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The Treachery of the Scribes

Peter Jukes explains how a warped form of journalism has taken control in the UK and talks to ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston about the limitations of the lobby system

Boris Johnson in 2012. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

The Treachery of the Scribes

Peter Jukes explains how a warped form of journalism has taken control in the UK and talks to ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston about the limitations of the lobby system

Ninety years ago, the French philosopher and critic Julien Benda wrote about the impact of rising nationalism and xenophobia on thinkers and writers. He described the divisive rhetoric of “racial passions, class passions and national passions” which dominated cultural life at the time as a “great betrayal” and predicted, with alarming prescience, that this would lead to the “greatest and most perfect war ever seen in the world”.

Benda called his book, now regarded as a landmark study of the forces leading to World War Two and the Holocaust, La Trahison des Clercs – the Treason of the Clerks – referring to the ‘fourth estate’ of scribes who acted as thinkers, communicators and gatekeepers to culture. This was translated in English as the Treason of the Intellectuals

But what do intellectuals matter today? Who are the modern day equivalents of those scribes in a deeply unintellectual country such as Britain? 

The answer is surprising. Before he died, the British historian Tony Judt (in conversation with Timothy Snyder in their book Thinking the Twentieth Century) explained how globalisation had marginalised thinkers, academics and philosophers. “The best people to ask about what’s really going on are usually not the intellectuals but the journalists,” Judt concluded. 

(Full disclosure: Tony was a friend of mine, and this statement more than any other, led me to pursue a new career in journalism). 

The kind of journalism Judt was referring to was clearly investigative journalism – news that ‘someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know’. Investigative journalism reveals the hidden crimes, conspiracies and interests of rich or powerful people against the public interest. Judt’s colleague Snyder has taken up this baton with his studies of authoritarianism and Russian intervention in European and American politics through lectures, YouTube videos and books such as The Road to Unfreedom.

But investigative journalism is time consuming, expensive and dangerous. Investigative journalists, particularly women, are on the frontline of the information wars of the information age. The assassinations of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Maltese blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, or the legal hounding of Carole Cadwalladr, show what is at stake and the forces they are up against on the global stage.

Yet I would argue that the biggest threat to journalism in the UK is not from without but within. The British media scene has become dominated by a warped idea of journalism that focuses on opinion-forming, comment, and rapidly degrades into spin, deception, and outright mendacity. Obsessed by ‘winning the argument’ rather than telling difficult truths, our ‘commentariat’ prizes the will to power over any duty to inform. And thus, with tragic inevitability, two of the worst (or best) practitioners of this pundit class are now running the country. 

The Punditocrats

The irresistible rise of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in British public life is the stuff of myth and political biography, but it’s worth reiterating some key features about their place in the commentariat and attitudes to public disclosure.

The UK’s Prime Minister has built his career on, to use his words, “an inverted pyramid of piffle”. Sacked from The Times for lying to his editor, Johnson soon found a perch as the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in which he proceeded to publish a litany of laughable lies about the European Union, lapped up by Eurosceptic readers despite the absence of any informational value.

From the newspaper owned by the Barclay Brothers, Johnson took some time out to become editor of their Spectator magazine (published by former Rupert Murdoch editor Andrew Neil) around the time that Dominic Cummings was apparently posting Islamophobic cartoons on its website. Johnson’s writings there are characterised by the same grandiloquent glib essays, peppered with homophobic and racist asides which clearly endeared him to elements of the Conservative right. He then returned to the Telegraph, which paid him £250,000 a year for an occasional column while he pursued a career as Mayor of London and then as an MP. 

Not only was Johnson well-embedded with his own newspaper moguls, resident in the tax haven of Sark, he was also an arch defender of that other non-domiciled proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. Close to News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks, Johnson described phone hacking as “codswallop” three months before police investigations were launched.

Johnson’s other major media backer was a former KGB agent and his son: the Lebedevs. His mayorship was boosted by the Evening Standard and, after becoming Foreign Secretary, he was caught worse for wear and without his security detail at Perugia airport after one of his (several) attendances at the notorious parties run by Evgeny Lebedev. 

Michael Gove has pursued a similar career, mixing politics and punditry, ever since he was Johnson’s bagman and acolyte at Oxford University. After years writing for the Sunday Times, Gove was identified by Rupert Murdoch as a  “great man” and garnered some lucrative book deals from Murdoch’s publishers, Harper Collins. While the commissions kept flowing, even after the phone-hacking scandal, so did the opacity and secrecy.   

