Editor of UnHerd, Tim Montgomerie, joined us at Pagefield this week for our ‘Meet the Editor’ breakfast. Paul Codd provides his take.
Launching UnHerd in the summer of 2017, editor and founder, Tim Montgomerie set out to create a news site with a difference, challenging how we as readers approach the news – because in his view, what is latest is rarely the most important.
Instead, UnHerd is dedicated to helping readers to understand what is coming next. This is not about future gazing or punditry. Montgomerie is the first to note that his record of late has been “appalling” – being on the wrong side of the 2015 General Election result, the rise of Corbyn, and both votes for Brexit and Trump – but rather it is about trying to understand the world around us, providing a deeper dive on the issues that matter.
The sense of trying to create space for wider analysis has previous form with Montgomerie – the former comment editor at The Times, he is also well known for founding first the Conservative Christian Fellowship, then the Centre for Social Justice and, just over ten years ago, ConservativeHome.com – itself dedicated to advocating for “a broad conservatism that is as serious about social justice as it is about economic competitiveness”.
Discussing everything from Montgomerie’s new and post-US appreciation for the BBC to the so-called Age of Transparency, here are five things we learned:
2017 was the year where according to Montgomerie, everything he thought he knew about politics and the world turned entirely upside down, and one that raises searching questions for politicians and journalists alike. For the news media, first and foremost is a question about how to reach an increasingly distrustful audience at a time when newsroom staffing continues to decline, and residents of locations outside of the world’s big cities begin to feel that they are now ‘flyover’ country – seen by elites only from the windows of jets as they travel from place to place.
Montgomerie noted that you know something has gone terribly wrong when trust in the BBC is hovering around the 50/50 mark and it’s a successful option for President Trump to attack the media as a way of raising his own popularity.
Montgomerie hinted that an early working title for UnHerd was ‘Upstream’ – capturing the publication’s ethos that we shouldn’t be interested in what is happening today, but what will happen as a result tomorrow – so called ‘slow news’.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, on title terms, Montgomerie was beaten to the punch by an Oil and Gas industry trade title and thus UnHerd was born. The name reflects a desire to stand out from news titles focused on breaking stories, and to report on stories that are not getting the attention they deserve elsewhere.
Speaking about his experiences of the 2016 US presidential campaign, Montgomerie explained that what it had really left him with was a newfound appreciation for the BBC and its role in public broadcasting.
Citing the example of a worthy, but relatively uncovered speech by Jeb Bush on getting the long term unemployed back into work, he noted that US news producers are paid almost exclusively by results – in this case the success of news is measured in commercial ratings.
What that meant in practice was wall to wall Trump coverage – of celebrity scandal chasing. No real news value in his view, but certainly lucrative in terms of audiences and advertising.
UnHerd does not set itself out as a news source for everyone – it bills itself as targeting “readers who choose the important over the new.”
Adding to the publication’s ethos of refusing to follow the news cycle, it is deliberately focused on five distinct topics: (i) making capitalism work for the many; (ii) reconnecting ‘unheard’ communities with centres of political, economic and cultural power; (iii) understanding how we can master new technologies before they master us; (iv) profiling the world’s religions and the impacts they are having; and (v) examining how to better measure and report our fast-changing times.
These five are topics that Montgomerie and the team believe are essential to understand the world as it will be tomorrow.
The ‘Age of Transparency’ where all kinds of information are available on anything, to anyone at any time, has in Montgomerie’s view been absolutely disastrous for trust in the media, politicians, institutions and the corporate world. Understanding this is critical to understanding the rise of populism and so called ‘fake news’.
This is not because there is anything necessarily untrustworthy or untoward going on, but because from the perspective of a critic- where you are determined to critique something or someone, the ‘Age of Transparency’ means if you dig deep enough you will find the evidence you are looking for. The result has been a tail-spin in trust.
The only defence for corporates Montgomerie concluded, is to focus relentlessly not on profit maximisation, but on purpose maximisation, constantly communicating your positive role in society. In a world where any fact can seemingly be uncovered at anytime, the only point of control is an organisation’s sense of purpose in the world.