Thu 22 October 2020

Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, argues that the cosy relationship between Boris Johnson and most of the press means there will be no check on his power if he is elected with a majority.

When you vote next week, please think about the future of journalism – because decent, honest journalism matters to you more than you may imagine and it is under grave threat. 

In fact, there is a good case to be made that quality journalism matters more than anything else in this election – more than Brexit, even than the NHS. Without it, you simply won’t know what is happening with Brexit or the health service going forward. And if you don’t know, the Government will be free to do what it likes.

Make no mistake, the Conservatives are hell-bent on ensuring that the UK has the kind of news media that Donald Trump or even Vladimir Putin would be proud of.

Look at the record of Boris Johnson and his Government during the campaign:

  • They persistently sow lies among friendly reporters while hiding behind anonymity.
  • They banned the Daily Mirror from their campaign bus.
  • They refused to participate in televised debates.
  • Johnson actually picked his own BBC interviewer
  • Johnson barely answers press questions.
  • His election appearances – in hospitals and schools, for example – are stage managed to exclude dissent.
  • He has refused to release the parliamentary report on Russian interference in UK politics. 
  • Police investigations into his conduct and those of his closest allies have been suspended during the campaign. 

All of these have one effect: they reduce to a minimum the accountability of the Conservatives for what they tell electors. Or, to put it another way, they provide Boris Johnson with a licence to win the election by lying. And if he is prepared to do that now, during the campaign, imagine how he will behave if he is returned to Downing Street with a parliamentary majority. 

Decent, honest journalism – if we had it – would work day and night to prevent this. Its most vital mission, after all, should be to hold power to account.

Decent, honest journalists would have: 

  • Refused to participate in covering the Conservative Party election campaign until the Daily Mirror was restored to the campaign trail. 
  • Pilloried Johnson for his avoidance of TV debates, interviews and press conferences.
  • Exposed the stage management of his campaign events. (Even as recently as 2017 the press did this to Theresa May, but not now).
  • Made the publication of the Russia report a central issue of the campaign. 

These things are not happening. Why?

The chief reason is that the press is in the pockets of the Government’s billionaire allies. For the right-wing newspapers the mission now is, not to hold power to account, but to get Johnson elected and perpetuate their own power and unaccountability. 

This anti-democratic relationship is institutionalised to a degree that, again, must impress Trump and Putin. Perhaps even the Chinese leadership.

In the past few years, Conservative Governments have done the following to assist their press allies:

  • Sabotaged the Leveson regulatory reforms (at the price of breaking their most ardent promises to victims of press abuse, to Parliament and to the country).
  • Deliberately wrecked a measure designed to made it possible for ordinary people to sue news publishers when they are libelled or their privacy is breached. (At present, only the very rich can count on being able to do this).
  • Cancelled Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry into known, high-level criminal conduct at the top of newspaper companies.
  • Refused to implement the key recommendation of a publicly-funded ‘review’ examining the future of independent journalism. 

It is no accident, of course, that both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are ex-employees of the Conservative press. Nor is it an accident that the press has once again appointed a former Conservative minister as the head of its sham regulator. Nor, for that matter, is accidental that the UK press is among the least trusted in Europe.  

Never before in modern British history have we seen such corrupt closeness between a Government and those supposed to hold it to account. And the most flagrant symptom of all is the press coverage of the General Election campaign, which is so partisan it often bears no relation to reality. 

Huge stories go almost uncovered. Minor stories are transformed into weapons with which to assault the opposition parties. Headlines shout out brazen lies. Accuracy and fairness are thrown to the winds. 

And what about the broadcast media, which reach even more people than the newspapers and their big websites?

Forbidden by law from taking sides, they often seem powerless to define their own news agenda and too often fall back on what the Conservative press deems newsworthy. What leads in the Mail, the Sun or the Telegraph – however vile or tendentious – somehow has to be addressed by the news broadcasters.  

In the tweets of political editors we also see the effects of pack journalism – tone, language and general assumptions apparently lifted directly from the internal conversations of a group dominated by hardline Conservatives. 

The BBC, which once helped to keep the rest of the news media in touch with reality, has been dragged off course and the corporation’s leadership has been too feeble to resist. Its failure to keep a distance is symbolised by the persistence of ‘press reviews’ in which little effort is made to indicate the toxicity of the subject matter being discussed.

As for Channel 4 News, which has shown independence, we saw its reward a few days ago: a threat by Downing Street to choke off its freedom. If Johnson wins an overall majority, expect more of that.  

What is most horrifying about our present predicament is how far this reaches.

Every single important issue, from climate to education and terrorism to welfare, is now so warped by the influence of our bigoted and dishonest press that it is barely possible to discuss it rationally in public. There is no region or constituency that is not affected. Thanks to the weakness of decent, honest journalism under this Government, our whole information stream is poisoned. 

And it will get worse if this election produces a Conservative majority. There will be no check on Johnson’s power and the opportunity even to know what he is up to will steadily shrink. We have one chance to stop it and it is approaching rapidly. 

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