The Pursuit of Truth – Or NotBoris Johnson, COVID and the Media
Broadcast journalists’ refusal to call-out the lies of the Prime Minister, his Cabinet members and the Government as a whole during the Coronavirus pandemic reveals the extent of the crisis engulfing the very fabric of truth in our society, observes Dorothy Byrne
When a man lies often enough, every now and then, something he says will turn out to be true. And so it happened with Boris Johnson. He said our country would be “record-breaking” in this pandemic and it has been, twice over: at one point, the UK had achieved the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world; and it also suffered the worst fall in GDP in Europe.
How have the Prime Minister and his Cabinet fared when it comes to telling the truth about the greatest disaster our country has experienced since the Second World War?
Privately, radio and television journalists will reel off what they think are the most outrageous lies of this Government’s Coronavirus catastrophe – how it claimed that it was simply ‘following the science’ or ‘protecting the NHS and care homes’ or awarding contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) sensibly.
“I think this Government lies more than any government we have ever known,” one told me. “They lie habitually. You wouldn’t bother to ring some of the normal channels, you can’t trust them or rather, you can trust them to lie. It’s like facts don’t exist.” A third was furious when a major exclusive they had obtained was denied by Government press officers: “They put up a big rebuttal although we were right. Sometimes they were flailing about but, over PPE and care homes, they were deeply dishonest.”
You won’t hear these journalists speak up like this in public. It’s not the done thing for broadcast journalists to tell the truth about political lies.
Calling-Out Boris Johnson
Back in autumn 2019, I condemned Boris Johnson as a known liar in the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival. A number of my colleagues in broadcasting disapproved strongly even though they did not dispute the accuracy of my statement. That the Prime Minister is a notorious liar is accepted among journalists in the UK across the political spectrum.
Johnson was sacked by The Times early on in his career for an untruthful front-page story which he misattributed to his own godfather. As the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels’ correspondent between 1989 and 1994, he regularly disseminated ‘Euromyths’. He was sacked in 2004 as the Conservative Party’s vice-chairman and Shadow Arts Minister for dishonestly assuring the then leader Michael Howard that reports he had had an affair with a columnist were an “inverted pyramid of piffle”.
Yet, almost all broadcast journalists believe that they should not use the ‘L’ word about Johnson.
Why? Firstly, it’s rude and we’re British. Secondly, they fear that the public could thereby think we have lost our impartiality. Well, that’s a risk we have to take. I am indeed not impartial between truth and lies. The public doesn’t have the wherewithal to research the facts about politicians’ statements and therefore judge accurately whether they are telling the truth. They rely on us for that.
Whilst I was at Channel 4, we gave 1,700 people three stories we knew were true and three which were lies. Only 4% of respondents identified them correctly. We, as journalists, are their guides to truth because we have the time and the research expertise to check the facts. We are failing them if we don’t speak out when we know politicians are lying.
During the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, UK broadcast journalists reported dishonest statements without declaring that they knew these statements to be untrue; thus giving credence to lies. Since then, Donald Trump has polluted our politics further. “He changed the culture,” a journalist for another UK broadcaster told me. “He demolished the principle that politicians should speak the truth honestly.”
In the US, journalists knew that Trump was lying when he said he was cheated of his ‘rightful’ 2020 Presidential Election win. But a significant number reported what Trump said right up to 6 January – the day of the attack on the Capitol in Washington – as if it was normal political discourse. People died as a result of the events of that day and the most powerful democracy on earth was put at threat, partly because journalists and influential social media commentators disseminated lies rather than calling them out.
Many argue that it is misleading and unhelpful to liken Boris Johnson to Donald Trump. However, Trump realised that if he spoke a lie often enough, he could get a significant proportion of voters to believe it. The UK has seen something similar during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Ministers have made untrue statements over and over again and it has worked for them. A significant proportion of the population has accepted these statements. This is partly because they sympathised with a Government dealing with a plague without precedent for which it could not be blamed. But this is also because broadcast journalists have not said that we have been lied to in significant ways.
Back in 2019, I was complaining about Johnson’s lies concerning EU rules on condoms and kippers. What halcyon days they were, pre-pandemic, when a politician lying about fish seemed like a big deal. Now, he and his Cabinet lie about life and death. Previously, his lies were specific. Now, they are are so vast in their ambition that they create a parallel universe.
In one universe, the NHS coped in the first wave of the pandemic and we all clapped its key workers each week for doing so. I stopped the clapping after a bit. I felt I was being used as an enabler. In the other (real) universe, my consultant doctor friends told me of being instructed to refuse intensive care treatment to anyone aged 65 or over because their hospitals were overwhelmed. Other older friends were not allowed admission to hospital despite being critically ill. They were told that they didn’t need hospital treatment but that was a lie. In fact, there were insufficient facilities for everyone who needed medical help. The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group believes that hundreds of their relatives died because they were told wrongly to stay at home.
I decided that, if I got the Coronavirus, I would create a fake identity as a woman of 59 with no medical problems. I think lying in order to save your life is acceptable. “If you are old and get COVID, we might just have to let you die” is what Boris Johnson should have said at those daily press conferences.
‘Following the Science’ or Something Else?
