Establishment Journalists Have Betrayed the Ideals of the Fourth Estate

Originally published by Open Democracy on 13th December 2019

The reluctance of senior British journalists to accept their failures has put us all in greater jeopardy. The election result will probably just embolden them.

How unpleasant it has been over the past day to observe senior establishment journalists sit cosily alongside senior centrist and right-wing politicians and commentators, all agreeing on a single issue: Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s policies have led us to this point. Moreover, what indifference – even admiration – many of them seemed to display for the disturbing majority won by one of the most callous, deceitful and self-centered prime ministers the UK has had in living memory.

As the data emerges, there will be comprehensive analyses of what went wrong for Labour over the coming weeks (hint: Brexit will be a key factor), but at this moment it is worth highlighting something else, something arguably more important, because it cuts right to the heart of our so-called democracy: senior British journalists, across press and broadcasting, have failed the electorate, and their refusal to admit it and reform is putting us all in greater jeopardy.

No matter that the British public overwhelming supports Labour’s policies. And I’m not just talking about how establishment journalists have systematically delegitimised Corbyn and his party for the past four years, or how they’ve accommodated a coordinated effort by the UK military and intelligence establishment to undermine him. I’m talking about their increasing subordination to, and amalgamation with, the political establishment, which this election has been a textbook example of. Let’s recap.

Downing Street sources

“Dog doesn’t eat dog,” wrote the award-winning journalist Nick Davies in his 2009 book ‘Flat Earth News’. He was referring to journalists scrutinising other journalists. It has “always been the rule in Fleet Street”, he explained, that “we dig wherever we like – but not in our own back garden”.

This rule was jettisoned back in October when veteran journalist Peter Oborne broke ranks (not for the first time) to criticise his colleagues’ conduct: “From the Mail, The Times to the BBC and ITN, everyone is peddling Downing Street’s lies and smears”, he boldly proclaimed. As he explained to a visibly uncomfortable and defensive Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News, senior British journalists have allowed themselves to be “gamed, to be managed [and] to be manipulated” by their Downing Street sources to pass on “smears, lies [and] fake news” to the public. Their callousness is “debauching British political discourse”, he added.

A day earlier, in an article for openDemocracy, Oborne had outlined multiple examples of senior British journalists uncritically publishing information that their anonymous Downing Street sources had told them – all of which later turned out to be untrue. Journalists and their news organisations, he wrote, are operating as a “subsidiary part of the government machine […] turning their readers and viewers into dupes”.

Particularly brave was his naming of the negligent journalists and the organisations they worked for, including his own employer the Daily Mail (unsurprisingly, it was soon revealed that he would not renew his contract with the newspaper). For the first time in a while, dog had very publicly eaten dog.

For those unfamiliar with Oborne, he is not your typical media-bashing leftie. He has a long and distinguished career working as a political journalist at various conservative-leaning publications. Admired by colleagues, he’s been described as a freethinker and a maverick who “does not share any paper’s, editor’s or […] publisher’s agenda”, and he had previously resigned from the Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph on matters of principle.

In a more recent article for The Guardian, he described himself as someone who has “voted Conservative pretty well all my life”, yet in his three decades of political reporting has “never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically” as Boris Johnson. The media, he said, have been letting Johnson get away with it (he has even compiled a dossier of the prime minister’s lies and distortions).

As interesting and important as Oborne’s intervention was, however, perhaps more interesting – and even more revealing – were the reactions of some of his fellow journalists. Those whom he named retreated into self-preservation, defending their failures rather than simply apologising for them and pledging to do better.

The hostility toward him was palpable. A key moment came when he was interviewed by journalist Amol Rajan on BBC Radio 2. Live on air, as Oborne named leading journalists who he said operated as mouthpieces for power, Rajan defensively interjected: “I think that’s out of order.” When the exchange intensified, Oborne accused Rajan of sucking up to power and engaging in “client” and “crony” journalism: “It’s time this system was exploded,” he emphatically declared.

The situation was reminiscent of an occasion back in 2018, when journalist and activist Owen Jones claimed that British journalism is afflicted by a “suffocating groupthink” and is “intolerant of critics”. His claim caused outrage among many of his colleagues, who, seemingly unaware that they were proving his point, collectively berated him via Twitter. “Never has a single tweet caused such consternation among the British commentariat”, wrote journalist Ian Sinclair.

Collective failure

This reluctance to accept criticism and admit what is obvious should, by now, have mortally damaged the already tarnished reputations of these journalists. In the final weeks of the election campaign yet more criticism emerged, as the press regulator IPSO ruled that the Mail on Sunday had falsely claimed that Labour was planning to scrap a tax exemption on homeowners.

In addition, few media outlets reported how a detailed study by a non-partisan group of advertising professionals found that 88% of the Conservative Party’s most widely promoted campaign ads were either misleading or lying. They also found hundreds of Lib Dem ads to be at fault. The number of Labour Party ads they found to be misleading or lying? Zero. How much of the electorate was actually made aware of this?

