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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Why I’m trying to avoid the news

U.S. president Donald Trump and Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - Pool/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL says he is having to avoid the media as journalists continue to trot out Boris Johnson and Donald Trump lines as fact.

Life, at least ‘the news’ part of it, is so depressing right now that I find myself avoiding television, radio and press as much as I can. Present company is excepted of course, The New European being a little oasis of sense, sanity and perspective amid the raging madness that defines modern times.

There are, however, inescapable truths that shape our world, and explain the gnawing anxiety that represents waking reality each morning for so many… Donald Trump is president of the United States; Boris Johnson is prime minister of the UK; these are without doubt two of the worst of the truths of 2019.

Even with the sound off – I caught it on Sky News through the window of an Edinburgh pub – the scene in which the two of them walked down a circular staircase in Biarritz, Trump as ever seeking to look like Master of the Universe, Johnson seeking (and failing) to avoid looking like his apprentice, was enough to remove whatever spring might have been in my step as I headed to see my daughter Grace do her stand-up act at the Fringe.

How on earth did it come to this? Trump, who performs as president as once he performed as a television reality show star, each day a new canvas with a story to be told, images to be created, enemies to be humiliated, boasts to be made, lies to be told safe in the knowledge nobody hangs around long enough to make them stick? Johnson, who brings exactly the same rigour (sic) and values (sic) to his politics that he brought to his journalism – all that counts is the story, and that is all about the headline, the imagery, the impact, and if lies have to be told, so be it, that’s fine, because nobody hangs around long enough to make them stick… he got away with it as a journalist, and rose to be prime minister, what’s to stop him now?

The answer ought to be politics and the media. Both, however, are failing. In a healthy political culture, in which talent rose to the top, good values and ideas were rewarded and bad conduct punished, neither man would ever have got near to real power, let alone to the presidency and premiership of two of the great nations of the world. In a healthy media culture, neither would be able to dominate the agenda in the way they currently do. That they are able to is a consequence of the fact that in media too, the bad guys often prosper while the good guys struggle.

Even in today’s more complicated landscape, if politics is dominated by liars and chancers, a media committed to truth would find them out, make it nigh on impossible to trade their wares. But when the media is full of liars and chancers too, we risk plunging into a moral cesspit. Far from saving us from it, Trump and Johnson accelerate a process towards it that they ought to want to reverse, but if your main motivation is yourself, why put at risk the sycophantic support of Fox News if you’re Trump, or of the right-wing papers who form the Brexit Lie Machine if you’re Johnson?

What does it say about the state of political journalism that it took the former chancellor, Philip Hammond, to point out a basic fact – the date on a document – that entirely demolished a Downing Street briefing operation aimed at blaming him or another former minister for the leak of Operation Yellowhammer papers? Let me answer that for you. It says that there is an army of journalists prepared to believe anything Number 10 pushes their way, provided it fits with the overall line set by whichever tax-dodging oligarch is calling the shots.

Waiting for Grace in a hotel bar after one of her shows, I briefly entered the parallel universe of the right-wing newspapers, flicking through to learn that the economy was doing really well, apparently; support for no-deal was growing, apparently, and with it the prospects of a general election; Boris Johnson had enjoyed a triumphant visit to Bonn and Paris, apparently, where Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron had been blown away by his charisma, apparently, and were helpfully back into the ‘they need us more than we need them’ mode that worked so well for Theresa May, and had therefore agreed to change the Northern Ireland backstop – (a quick check with French and German media outlets confirmed they had agreed no such thing); meanwhile no-deal planning was going so well, apparently, that there really was nothing to worry about, we would get all the food and medicines we need, and none of the red tape or border queues, and anyway hadn’t the prime minister said there was only a one in a million chance of no-deal happening, except that I’m sure I just saw on Twitter that he had said it was now “touch and go”.

So the self-same papers – and broadcasters who all too often take their lead from them – will treat with the same breathless reverence the word of a man who not long ago said that no-deal was not an option now saying it is variously likely, unlikely, possible, probable, impossible, improbable, and literally overnight can go from “one in a million” to the more 50-50 sounding “touch and go”; and of course everything is going to be fine because of something called “oomph”, and in any event whatever the outcome turns out to be he will argue it is exactly what 17.4 million people voted for, and they all knew so at the time.

According to Washington Post fact-checkers president Trump has made misleading claims or told outright lies 12 times a day since taking office. That is the public tally. One imagines there will be many more behind the door of the Oval Office, and in his private life too. But 12 a day means he lies to the American people more often than the average American person washes their hands (10 times a day, apparently). Worse, it is a strategy. And, as Trump seems to be getting away with it, why would anyone expect Johnson, a man of similar moral make-up, not to want to try the same thing, whether about Melton Mowbray pies or the realities of no-deal?

He is already emulating Trump in his use of social media and, following the speech by Channel 4’s head of news Dorothy Byrne, which truthfully pointed out his record as a liar, and called on the media to be more robust in calling out the lies of politicians like him, in directly linking access to the favourability towards him of those asking for it. One moment, Channel 4 are on the list of outlets to be granted an interview at the G7 summit; the next, they’re not.

There was a hope, when Trump became president, that once in power he would curb his bad habits and that the ‘grown-ups’ around him would ensure he developed conduct and standards more becoming of the office. Those hopes have proven to be naïve, forlorn. We should expect the same – i.e nothing to suggest the sudden discovery of an honesty gene – from Johnson. That adds to the responsibility of those who call themselves journalists.

With so many parallels with the pre-fascist era of the 1930s right now, that famous thought “those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it” is getting plenty of outings. Curious enough to check out the its author, I learned that It came from the pen of Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana. I was even more taken with the sentence that followed … “To covet truth is a very distinguished passion”.

With Trump and Johnson in power, the need for that passion has become a whole lot more urgent.

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