Boris Johnson and Omar Salem

This essay, on the dangers of being more agitated by the messenger than the message for both politics and journalism, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the global spread of AI surveillance.) It was published on 22 September 2019, under the headline ‘Boris Johnson’s confrontation: don’t lose sight of the real story’.

‘The problem with politicians and political activists is that they are trapped in their own little bubbles.’ If there’s one complaint that defines our age, it’s the accusation that those involved in politics are too removed from ‘real’ people. The trouble is, when political activists show that they have the same concerns as everybody else, the complaint gets turned on its head. ‘But that’s not a real person, that’s a political activist.’

So it was with the confrontation last week between Boris Johnson and Omar Salem, the father of a sick child at Whipps Cross university hospital in London. Much of the debate about the confrontation has been less about Johnson or the state of the NHS than about Salem being a Labour party activist.

What if he is? Isn’t that a good thing? An expression of an activist facing the same problems as experienced by ‘ordinary’ people? Of an ‘ordinary’ person whose experiences are part of the reason he is an activist? Salem’s experiences are no less real, his anger is no less valid, because he is an activist. To insist that ‘ordinary’ people cannot be activists is to insist that people’s experiences and anger only matter when they suffer, but not when they challenge the problems they face or organise against them.

If the targeting of Salem was one side of the Whipps Cross drama, the other was the targeting of the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg. Her tweet about Salem being a Labour party activist generated a Twitter storm, and included calls for her sacking, as critics accused her of ‘dogpiling’.

Kuenssberg’s ‘This is him’ tweet, pointing to Salem’s Twitter feed, was certainly oddly phrased and it’s not difficult to see why her critics seized on it as an invitation for people to pile in. Salem, though, had already outed himself. Other journalists and media had also pointed out his activism. And Salem seemed comfortable with Kuenssberg’s tweet; she was, he wrote, ‘doing her job without fear or favour, which is a vital part of democracy’.

Hostility to Kuenssberg is long running and stems partly from a perception that she is too close to the Tories. But the targeting of both Salem and Kuenssberg stems also from confusion as to what we want from journalists.

We often think of ‘objective’ or ‘impartial’ journalism as a matter of presenting the facts and abjuring judgment. But, as George Brock, professor of journalism at City University, London, observes, good journalism is more complex. Journalism ‘is the systematic effort to establish the truth of what matters to society’. Facts, however, can rarely be ‘divorced from context or values’. Hence, good journalism is not simply about transmitting facts, but also about deciding which facts are relevant and ‘making sense of [the facts] it transmits’. That inevitably involves ‘the exercise of judgment’.

We need journalists to be truthful in the sense of not distorting the facts for political purposes. But truthfulness or impartiality do not mean the disavowal of one’s political or moral instincts.

Consider the work of Amelia Gentleman, the Guardian journalist whose uncovering of the Windrush scandal has been a model of investigative journalism, and whose book on the affair was published last week. It is meticulously researched, scrupulously truthful and devastatingly powerful. It is also the product of someone whose power derives from her moral engagement with her subject. Good journalism is never simply partisan. But all journalism is necessarily shaped by particular political and moral perspectives.

The Whipps Cross hospital confrontation reveals the importance of judgment in journalism. The facts are not in dispute. But what was the actual story? That the prime minister was confronted by a member of the public? That the member of the public was a Labour party activist? That a BBC correspondent identified him as an activist? Or that patients are being failed because of under-resourcing and that there is real anger about this?

That so much of the focus has been on Salem’s activism and on Kuenssberg’s tweet, rather than on hospital constraints and on patient anger, reveals a warping of judgment. This is the fault not of a particular journalist but of a broader cultural shift in which the identity of the messenger has become more important than the message.

In journalism, as in politics, the frameworks within which we make sense of the world have fragmented. And in the process, so have judgments about what is significant. Many dismiss Salem’s anger because he is a Labour activist and Kuenssberg’s journalism because she is allegedly a Tory. When we’re more agitated by the messenger than the message, then ‘the systematic effort to establish the truth of what matters to society’ becomes that much more difficult.

One comment

  1. damon

    “But that’s not a real person, that’s a political activist”

    I can’t think of one group of political activists I actually think are alright.
    None of the activists for any of the parliamentary political parties, or the fringe groupings too. None of them.
    Not Socialist Workers (or RCP in the past) or Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, Liberty, nor Brexit activists or Tommy Robinson supporters.

    Boris Johnson is very irritating the way he loves to have so many vacuous photo opportunities – he’s at a livestock market one day, trying to lead a bull around the auction ring, then striding out across Salisbury Plain the next, accompanied by a couple of Army officers. Seemingly there to listen and get relevant facts about military matters.
    It’s understandable that people will want to shout at him, but all this organised heckling he’s facing is also pretty vacuous and annoying.
    The fact that the father at the hospital was also a Labour activist certainly does taint the way I view the incident.
    You just have to look at the Labour conference of the last few days to see what kind of people they are.

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