. When journalists are under attack they too often try to “prove the populist wrong” by signalling that they are not at all liberal or lefty. To do that, they adopt some of the worst professional practices, from self-censorship and amplifying the populist to intentionally leaning to the right – what I call “strategic bias”.  

In other words, the media has a lot to be held to account for regarding its role in enabling the recent rise of populist politics.