Gove obtained an exclusive interview for The Times with US President Donald Trump in 2017, without informing the public that his proprietor Murdoch had sat alongside him. He regularly meets with Murdoch in secret even though he is in charge of the Cabinet Office, which is arrogating many of the powers of the executive, and rapidly becoming a ‘state within a state’.  

Private Conclave: Public Harm

The Conservative Minister, John Biffen MP, once said (echoing the classical economist Adam Smith), “whenever you find a senior politician and a powerful media owner in private conclave, you can be certain that the aims of a healthy, plural democracy are not being well-served”.

Hacked Off recently revealed that 41 meetings took place between Murdoch company employees and representatives of the Government in the first six months of Johnson’s Government. During the downturn in advertising earnings during the Coronavirus crisis, the Government has bailed out its press friends to the tune of many millions, with most of it going to companies based overseas for tax purposes or those asset-stripping local journalism. 

Given Biffen’s warning, the careers of Johnson and Gove prove “the aims of a healthy plural democracy” are not so much being well-served as betrayed. 

The threat to democracy was demonstrated beyond doubt when Johnson, Gove and their ‘brains trust’ Dominic Cummings all came together in the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum.

Forget Brexit for a moment, or whether you’re Leave or Remain. The visible campaign of billboards and buses was unprecedented for its shameless lying. Meanwhile, a semi-concealed online campaign targeted voters on Facebook and other social media with dark ads containing contradictory claims about Turkish accession, immigration, environmental standards and animal rights. 

Vote Leave was found guilty by the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, of breaking electoral law with the biggest overspend in living memory. Cummings was held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to attend law-makers’ inquiries into what happened.

Johnson’s administration is now planning to scrap the Electoral Commission. The Information Commissioner’s Office report into what happened to the data has been suppressed and oversight has been transferred to Gove at the Cabinet Office

Disclosure? Truth-telling? Public service? This isn’t the journalism that tells you something somebody doesn’t want you to know. It’s anti-journalism, and the treachery of the scribes – or at least a certain kind of punditry – is complete.

Caught in the Middle

What of the rest of the media – especially our public service broadcast media which has long been held up as an international standard, all while our press has been ranked the least trusted in Europe, and with the longest criminal record when it comes to privacy intrusion?

The problem for broadcast journalists is – partly due to their national status beamed into every living room and their often fungible ‘arms-length’ status from government, subject to changes in legislation, funding and management – how to cope with a Government run by skilled liars, well trained in how journalism works and what threats and promises can compromise them.

The key moment in this battle came two years ago when, led by Carole Cadwalladr and the Observer – along with the New York Times and Channel 4 News – two stories broke that touched the Vote Leave operation run by Johnson, Gove and Cummings: the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave overspending scandal.

The BBC, which had been pursuing a Panorama documentary with the whistleblowers Chris Wylie and Shahmir Sanni, segued down a decidedly odd route. Soon after  Cadwalladr and the Observer went to comment to Cambridge Analytica and its CEO Alexander Nix (but before the story was published), Nix was interviewed by BBC News‘ chief political correspondent Laura Kueunssberg – effectively rebutting the allegations before they could be made. 

Exactly the same thing happened when the Vote Leave scandal was about to break two weeks later. Its chief executive, Matthew Elliott, was allowed his pre-rebuttal before the allegations were aired. On the BBC News website, Kuenssberg described Vote Leave’s overspend as “rule-breaking” rather than ‘law-breaking’. Shahmir Sanni, the Vote Leave whistleblower, has barely appeared on the BBC, while his former colleagues Darren Grimes and Tom Harwood – who deny all wrongdoing – are regular guests. 

This is not a complaint about political bias, but about reporting standards. Both Nix and Elliott are well skilled in media regulation and PR manipulation, and effectively gamed the protocols which allow subjects of journalistic inquiry several days to reply. Cadwalladr had the same experience when reporting on Leave.EU funder Arron Banks’ undisclosed meetings with the Russian Embassy – he asked for an extension on his right to reply and went to the Sunday Times with a more anodyne account.

The problem is closer to one of cultural capture: of a generation of lobbyists and politicians willing to break the norms of behaviour to misrepresent reality in order to control it. And the treachery of this pundit class is contaminating the highest standards of public interest journalism. 

This is not a historical issue, or anything to do with Brexit anymore. Cadwalladr had been one of the first to sound alarms in February this year about the Government’s Coronavirus response, not because she was a ‘Remoaner’ (or a “conspiracist” as Andrew Neil called her), but because she knew well that this Vote Leave Government was stuffed with chancers, truth-twisters and run by personalities who put their private survival over the public good. 