The Government stated early on that it was ‘following the science’, when in fact it had rejected scientists’ advice to lockdown sooner. As one broadcast journalist put it: “It was horsesh*t that they were being led by the science. They waited a week to lockdown and the infection rates doubled.” Of course, that journalist has never told viewers that the Government was talking horsesh*t.
The Government similarly rejected advice to impose a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ last September and encouraged people to meet at Christmas. Some official statements contradicted the truth completely.
The Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, claimed last May that the Government had “thrown a protective ring round our care homes”, when in fact thousands of elderly people were discharged from hospital into care homes without being tested for COVID-19, care workers were denied PPE and were even told that they didn’t need it, and care homes could not get their staff tested for months. 40,000 people died in care homes.
In January, the Prime Minister declared: “What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life.” This statement is manifestly untrue. Note how he used the word “truly”. Whenever someone uses that word, feel suspicious. Another of Johnson’s favourite phrases is “in all candour”. Again, if he is really telling the truth, why does he have to keep telling us all that he is not lying?
Every now and then, statements have been so ludicrous that no sensible person could believe them. Nobody believed that a man with Coronavirus would drive to Barnard Castle, with his wife and child in the car, to check his eyesight; and it was wrong that the BBC criticised Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis for saying so. I have a piece of advice for Dominic Cummings: never try to have a secret affair, no wife would fall for your stories.
Similarly, when the then Downing Street press secretary Allegra Stratton told us that the Prime Minister is a “feminist”, I thought she had overreached herself. Who could believe this of a man who said “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts” and referred to female volleyball players as “semi-naked women… glistening like wet otters”.
I assume that this statement was part of a wider strategy to reposition Johnson to female voters; hey sisters, this isn’t just a man who lies about women, which is what bothered Michael Howard when he sacked Johnson for lying in 2004. This is a man who has lied habitually to the women in his life and that’s what should bother us. Remember that when he’s trying to convince you of his honesty.
Speaking Truth to Power?
In the past, lying politicians were held to account on television and radio. They were not named as liars, but their statements were analysed forensically in lengthy interviews. Not any more.
During the Coronavirus crisis, we have not seen Boris Johnson putting himself up for the sort of grilling to which, for example, Margaret Thatcher subjected herself over the Falklands. Johnson and senior Cabinet ministers have failed to appear on Newsnight or Channel Four News, the two programmes with the time to carry out in-depth interviews.
A leading broadcast journalist told me: “They just don’t believe in accountability. In one of the great crises of modern times, where is the major interview with the Prime Minister? I can’t think of a time when a Prime Minister in a crisis has put himself up so little. There is no proper scrutiny. It’s a complete contempt for accountability.”
Another said: “Nobody has really challenged the Government in a ruthless and meticulous way that has struck home.”
A couple of Andrew Marr prime ministerial interviews do not suffice.
Regular press conferences should also not be mistaken for accountability. Political journalists, who generally lacked any scientific background, were too often asking a series of disconnected questions. As one journalist put it: “At press conferences, they can deflect questions and the lack of follow-up completely neuters the ability to hold them to account.”
The only relevant big-hitter to appear regularly on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has been Matt Hancock. Often, the ministers sent along to Today were not those responsible for the key decisions on COVID-19 and appeared to be reading from pre-prepared statements.
As one broadcaster told me: “Their news training is all about tone. So long as they stay calm and seem reasonable, it makes the interviewer seem irritable and interrupting.”
No Incentives for Truth
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, literally parrots the same response to any question. Asked in January by Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if he would resign because he was so useless, he replied: “My focus is making sure we deliver the very best for all children.”
In March, when Andrew Marr questioned him on his U-turns in decision-making, guess what his response was? “My focus has been doing what is right for children”. When Sophy Ridge of Sky News also tried to get him to respond to her questions on his failings, he replied: “My focus is always about trying to deliver the very best for children.”
Indeed, just type ‘Gavin Williamson… my focus is’ into Google and you can waste hours of your life counting the ways in which this man refuses to answer questions.
Some broadcast journalists have felt that the public would think it unfair to savage Johnson in an interview. One said: “The media have pulled their punches. They have not felt it would look right morally to be holding the leader’s feet to the fire in an emergency. The Government record on PPE and ‘Test and Trace’ has been lamentable, the contracts stink, but the Government has been almost completely unaccountable.”
In the absence of these grillings of old, broadcast journalists tell viewers the facts and then state the Government’s point of view. One journalist said: “It’s ludicrous. The Government denies it so we can’t just say it’s true. You can’t report facts as you see them.” Another added: “The reason for not lying it is that you are going to get caught out. But they don’t get caught out.”
Across all platforms, disinformation and misinformation are rampant. We are living in an age of information anarchy. Much of political discourse is about matters of opinion, but some is about matters of fact. Broadcast journalists were given a duty, laid down in regulation, to tell the truth. If fear of being perceived to be partial prevents us from telling viewers and listeners which statements by politicians are true and which are false, then we fail in that duty.
All I am asking is that, at least sometimes, when the Government makes an untrue statement, broadcast journalists state that it is untrue. Given our current state of crisis, it is the least our audiences deserve.
This is an edited extract from ‘Populism, the Pandemic and the Media: Journalism in the Age of Brexit, COVID, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’ to be published on 24 June 2021 by Abramis. Dorothy Byrne is a television journalist and producer. She was formerly editor-at-large at Channel 4 Television, where she previously served as head of news and current affairs
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