Over the past few days, Britain has been treated to a fresh media spectacle, marking a new low in the slow decline of an autonomous press. The Daily Telegraph, which has employed Boris Johnson off and on for over 30 years, and currently pays him £275,000 a year as a columnist, has put its full editorial and journalistic resource behind his bid to become leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister.
Beside the constant trickle of op-eds praising his character and political judgement, the paper published an opinion poll on the morning of his leadership campaign launch, predicting he would win a majority of 140 in a general election (since trashed by polling experts), and has converted its front page into a type of campaign leaflet, full of flattering photos and slogans.
At best, this is distasteful and creepy. But is it dangerous? On its own, it is not substantially different from the way the newspapers fell behind Tony Blair in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or The Daily Mail briefly worked for Theresa May between 2016-17. But its broader context points to something more worrying than those precedents, with immediate echoes of what’s taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. The sound of journalists being booed at Johnson’s launch event should be enough to raise concerns of something Trumpian going on.
The rise and fall of ‘spin’
The rising intimacy between party machinery and the press (and hence, declining public trust in both) is often blamed on New Labour, and Alastair Campbell particularly. Winning Rupert Murdoch’s support for Labour was viewed as a strategic triumph for Campbell and Blair, and an act of cynical deference by their critics. But it’s worth remembering that these doyens of ‘spin’ only placed so much emphasis on pleasing the press because they’d been so bruised by Murdoch et al in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
Spin, as we came to know it, was born under duress. New Labour might be accused of cynicism and superficiality in their fixation on headlines, but only because the press was deemed to be so dangerous. Blair, it is often forgotten, dedicated one of his last speeches to lambasting the “feral beasts” of the media. The relationship between Downing Street and Fleet Street was, at best, one of détente (Blair’s growing personal camaraderie with Murdoch did nothing to help Gordon Brown).
The past decade has seen the Conservative Party develop a far closer relationship to the press that goes well beyond image management and spin. While Blair appointed a former journalist as his spin doctor, David Cameron put a former Times journalist (Michael Gove) and former Telegraph journalist (Johnson) in his Cabinet, and a Times columnist and leader writer (Danny Finkelstein) in the House of Lords. Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, was also a Times columnist until 2013.
The relationship between Cameronism and journalism worked both ways, as demonstrated when George Osborne was appointed Editor of The Evening Standard despite no journalistic experience whatsoever. Johnson had to abandon his Telegraph column during his woeful tenure as Foreign Secretary, but continued to use the newspaper to outline his views on Brexit and other matters, who reported them gushingly as ‘exclusives’.
Johnson’s impending Premiership has to be understood in this context, one in which journalists become politicians, and politicians become journalists. Rather than policies being developed and then ‘spun’ for media consumption, power becomes held by the story-tellers themselves. But this is only one part of the story of how we reached the nadir, of journalists being booed for failing to endorse a political candidate. The other part concerns technology.
As is now well-understood, digital platforms have transformed the possibilities for political communication, bi-passing traditional channels, and allowing political campaigns to target and address potential voters, without the mediation of journalists, editors or broadcasting regulations. The democratic shocks of 2016 have been partly credited to Facebook’s power to connect campaigns (and carefully tailored campaign messages) directly with individuals, without any broader public awareness. This turns all campaigning into a form of ‘dog-whistling’, in which political messages circumvent the traditional, analogue public sphere.
One consequence of this is that the public (and even rival campaigns) don’t know what messages are being used or who they’re being aimed at. Targeted messaging appears to produce particular volatility where it is used to persuade non-voters to vote for the first time, as occurred with the EU referendum. But another consequence is that channels now exist to observe, criticise and dismiss journalists and the ‘mainstream media’. Trump famously uses Twitter to attack CNN, The New York Times and any other news agencies that report things he doesn’t like. Far-right activists and conspiracy theorists use YouTube and Facebook to accuse particular news channels of conspiring to cover up the truth. The claim that journalists are ‘enemies of the people’ can now be distributed as easily as news itself.
The claim that journalists are ‘enemies of the people’ can now be distributed as easily as news itself.
This has contributed to a situation in which press conferences and broadcast interviews are now inessential. Theresa May’s fateful 2017 election campaign intuited this, but acted on it half-heartedly, seeking to control her public engagements sufficiently to look paranoid and robotic, but not enough to avoid conveying that impression. Johnson’s campaign team is clearly going to make no such mistake, and it’s here that we enter Trumpian territory.
