Hurt journalism, win power: The sad truth of General Election 2019

In summary, we have a Tory Party which is undermining critics, a Labour Party undermining the very principle of holding power to account, and the Lib Dems trying to pass propaganda off as journalism. The election of 2019 isn’t good news for those who care about journalism…

Standing up for journalism is never going to be a vote winner. “Extra taxes to pay for a reporter in your town” won’t ever make it on to a placard of a party with a serious desire of winning – if the slogan had ballot box potential, then journalism wouldn’t need the slogan in the first place.

But if the emergency election of 2019 has taught us anything as an industry, it’s that when it comes to friends in high places, we’re a pretty lonely lot when looking in to the upper echelons of the three main political parties.

Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson have all made the right noises towards the media in recent times, particularly local media. But their actions speak louder than words.

In the Red Corner…

Lets start with Mr Corbyn, who greeted news that the i newspaper had been sold to the publisher of the Daily Mail with this Tweet:

corbs It’s a tub-thumping tweet which will appeal to the core of Mr Corbyn’s support which believes that the only thing standing between him and and carried on the nation’s shoulders to have tea with the Queen is the pesky media *with it’s anti-left agenda*.

And maybe we should dismiss it as that. If it’s like most political accounts, the fingers doing the typing won’t belong to the face on the account. But equally, here’s a man who wants to lead the country in two weeks time, telling this fans to discount anything negative they read about Labour in the i in the future because, you know, it’s owned by the same company which also owns the Mail. What with Metro, also published by the Mail’s owner, being so anti-Corbyn too. Only it’s not.

It’s a lazy narrative for Labour which allows it to dodge awkward questions. Dodging awkward questions is nothing new for any political party, but the aim of Labour’s dodging is to cut grown-up journalism down at the knees, to undermine and diminish the role of journalism in holding the powerful to account. Labour does get a raw deal in various parts of the media, but the response shouldn’t be do denounce the i for something which hasn’t happened, and which probably won’t.

I say probably won’t because the i has demonstrated you can build a profitable business from offering news in a new way, one which is underpinned by neutrality. That’s not to say it doesn’t offer opinions – it does – but the starting point in its relationship with readers is that is balanced. Of course, the BBC does this too, but the i has shown that impartiality doesn’t come at the expense of offering informed opinion and personality. The profit-seeking dmg group won’t have spent £50m buying a profitable news brand only to remove the one thing that makes it stand out, and replace it with a right-of-centre bias which sends readers away. Secretly, Labour knows this.

It’s a win-win narrative for a Labour party which can cheers its members by making hate figures out of press barons/privatised utilities/fat cats/Tory grandees, and which hasn’t got solid answers when challenged on anti-semitism, funding nationalisation, its position on Brexit and so on. But it’s bad for journalism.

And that’s before you get to Labour’s support for Impress, the ‘official’ press regulator backed by campaigners who say they are pro a free and responsible press, but seem to find a way to blame the press for every one of society’s ills.

To the Tories…

That’s not to say the Tories are any better. While under a Conservative government, it seems unlikely the Press in the UK will find itself shackled and cowed by Impress, it’s hard to argue the Tories will be good for journalism.

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At a recent Downing Street reception for regional media, Mr Johnson had very warm words for local news, and promised us plenty of stories (yay!) but there was scant offered around the funding of local journalism – one of the two crises it faces (the other being existential, the subject of a future blog post). When challenged on this by Toby Granville, Newsquest’s editorial director (that’s the pair of them up above this paragraph), Mr Johnson didn’t reach for action against Google and Facebook hoovering up ad revenue but instead chose …. the BBC.

We didn’t hear too much of what he had to say as he was soon booed by a small section of the room, and he changed tack. There’s no doubt that supporting local news in any meaningful way is a long way down his agenda, and it’s possible to speculate whether the word ‘Cairncross’ has even been uttered in Downing Street since he first arrived in the summer. The lack of activity around implementing anything Dame Cairncross suggested would indicate that is indeed the case.

Inertia is one thing, menacing is another. And that’s what we saw this week when Mr Johnson was replaced with a giant ice-cube after he declined to appear on a Channel 4 climate change debate. My personal opinion is that Channel 4’s approach to political coverage in recent times has left the door wide open to attack from the Tories, but that’s not to say they should respond the way they have.