The 2019 general election is likely to go down in history as a textbook example of when a media system failed to uphold its democratic ideal. We already know from comprehensive academic research undertaken by Loughborough University that coverage of the Labour Party across the press was overwhelmingly negative. The Conservatives, on the other hand, received consistently positive coverage.

Of course, this was to be expected from a majority right-wing press owned by billionaires. But even broadcast media, which is obligated by law to be impartial during elections, fell short of its standards, as research by academic Justin Schlosberg has shown. Moreover, the BBC, with its fabled commitment to accuracy and impartiality, was twice forced to apologise for painting Johnson in a positive light – it has enabled Johnson to get away with a “tsunami” of lies and has been “behaving in a way that favours the Tories”, wrote Oborne.

And what was the BBC’s response to the criticism? In an article for The Guardian, the corporation’s director of news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, simply denied that there were any problems with its reporting. She brushed the criticism off as just a “couple of editorial mistakes” and condescendingly described accusations of bias as “conspiracy theory”.

As the academic Tom Mills, author of ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’ (2016), pointed out, this kind of failure to engage meaningfully with its critics may well lead to the BBC’s downfall. Of course, in some sense, one can understand why BBC staff and senior journalists refuse to accept criticism: their jobs depend upon their perceived legitimacy as reliable news sources. As the US muckraker Upton Sinclair observed: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The problem, however, is that these senior BBC staff and journalists simply won’t have a salary to depend on if they continue down the path they’re on. Their sense of self-importance – that they are the only legitimate arbiters of information for the public – is repugnant to citizens across the political spectrum.

Reinforcing the point, Oborne alleged that senior BBC executives told him they believed it was wrong for them “to expose lies told by a British prime minister because it undermines trust in British politics”. The BBC denied this accusation, but if true, the arrogance of those executives’ belief that it’s within their right to withhold such information from the electorate is contemptible – and anti-democratic.

Loss of trust

British politics has been haemorrhaging trust for decades, and, by now, levels are well known to be flatlining. A big reason for this is the consistent failure of journalists to distance themselves from the political classes and serve their democratic purpose of holding them to account. Oborne has documented this. In the 1990s and 2000s, the capitulation of journalists to New Labour’s unprecedented use of information managementPR and spin did wonders to elasticise the truth and encourage the revolving door between media and politics. In many ways this led to the media’s subsequent failures in the build-up to the Iraq war, its failure to provide sufficient knowledge and understanding of the 2008 financial crash, and its failure to show that austerity was a political choice, not an economic necessity.

Indeed, British political journalism has a lot to answer for. Many of the journalists who presided over the failures of the past decades are still working as gatekeepers and opinion leaders today, and their reluctance to admit to their mistakes and encourage reform of their organisations and practices has left them and the rest of us stewing in their mess. According to last year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, when 33,000 people across 28 countries were asked which institutions they trusted to do the right thing, “the media in general” came out as the least trusted in 22 countries (yes, the UK was one of them).

This is partly why so many people have turned to new and alternative media, which, in their infancy, are untainted by the distrust that lingers around legacy outlets. The new generation of journalists working these media have injected a fresh burst of energy and plurality into what had become a stagnant and parochial environment. The failure of legacy organisations to adapt and reform will continue to push people into their hands. But on the flip side, it will also continue to push people into the hands of individual politicians and their parties who can, in turn, push unmediated, unchecked and unregulated information back to them via digital platforms. That will embolden deceitful politicians and parties to lie and misinform. We had a taste of this during the election campaign when the Conservative Party absurdly changed its twitter account to factcheckUK.

One of the tragedies of this election result is that many senior journalists who always despised Corbyn and the policies he stood for will now attempt to use it as a tool to berate him with, beat back criticism with and vindicate themselves. Together with those centrist and right-wing politicians and commentators, they will say that Corbyn and his supporters are to blame, that they should ‘own their defeat’, and that they should, furthermore, stop blaming the media and journalists. While it’s certainly true that the Labour Party and its activists have some long, hard self-reflecting to do (particularly over the cultural issue of Brexit), that the British media and its senior journalists have nothing to do with the outcome of this election is bollocks.

In many ways, journalists have now become their own worst enemies: their refusal to accept their failures will almost certainly continue to erode what little is left of their already tarnished reputations and public trust levels. Moreover, for all the good they do serve, there is no avoiding the perception amongst much of the public that the media and politicians are ‘all the same’, because, to a large extent, this is correct.

Will Davies has recently commented recently on the ‘Berlusconification’ of British politics, where the once separate domains of politics and media have become indistinguishable: Johnson and Michael Gove are both former journalists, George Osborne now heads the Evening Standard, and so on. The failure of journalists to keep these domains separate goes a long way to explaining the current crisis of legitimacy befalling the media, and the result of this election. Journalists and politicians who ignore this are placing us all in deeper jeopardy as the principle of an independent ‘Fourth Estate’ falls further from sight. Given the scarcity of truth during this general election, one thing can be known for certain: the British media is in desperate need of radical democratic reforms.


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