This essay, on the British election campaign and the relationship between politics, journalism and truth, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 15 December 2019, under the headline ‘The sick boy, the ‘punch’: the local can still capture the national picture’.
In the maelstrom of debate about Boris Johnson’s victory, and amid the acrid ‘self-reflection’ now facing Labour, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the wider issues raised by the election campaign. One of the most important, perhaps, is the relationship between journalism, politics and truth.
Cast your mind back to the days when the election still seemed to many, including pollsters, to be in the balance. Last Monday, in fact. The somewhat surreal day began with Johnson refusing to look at a photo of four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr lying on the floor of the Leeds General Infirmary (LGI), captured by the Yorkshire Post, continued with leading journalists promoting a false story about Labour activists punching a Tory adviser, and ended with a concerted fake news campaign on social media to show that the photo was in fact fake news. At the heart of all this lay fundamental issues about political scrutiny, journalistic ethics and the creation of news.
Politicians have always attempted to gain power while minimising the scrutiny they face. What was once a tactic has now become a culture. Elections are stage-managed as never before, and serious discussion of policies replaced by a careful choreography of soundbites, slogans and social media ads.
Perhaps no single event (or non-event) better demonstrated politicians’ contempt for scrutiny than Johnson’s refusal to be questioned by Andrew Neil. Johnson’s team clearly calculated that, Neil having eviscerated both Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn, it was less damaging to be seen as being frit by taking the political equivalent of the fifth amendment, than melting like an ice sculpture in the heat of a TV inquisition. And, given the election result, they have been proved right. Politicians are not obliged to be interviewed by anyone in particular. Nevertheless, hiding behind a political burqa, to borrow a Johnsonian image, is to turn voters into letterboxes into which to deposit carefully curated political messages.
The problem is not just that politicians try to shield themselves from scrutiny. It is also that journalists have become complicit in this process. The dependence of journalists on their relationship with party machines to gain access to interviews and gossip makes them vulnerable to being gamed. Political parties routinely feed journalists with half-truths or untruths, traceable only to anonymous ‘sources’.
On Tuesday, both the BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, and her ITV equivalent, Robert Peston, were briefed by Tory sources that one of the health secretary Matt Hancock’s advisers had been punched by a Labour protester outside LGI. There was no such incident, but both tweeted it as if it were a fact. Only later, when a video came to light, did the truth emerge.
Ironically, even the desire to subject politicians to scrutiny can itself distort the picture, turning journalists themselves into the news. Johnson’s refusal to be grilled by Neil made Neil, too, a central character in the story. Neil’s three-minute monologue to camera challenging the prime minister to appear on the show was pure theatre, and went viral. It may have been necessary in the context of Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed, but it was also problematic, turning the spotlight on to Neil.
Similarly, when ITV’s Joe Pike confronted Johnson over the photo of the boy on a hospital floor, it made for compelling viewing. But, again, it turned the interview itself into the news item, and the act itself of getting Johnson to look at a photo on a phone seemed designed as theatre. Social media has further distorted the relationship between journalism and politics. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be invaluable tools through which to find information and break news. They can also help degrade the meaning of journalism. In the context of the 24-hour instant news culture, the desire to get a story out as quickly as possible leaves little time for traditional journalistic virtues such as checking details or verifying sources.
Disinformation is not just about spreading news that’s false. It’s also about portraying real news as fake. On Tuesday, dozens of Twitter and Facebook accounts claimed to have a friend who was a nurse at LGI who had witnessed little Jack being placed on the floor by his mother to stage a photograph that might shame the Tories. Not just the story, but the wording in all these accounts was identical, suggesting an organised disinformation campaign, though by whom is unclear. Nevertheless, mainstream journalists, including the Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, accepted them as true, pushing them further into the outside world and providing them with an aura of authenticity.
The problem revealed here is a culture simultaneously too sceptical and not sceptical enough. Too many journalists have become too credulous about stories from anonymous ‘sources’. At the same time, people have become so cynical about journalism that any news can now potentially be seen as fake. It’s the cynicism that can turn any truth into a lie that is truly corrosive.
The obsession with social media has led many to neglect another part of the media ecosystem that is also of vital importance – local newspapers. In the age of global communication, it is easy to condescend to local papers as quaint and old-fashioned. Yet they play a vital role in sustaining both journalism and democracy.
