To the fabulous Leeds City Hall last week to take part in a debate ‘is the UK media broken?’
A large majority of the audience, asked for a show of hands by chair Evan Davis, thought the answer was ‘yes’. A similar large majority – around eight to two – agreed with the proposition that the media was too soft on Boris Johnson, and failed properly to hold the government to account. I wonder if those two things might be related.
Certainly, when the broken bits of the media were boiled down, right up there was the feeling that too much political journalism highlights political personalities rather than their impact on people’s lives. It’s a landscape which suits journalists turned politicians such as Johnson and Michael Gove.
It is remarkable how, even amid the myriad catastrophes now flowing from their cock-ups and characters, up to and including empty supermarket shelves and petrol rationing, these two continue to be so valued by the media for their ‘story-telling’ skills.
Matthew Parris of the Times, while making the general point that the media is often too harsh on politicians, admitted he was at a loss to know how they should handle having a character as unreliable and dishonest as Johnson as PM.
Our media in the main covers Johnson and Co as though this was a totally normal government. As a result they play a leading role in the normalisation of abnormality.
It is deeply abnormal for our politics to have a consistent liar as prime minister. Deeply abnormal to have such allegations of corruption in contracting without so much as a whiff of the cops getting involved. Deeply abnormal to have a succession of ministers breach the ministerial code without sanction. Deeply abnormal for a government to break so many election promises in such short order.
Deeply abnormal to have all this and a media largely so pliant, when with any previous government of such a nature it would run wild. I can barely begin to imagine how the media would cover a Labour government, whether led by Tony Blair, Keir Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else, making as spectacular a mess as this lot right now.
But one of the side effects of Brexit is that those papers which backed it feel they, like the government, have to pretend it is going well and that any problems we have are all about something else. Unable to tell the truth about Brexit, it limits their ability to tell the truth about anything to do with Johnson. This too helps him.
Treating truth as an optional extra is how Johnson became famous. How he won a referendum. How he became PM. How he governs. As for ‘spin’ this lot get away with gaslighting and manipulation the likes of which if I had tried it there would have been a whole series of Panorama specials on the ‘sinister operation inside Number 10’.
Department of Levelling Up anyone? Next stop Ministry of Truth. Orwell’s newspeak vision is happening. Yes, because of government lies. But also because so much of the media echo their line. The right wing papers perhaps most evidently. ‘Boris to level up the World’ was a recent Express classic. But much of the broadcast media so too, fearful of the right-wing media if they don’t. The BBC is scared now of the government intentions towards it.
The right wing press has always had a nerve projecting itself as the guardian of our values. But as a result, the BBC, which is actually far closer to those values, has lost its nerve. The result is a news agenda too often an echo chamber of the Number 10 line. Commissioners censoring themselves about the kind of programmes they make. Playing safe.
Tony Blair once asked me why we took the Westminster lobby journalists with us on the plane on foreign trips. “It’s like a football team taking the away fans with them,” he said. These days the way much of the media operates it is like Johnson has the home fans with him on the pitch. “Boris Johnson says/promises/makes a pledge for the future” has become the staple of news leading items and front page news. Rarely do we revisit the promises of the past, or see him properly challenged on them.
There was a film on Channel 4 recently called Help, starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham. I feel I learned more from it about the real story of life inside care homes during Covid than from millions of words in the papers or hours of broadcast across TV and radio. The news media didn’t get to truth. They got to provide an echo of what the authorities said. When Matt Hancock’s disembodied voice came on at a briefing, promising to put his arms around care homes, as a care worker fought and failed to get an ambulance to a dying man, I wanted to scream, at the failure of our politics and of our media.
On Brexit, before we knew what it meant in practice it was never off the airwaves. Once we started to see the real life effects there was close to an omertà on the word.
This is not helped by Labour, as I pointed out last week. But the role of the media is to explore objective truth and reality, not follow a political agenda set by government, opposition or media barons.
That it has taken petrol panic-buying and the threat of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ to get people even to admit there might be a link between supply chains and Brexit – and still many resist that reality if they can – underlines the scale of the madness at the heart of the Brexit debate.
From Leeds I went to the UAE, to speak at a conference on crisis communications. I did a stack of interviews with foreign media. Journalists in Sharjah had worked out for themselves what was happening in the UK. As the interviewer from Pulse 95 station put it, why did you go ahead with Brexit if you know it would create all these problems? Very good question.
We have always had print media dominated by right wing politically-motivated businessmen. But the BBC stood out for being different and special. It is in danger of losing that.
Despite my run-ins with the Beeb when in Downing Street, I remain a defender and recognise its importance to our national life and global reputation; I recognise too that there is much more to it than news, and much more than political news. However I believe unless they stand up for themselves, and start properly holding this government to account – for which they would have a lot of public support whatever the noise created by the papers – they are playing right into the hands of their opponents.
The role of the media is to speak truth to power not bow down before it. With all too few exceptions that role is not being adequately played. The Tory Conference in Manchester this week is of course a test for Johnson.
If the audience in Leeds is anything to go by, it is a test for our political journalists too.