Here are three questions that anyone interested in the health of UK democracy should be asking. Should reputable political journalists allow themselves to be exploited as conduits for the unfiltered messages of political leaders? Where does accurate reporting end and uncritical stenography begin?
Are the media’s big name political editors – in particular the high-profile broadcasting duo of Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC and Robert Peston on ITV – exercising proper scrutiny of a ruthless Downing Street propaganda machine, or are they victims of it?
These are important questions because – as anxieties grow about “fake news” being spread by unmoderated and unaccountable social media sites, and as the national press becomes even more vocal in its partisan reporting – our broadcasters have become the last bastion of detached information and critical analysis. Research shows that broadcast journalism is still regarded as the most trustworthy media, and those entrusted with the task of reporting on our political leaders on TV and radio bear a particularly heavy burden in febrile political times.
They are also questions that, over the past few weeks, have become more urgent as Downing Street has sought to impose its own narrative on unprecedented political turmoil. When the UK Supreme Court announced its historic decision that Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful, Kuenssberg immediately tweeted a thread from a “No 10 source” that the court had made “a serious mistake in extending its reach to these political matters”. This was not accompanied by analysis of the decision or the rationale for reaching it.
1. No 10 source: “We think the Supreme Court is wrong and has made a serious mistake in extending its reach to these political matters."
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) September 24, 2019
Seasoned journalists argue that the political lobby has been doing this for decades, only now it is exacerbated by the speed with which news cycles develop in the digital world. Maybe. But when Johnson and the German chancellor Angela Merkel had their now infamous telephone conversation on October 8, the Downing Street machine – and the breathless reporting that accompanied it – went into overdrive.
Sky’s Kate McCann tweeted a number 10 source as saying: “If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever”. Other respected reporters followed suit, including the BBC’s Five Live with a faithful “a Downing Street source has told the BBC …”
A Number 10 source on PM call with Germany’s Merkel: “If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever. It also made clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.’
— Kate McCann (@KateEMcCann) October 8, 2019
It didn’t take long for veteran observers of the diplomatic scene to expose this Downing Street version of events as, to put it politely, economical with the truth. Former Irish ambassador Bobby McDonagh tweeted: “If Downing Street ‘source’ wants people to believe a fictitious account of conversation with Merkel it should avoid attributing views to her which are palpably made up.” And Tony Connelly, Irish broadcaster RTE’s experienced Europe editor, made it clear in a series of tweets that both the tone and language were completely out of character for Merkel, and that the view in Brussels was that Downing Street was kickstarting the blame game.
At this point, Twitter jokers decided to have some fun. LBC talkshow host James O’Brien tweeted: “A ‘senior Downing Street source’ has told me that the moon is, in fact, made of cheese.” Another wag followed up with “a Downing Street source has just told me I can lose a stone in a week using this one weird trick and earn 20 grand a month working from home”. And so it went, as some of the country’s most revered commentators were lampooned mercilessly for parroting the Downing Street line.
A ‘senior Downing Street source’ has told me that the moon is, in fact, made of cheese.
Can you see the problem yet?
— James O'Brien (@mrjamesob) October 22, 2019
It is, however, a profoundly serious problem which was brilliantly articulated by columnist Peter Oborne this week in an article for OpenDemocracy (which he said he was unable to place in a mainstream publication). Oborne described a number of worrying examples of deliberate smear campaigns being run by newspapers to discredit those who were not following the Johnson line, which were then followed up by broadcasters.
These “dodgy stories” started to appear, he said, after Johnson installed his media team in No 10. “With the prime minister’s evident encouragement these Downing Street or government sources have been spreading lies, misrepresentations, smears and falsehoods around Fleet Street and across the major TV channels. Political editors lap it all up.”
Oborne specifically targeted Kuenssberg and Peston, suggesting that they may be too compliant in their eagerness to receive “insider” information which they report without challenge. This, he wrote, is “client journalism” which “allows Downing Street to frame the story as it wants. Some allow themselves to be used as tools to smear the government’s opponents. They say goodbye to the truth.”
He subsequently appeared on Channel 4 news to repeat his allegations that since Johnson took up residence at 10 Downing Street, largely thanks to the prime minister’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings and a “group of other figures from the old Leave campaign … that a total unscrupulousness has developed” about the way they used journalists across the spectrum to present information “much of which turns out to be false”.
In his rebuttal on the same site, Peston argued that anonymous briefings have always been part of political journalism, and that the job of a conscientious reporter is “to distinguish palpable nonsense spouted by aides from information that genuinely represents the policy of the government”. Democracy is served, he wrote, “when we know how those in power think and speak”.
Preston was joined on Twitter by fellow practitioners defending their colleagues on the basis that governments have always indulged in spin, and that lobby journalists were perfectly capable of distinguishing exaggeration from downright lies.
If you think it's important that we should know what people inside Number 10 are saying, I fail to see what's wrong with journalists reporting what they are saying. Anonymous briefings have always been part of the political process.
— Robin Lustig (@robinlustig) October 8, 2019
Lies, damned lies
In the current environment, however, these arguments are increasingly unconvincing. Just as in the White House, so in Downing Street we have an embattled figurehead who is an acknowledged liar surrounded by cronies well-versed in the art of creating a political narrative that bears very little resemblance to the truth. Moreover, the time and financial pressures on journalism allow much less scope for fact-checking, thoughtful analysis, or critical appraisal of official briefings.
In an environment where the issues are complex and the politics are brutal, it is surely incumbent on those political journalists who are being relied upon by voters to guide them through their leaders’ machinations to spend more time on insights and explanations.
Print journalists have a longer history of partisan coverage and a weak regulatory framework which has never set much store by accurate reporting. Broadcast journalists, however, are immersed in a culture of impartiality and commitment to factual accuracy.
Whatever the temptation of being first, or being singled out for exclusive access, at a time when democracy itself is under immense strain they surely owe it to their viewers to spend a little more time challenging power and a little less in knee-jerk facsimile tweets.