It was the Yorkshire Evening Post that broke the story about Jack Williment-Barr and subsequently played a major role in responding to the attempts to dismiss it as fake news. Some of the best investigative journalism these days emerges from local papers – for instance, in the work of the Manchester Evening News’ Jennifer Williams.
Regional papers bring scrutiny to social issues often ignored by national journalists. They also provide a voice to people and areas often unheard, and play a vital role in meshing together our social fabric. But they are also under threat. Between 2005 and 2018, 245 local titles were lost. The result is both a journalistic void and a democratic deficit.
‘I know it’s fashionable,’ reads Kuenssberg’s Twitter bio, ‘but even in 2019 there is nothing big or clever about shooting the messenger.’ There is much truth to this – blaming the media for political failures and frustrations is both fashionable and often misplaced. But equally, there is nothing big or clever about the messenger not sufficiently scrutinising the message that he or she carries. From local papers to social media, the relationship between journalism and politics needs to be reset.
I think that Boris Johnson was within his rights to avoid the Andrew Neil interview.
Neil is said to be one of the best – and he can be pretty good at getting to a story and doing political analysis.
However, he often goes in too hard against the people he’s interviewing and tries to humiliate them.
I watched him doing it to his “This Week” colleague Diane Abbott a few years ago and actually felt sorry for her.
I have little respect for her political abilities, but I thought he was being cruel to her.
Several of the presenters at LBC radio complain that Jeremy Corbyn has never come in and done an interview on the station in all the time he’s been Labour leader. James O’Brien has been particularly scathing of him over that.
The one time he did come in, was when O’Brien was having a day off and Sadiq Khan was doing his show instead that day. Corbyn came in and Khan interviewed him.
But, as much as I have no time for Corbyn, I also think that he was within his rights to avoid LBC and James O’Brien in particular. Because he’s shallow and too one dimensional.
O’Brien still boasts about one of his greatest “take down” interviews form several years ago, when he had Nigel Farage in the studio. It’s still on YouTube – but it wasn’t a professional interview.
It was a sustained hostile verbal attack on Farage, and went on until Farage’s PA pulled him out of it.
I was so completely unimpressed by what had occurred there, that I’ve never been able to take O’Brien seriously since. He’d really love to give Corbyn similar treatment.
And that’s with me agreeing with most of James O’Brien’s dim view of Corbyn.
LBC’s Eddie Mair, then working for the BBC, also did one of those celebrated “take down” interviews with Boris Johnson. Where he cornered him on the Darius Guppy episode, and ended up telling Johnson that he sounded “like a nasty piece of work”. All of these broadcast journalists lack nuance and are always going for the easy or sensationalist line. I think it’s right that Johnson’s aids have said that he won’t waste his time on the likes of the Radio 4 Today Programme. Because it really is a waste of time. The format is no good – it’s too rushed and you only have a few minutes – and people like Nick Robinson (and Emily Maitlis) are just looking for cheap headlines and are playing by a very narrow and “PC” code of ethics.
Just a few weeks ago, LBC’s Nick Ferrari couldn’t believe his luck when he was interviewing Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Rees-Mogg made those unfortunate comments about the Grenfell Tower fire.
Almost certainly a case of speaking without thinking through what your saying. What can be called “misspeaking”.
Rees-Mogg has done so much live radio and TV, that there’s always a chance that one day you’re going to screw up and say something you didn’t mean. Or certainly didn’t mean the way it sounded – and was gleefully interpreted.
Ferrari went down several notches in my estimation, because he helped with the ostracisation of Rees-Mogg.
Most people who support the Labour Party fell on JRM’s “foot-in-mouth” speaking too and he was humiliated.
Unfairly in my opinion. And I don’t particularly like him either.
It’s just that I don’t like to see that kind of unfair piling-on of people who have misspoken and had not meant to be as “horrible” as people were insisting JRM was deliberately being.
Ferrari also hounded Boris Johnson relentlessly when he interviewed him a few weeks ago.
He asked him about ten times about his children and his family – even though Johnson was insisting he didn’t want to talk about his private life.
Later of course, the radio station cut that bit of the interview out and used it as a promotion for the station and Nick Ferrari’s show. It’s rubbish. Click Bait journalism. Even if Boris Johnson is a slippery and deceitful character, I’d much prefer it if journalists could do their job better.
I’d like the politicians to be more honest too and not be just thinking about avoiding this or that awkward question.