And certainly, threatening to get Ofcom to review Channel 4’s public service licence if they win power again is not a sign of a Tory Party which believes in a free press, or one which appreciates the importance of scrutiny. If I try to be fair to the Tories, they did turn up at the climate change debate, they just sent Michael Gove, a former environment secretary. The Tories claim Channel 4 asked the other participants if Mr Gove could join in and they said no. Imagine if that was the Tories denying another party a podium in a debate?

The Beeb doesn’t fare much better with the Tories either, and the broadcaster rather walked into the elephant trap of TV licences for the over 75s recently, creating an open goal for the Tories to declare themselves the champion of poor pensioners in the face of overpaid BBC talent. Their narrative, not mine – but one aided by the BBC’s handling of the issue. It seems to be highly likely that funding of the BBC as we know it will come to end soon, and if the BBC continues to get its side of the debate wrong, that change will happen with the full blessing of the public.

So one broadcaster being threatened with a licence review, another at loggerheads with the government over its funding – what of the profit-generative, and therefore in theory a little safer from Government meddling, media? Well, aside from inertia over Cairncross, we have a Government party which has banned dissenting voices from their election battle bus, and a prime minister who consistently does his best to avoid scrutiny, especially from local journalists. Mr Johnson had to be shamed in to speaking to the Mansfield Chad after recent flooding.

Coupled with the appallingchopping up of broadcast interviews to mis-represent what Labour was saying,and the decision to rename the Tory Twitter account ‘factcheck’ during the leaders’ debate, it’s clear that the Tories might talk in prose about the importance of the a free press and accountability, but they aren’t above actively misleading the public if they think it will help their cause. They are capitalising on the fleeting attention spans readers have when seeking out news, a time so short it doesn’t allow for meaningful verification of source. A party truly committed to supporting journalism wouldn’t do that.

And then there were three…

So two down, what of the Lib Dems? In some ways, the most disappointing of the lot. While perhaps the actions of Labour and the Conservatives could have been predicted, why have the Lib Dems resorted to mimicking local newspapers with their leaflets?

spot the difference

Spot the difference? Well yes, of course you can. One is a professionally published newspaper packed full of local news and information which has been serving its community for generations, the other is a poorly-presented, overly yellow piece of political propaganda.

It would be daft to suggest readers can’t tell the difference, but if so, why do it? Why choose the same name as the local newspaper at the same time? It’s not as if they’ve kept the same name around the country:

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The Tories are at it too:

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With a masthead locals say resembles an old Pudsey publication of a different name. Labour aren’t above the lets-play-at-running-a-newspaper trick either, here in London:

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But two things stand out about the Lib Dems. The first is the passing off as a ‘free newspaper’:

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The Hallamshire Herald might be a free newspaper in that it is free and printed on newsprint, but that’s not what the Lib Dems are gunning for here. They are essentially no different than those bank fraudsters who get your number and try and convince you they are from the bank and need your pin number. 90% of people won’t fall for it, but they only need 10% to be convinced for their scheme to have been successful.

A party which believed in the importance of a free Press, and extolled the sanctity of speaking truth to power, wouldn’t be trying to pass itself as a newspaper in this way. There are a million better ways to communicate that message as a piece of marketing (and to be frank, a million better ways to make it look more like a newspaper, but that’s a little self-defeating). It’s impossible to conclude the Lib Dems are trying to do anything other than mislead.

The second reason this is so disappointing from the Lib Dems is Jo Swinson’s response. She’s been incredibly dismissive, waving complaints off as ‘this has been going on forever.’ So has the first-past-the-post election system, but that didn’t stop the Lib Dems fighting against it. Equally, drink driving was once socially acceptable. Maybe that’s our problem, it is now socially acceptable to undermine journalism.

In short, we now have the three main political parties in England speaking warmly about the media in one moment, only to inflict damage on the media’s ability to speak truth to power if suits their short-term political ambitions in the next moment. 

They know journalism’s crisis is not just financial, but existential. That’s our problem to solve. We live in a world where promising to respect journalism won’t win an election, but behaving in a way which undermines journalism in the UK very well might. Scary times. 

Hurt journalism, win power: The sad truth of General Election 2019