Herd Immunity

The crucial proof of this, and the problems for public service journalism, were starkly demonstrated early on in the pandemic.

On 12 March, ITV News’ Political Editor Robert Peston revealed, through a source close to 10 Downing Street, that the Government was pursuing a strategy of ‘herd immunity’, hoping to combat COVID-19 by allowing up to 65% of the population to become infected, while shielding the vulnerable.

Such a public health policy had never before been attempted without a vaccine, let alone with a novel Coronavirus, the long-term health impacts of which were unknown and people’s ability to maintain immunity uncertain. Peston’s report was based on an unattributed source. Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times soon reported (what many of us suspected) that this policy was driven by Johnson’s top advisor Cummings, whose voluminous online blogs have always shown a penchant for half-baked scientific theories, and who attended the key COBR and SAGE meetings. Johnson himself told the Italian Prime Minister that ‘herd immunity’ was the British policy and scientific advisors advocated it in public.

This is all now subject to endless denials, despite the evidence. In his Downing Street Rose Garden press conference – called after he broke lockdown several times to travel hundreds of miles to his parents near Durham – Cummings denied being an advocate of herd immunity.

Who, then, was Peston’s Downing Street source? From his previous insights, Cummings looks likely. This matters because, even the Daily Telegraph admits that “on every measure, Britain’s response to the COVID pandemic has been woeful” and that “the UK sits at or close to the top of the league tables for death whichever way you slice it”.

It is of vital importance to our future pandemic response that the public knows how our policy was driven to this parlous state.  

Peston was dismayed that some thought he was supporting the controversial strategy.

“Of course I was not,” he told Byline Times. “I was simply putting in the public domain the Government view, which – to be sententious – is surely the reporter’s job”.

He argued that it “caused a furore, a passionate debate, and therefore contributed to the Government doing a rapid U-turn and going for lockdown” and so “in that sense I would argue it was public service journalism”.

Peston still refuses to name the source, even though – given the UK’s egregious Coronavirus deaths – that would also be a huge public service. He doubts he would have got the story had it been on the record.

“Surely my inability under the lobby rules to disclose the identity of the source was on that occasion a price worth paying?” he posed to Byline Times. “If a world of no anonymous conversations had, at that critical juncture, kept that policy secret, would we be better off or worse? I think worse.”

The problem, however, is not just confined to this one anonymous policy announcement, no matter how deadly.

Source protection is designed to encourage whistleblowers and to protect the weak against the powerful. In the unscrupulous hands of pundit-trained politicians, anonymous briefings can be used to plant propaganda or try out policy on the hoof in a deft, deniable way. In effect, it is politics by stealth, exposing the weak to the aims of the powerful, bombarding the public with weaponised disinformation like a drone that sits out of sight high in the sky but can target us with impunity. 

ITV News‘ Political Editor accepts this and believes the system of unattributable lobby briefings may not be fit for purpose. Peston says: “I am not convinced that the current lobby rules, with their presumption against naming sources, are appropriate in a world of populist politicians who don’t care about the distinction between what they wish to be true and the burden of evidence”. 

The Last Line of Defence

The burden of evidence around the Vote Leave conspirators is now clearer than it has been at any time since they first came together during the Brexit campaign four years ago. This is no longer just a question of EU membership or trade deals. It really is, as John Biffen warned us, about the role of a plural, healthy democracy and the vital role of accurate information and transparency in it.

Journalism is the immune system of democracy, providing the public with the capacity to make an informed political choice. Time and again in modern history we have seen that, if the immune system itself is infected, demagoguery replaces democracy with rapid speed.

That’s why we should pay attention to Julien Benda’s Trahison des Clercs.

We are not reliving the 1930s. There are no massed European military powers preparing for war, nor are our streets occupied with paramilitaries whose main aim of persuasion is the knife and the cudgel. But, just as data is the most valuable commodity in the information age, the distorting, weaponisation or withholding of information is a paramilitary battleground.

A partisan press and cowed public service broadcasters leave us, as Benda foresaw, vulnerable to these other more extreme ideologies which will demonise migrants, foreigners and minorities for the economic impact of Brexit and the Coronavirus. 

We have been warned. We have no excuse for not explaining who really is to blame and what is happening in this country. If we don’t, we’ll all be victims of the treachery of the scribes. 

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