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Politicians are turning the media into the opposition

Why politicians are turning the press into the common enemy - Credit: Archant

Of all the puny political excuses that reduce grown-up arguments to childish spats, ‘I blame the media’ is the most dispiriting.

Witnessing Westminster’s warriors clinging to their favourite clapped-out cliché and shooting the messenger can be a life-sapping experience.

As the bullets fly from all directions, it’s hard to keep up. Labour’s General Election soldiers are apparently convinced that ‘biased’ BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg is marching against them. And as for Radio 4’s influential Today programme… with crusty old John Humphrys and former Oxford University Conservative Association president Nick Robinson at the helm, it’s clearly under Tory high command. If you don’t like this version of events, other conspiracy theories are available.

Here’s one you might prefer. Spurred on by the ever-vigilant Daily Mail, a significant number of Mother Theresa’s true blue backbenchers harbour sinister suspicions that the Beeb is a dangerous Marxist cabal full of rampant revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the state. A frightening thought. Or ludicrous. Depends on your world view.

Is our renowned public-funded broadcaster rabidly right wing or loony left wing? You decide. Take your pick and pin your colours to the mast of your choice. Whisper it quietly, it’s neither. The fair-minded Corporation goes to almost absurd lengths to maintain neutrality. But in the battle for Number 10, that’s no good to Labour’s 24-hour partisan people. So they raise a mendacious petition to have Kuenssberg sacked. Which becomes such a playground for sexist trolls it has to be abandoned. But it also puts an unwarranted question mark over Kuenssberg’s credibility. Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, May is evidently not very strong and stable when it comes to Sky News. So rattled is the Prime Minister over the Murdoch organisation’s coverage of her robotic campaign that, in an extraordinary move, her advisors initially left its reporters off the guest list of those invited to follow her exciting national tour. In the end, they were allowed to tag along. But Sky still insists that it’s being blocked from interviewing senior ministers.

This saga of animosity appears to have started when Sky’s political heavyweight Adam Boulton speculated ahead of Mother Theresa’s big announcement on April 18 that she was possibly set to resign due to ill health. It transpired she was calling a snap election.

Incandescent with fury, Downing Street’s joint chief of staff Fiona Hill sent an instant message that ‘Bunter’ (the generously proportioned Boulton’s unflattering nickname) ‘should watch what he’s saying about my boss’s health, utterly unfounded and untrue’.

Adding fuel to the fire, enraged Tory strategists were said to have plotted to punish Sky for its unhelpful exclusive claiming that Boris Johnson had been removed from the spotlight because his unpredictable style was seen as a ‘liability’. Not one to be kicked about by petulant spin doctors, Boulton responded by announcing on air that he understood that the Conservatives were unhappy with aspects of Sky’s campaign coverage. An incendiary thing to do. The bitter conflict continues apace.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, there isn’t a great deal of common ground between far left Labour and Theresa’s traditional Tories. But on one issue they agree. The media are the enemy. And the only way to silence the free press is to shout them down. It’s not an edifying spectacle but it’s highly effective.

On the warpath for Camp Labour, Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner stomps around the television and radio studios attack-dogging the hosts. Barnstorming Barry virtually screamed at the aforementioned Boulton for allegedly letting Iain Duncan Smith off the hook on the thorny topic of immigration. In another similarly bad tempered exchange, he tore into a nonplussed Nick Robinson for having the temerity to quote the Sun’s anti-Labour front page on Today’s newspaper review. As if somehow the Sun should be excluded from this regular Fleet Street round-up because it failed to please Barry.

If all this relentless mud-slinging from both sides of the political divide seems utterly confusing, that’s the whole idea. More than ever before, politicians are aggressively going all out to control the news narrative. If they don’t like what the media are reporting, they denounce the media for their blatant favouritism to the other lot. This deliberate tactic kills the real story and gives birth to a shameless fabrication. About as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it works. Ask The Donald.

Yes, although Gardiner and his left-leaning pals would hate to admit it, they’re borrowing from the pernicious pages of extreme right-leaning Trump’s famous ‘fake news’ book. Worried that the latest revelation shows your party in a bad light? No problem… dismiss it as pure propaganda and own the headlines. Westminster’s whingers have always been paranoid about journalists but now they’re turning rants against the prejudiced press into a cold and calculated artform.

As the pugnacious president drags relations between the White House and the media to an unprecedented low point, British politicians seem keen to tread exactly the same divisive path. In public, especially on the Labour side, they ooze contempt for the man who persuaded America not to believe CNN and the New York Times. Privately, impressed by his success, they’ve decided to copy him. So, politically speaking, that’s where the UK is… deep in Trump territory. Enjoy.

Welcome to the wonderful world of alternative facts. It’s a simple technique. When uncomfortable facts threaten to derail a carefully choreographed campaign, slam a dead cat on the table and change the subject. In the absence of a deceased feline, invent the fact that the outlet that revealed the bad news is not to be trusted. Since journalists are at the bottom of the hated-profession charts along with estate agents and second hand car dealers, it’s horribly easy for clever politicos to get the masses on side.

But it’s not all plain sailing. As is abundantly clear, the major parties’ electoral machines are prone to the odd glitch. The ‘dementia tax’, not condemning the IRA, questioning the morality of abortion… to name but three. So to obfuscate their mistakes, bungling politicians increasingly blame the media. Which is all very well… but unless the candidates are careful, their ill-chosen words will come back to haunt them.

After Jeremy Corbyn told the BuzzFeed website that he would stay on as Labour leader regardless of the election result, he swiftly insisted to Kuenssberg that he had said no such thing. This robust denial was followed by BuzzFeed releasing the recording of their interview during which Mr C clearly stated that whatever happens on June 8 he has no intention of quitting. For its defence of the truth, BuzzFeed was banned from covering the remainder of Corbyn’s campaign.

Thanks to its manipulative ruthlessness, the shoot-the-messenger method has changed the dynamic of Britain’s political scenery. Politicians used to care about ingratiating themselves with the media. Now they’ve replaced their meek and mild approach with scattergun accusations and bombastic bluster. For them at least, it’s much more fun.

Used to doing all the attacking, newspapers and broadcasters – the majority of whom do their best to be fair and honest – have been wrong-footed by being on the receiving end and remain curiously muted over the often-unjustified war of attrition against them.

As its beautiful friendship with Corbyn bit the dust, BuzzFeed bit back. And Sky News took the unusual step of officially declaring that it was being ostracised by the Tories. But for the most part, the stunned Fourth Estate is simply taking the abuse on the chin and suffering in uncharacteristic silence. Particularly, the BBC which, as always, is obsessively terrified of any suggestion it lacks balance.

In Westminster’s worsening Machiavellian dystopia, they’ve reached the stage where the truth barely matters. When it hurts, they shriek ‘biased media’ and snuff it out. Complete control is the name of the cynical game. But the press is unlikely to remain so supine for long. When journalists sense they’re being manipulated they tend to rebel. There may be trouble ahead.

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