But “front up” to the interviewer more and try to introduce some nuance into the issue.
But that’s really hard in today’s media circus. It’s always seen as being safer to play it bland.
Not to make any bad mistakes and say something that can be clipped and then weaponised against you.
Two specifics struck me about this election. One was the extent to which journalists (most notably, those working for the BBC) were eager to tell us that X had been said, without exercising proper diligence about whether X was true. One gross example, which you cite, was the non-existent punch. This dereliction of duty gives a major advantage to politicians who are willing to tell lies, and I think it is clear how that played out here. What *should* have been a major story was that senior Conservative sources, still unidentified, had lied, and I think it scandalous that this attracted so little attention.
Another was Johnson’s avoidance of interviews. At first sight, this seems to me simply the avoidance of exposure, in every sense of the word, and that seems to be your own interpretation. However, I think there is much more to it than that. For several years now, Johnson has made a habit of dressing up as an ordinary bloke; bus driver, fish porter, milkman… The purpose is to portray himself as someone to whom the working class voter can relate, as opposed to a member of the chattering classes. And so he avoided invitations to chatter.
The way that Andrew Neil harangued Jeremy Corbyn during their interview was a good illustration of everything that is wrong with mainstream political journalism. Neil did his thing in the interview, and the newspapers put it on their front pages the next day.
“Corbyn refuses to apologise to Jews” ran the Daily Telegraph headline, while the Daily Mail had “TORN APART” as theirs. Then it was the main story on the news radio shows all day.
The trouble is (in my opinion) the Corbyn/Labour Party antisemitism story is highly exaggerated.
It’s mostly BS, and therefore, what’s happened to Corbyn is grossly unfair.
He kind of deserves it just for being the person he’s been all these years, but it’s still not actually right and fair.
But no journalists that I’ve seen will question the issue properly. They’re too scared to.
Or maybe they’re just not very good journalists.
Even Spiked magazine, has gone down the “anti-Semitic Labour” direction I’m afraid to see.
This is what the problem basically is.
Those people are the Israel supporting side of the Israel/Palestine sectarian stand-off in the West.
The Palestinian Solidarity movement are the other side of it.
I can’t decide which side is better and which is worse.
They are probably about as bad as each other. I don’t have time for any of them.
The photo at the top of this twitter page shows them all out taunting and insulting each other.
It’s not actually antisemitism that the Labour pro-Palestinian activists are doing, but the other side are insisting that it is.
For other people such as the Jewish Labour MP’s who insisted they were hounded out of the party etc, even though I can’t know what they experienced exactly, my suspicion is that they want to be able to be public supporters of Israel, without getting criticism for that.
That’s what I think Margaret Hodge and Luciana Berger were most upset about.
As I say, that’s only a guess though, but looking at those others in the Israel support movement, that’s certainly where they’re at.
At its core it’s a sectarian squabble being dressed up as something else. And they are making everyone else takes sides. Most of the media seem to have taken the pro-Israelis side.
Certainly every presenter on LBC radio has. It’s quite pathetic really.
Here’s a good example of the TV news media bias. Piers Morgan having a good go at Ken Livingstone.
It’s a terrible interview, not helped by Ken not being in the studio.
There were communication difficulties. The other problem was, as Ken himself admitted, he’s getting a bit old and doddery.
Piers Morgan shows everything that’s wrong with this whole antisemitism row.
I think Ken Livingstone is a bit of an idiot, but he’s being attacked unfairly.
Morgan asks several times, that if Naz Shah admitted what she said was anti Semitic, then how could Livingstone have defended her and said that it wasn’t? As if, just because Naz Shah had buckled and succumbed, then it can only be because it was antisemitic. He doesn’t entertain the idea that she might have just taken the easiest way out of a difficult situation.
None of this is clear cut. Ken Livingstone has said some very dodgy things about Jews, Zionism and the Nazis.
But it doesn’t mean it’s was definitely antisemitism. Maybe it was just stupidity.
This whole wider story reminds me of other nationalists who want to be able to support the country they came from or have ties to, without facing criticism for it.
For example, Chinese people outside China who want to support China and don’t like criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Or similarly with people of Indian origin who want to support the Indian government from overseas. I think that is more like what the whole British antisemitism row is about, and it means that Andrew Neil isn’t as good a journalist as he likes to think he is.