Johnson has famously given no broadcast interview over this campaign season, and it is doubtful that he will turn up for the BBC’s live leadership debate next Tuesday. Clearly, he has no real incentive to: he simply needs to outline a policy idea in The Telegraph, or make some implausibly bold statement in a newspaper interview, and it immediately gets repeated by broadcasters. The Sunday Times has become a willing accomplice to media-sceptic demagogues, with successive fawning interviews with Trump and Johnson, producing front-page splashes (‘Trump: send in Farage and go for no-deal’; ‘Johnson: The £39bn is ours’) which might just as easily have been tweets from the men themselves. These too get reported by the BBC.
The Johnson spectacle
The Johnson launch event was a chilling spectacle, for anyone who hopes he will be held to account by the press. Immediately announcing that he would take just six questions, he did at least manage to avoid the temptation to take all six from The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times. But the performance was troubling nonetheless.
Political Editor of Sky News, Beth Rigby, attempted to ask a question about his ‘character’, which he immediately pretended to mis-hear as ‘parrot’, to much mirth. While Trump uses anger, and Johnson uses humour, the effect is the same: the journalistic space shifts from one of enquiry and testimony, to one of performance and audience frisson. As I wrote here, humour is doing something very significant in our digital public sphere, in helping political leaders to evade criticism.
Rigby persevered, with her question about Johnson’s Islamophobic remarks, which compared veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes”. It was here that his massed ranks of ERG supporters – high on the feeling of collective irresponsibility, like a Thatcher-themed stag-do in Riga – began to boo. Rigby had overstepped the mark, by bringing unwelcome facts into the room. The booing was later defended by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, who tweeted at BBC Editor, Laura Kuennsberg:
The “jeers” at Boris’s launch were for Sky News’s Beth Rigby and her editorialising question. Much like yours, shamefully biased. If @BBCnews ontinues to distort and withhold information from viewers there will be trouble.
In this tweet alone, one can see a worst case scenario emerging. Criticism of Johnson will be called ‘bias’. The BBC will be accused of “withholding information”, and threats will follow. Who’s to say that Kuennsberg or Rigby will definitely be invited to Downing Street press conferences under a Johnson Premiership? That might sound hysterical, but the precedent is being set in Washington DC.
This is a qualitatively different state of affairs from the one masterminded by Campbell and Blair. The vision outlined by Pearson is one shared by Nigel Farage and the ‘Yellow Vests’ on the street who mobilise behind Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (‘Tommy Robinson’). If individual journalists pose difficult questions about ‘no deal Brexit’ (and its figureheads), then they are ‘biased’ Remainers. Carl Schmitt’s ‘friend-enemy’ distinction enters the press conference, and the leader only speaks to his friends.
Carl Schmitt’s ‘friend-enemy’ distinction enters the press conference, and the leader only speaks to his friends.
Social media is a crucial ingredient in this, converting press conferences from a normal (indeed necessary) feature of constitutional democracy into a luxury, to be enjoyed or else dispensed with. What Trump demonstrates (and what May’s team couldn’t quite deal with) is that there is no symbiotic relationship between journalism and power any longer. Either the distinction between journalism and executive power dissolves altogether (as has happened with Fox News and the White House, and could soon be witnessed with The Daily Telegraph and Downing Street), or else politicians speak over the heads of the professional media altogether.
As important as media transformations have been, it’s unlikely that Britain would have reached this juncture if it weren’t for Brexit. It is Brexit that has injected what Schmitt termed ‘political theology’ into British politics, introducing questions of ‘sovereignty’ that are not amenable to empirical or reasoned discussion. It is Brexit, with the aid of social media, that has turned mass fury upon those institutions which hold up a mirror to society – not only parliament, but experts and reporters. And it is Brexit that has provided Johnson with his long-sought opportunity to perform his pointless egotism on the highest stage in the land.
American journalists have struggled to know how to respond to Trump’s behaviour. The New York Times and Washington Post have set out a grand vision of hostile truth-telling, that fuels Trump’s persecution complex, and gives him a steady flow of material to confirm that the media has it in for him. Johnson might welcome similar treatment, although the BBC would find it politically difficult to go for him (and for hard Brexit) in the same way that US news attacks Trump.
But there is an opportunity for journalistic collectivism and solidarity here. The BBC and the sceptical papers need to do what they can to avoid co-operating with Johnson’s messaging. An ‘exclusive’ Johnson column in The Telegraph or interview with The Sunday Times needn’t be headline news. An opinion poll published in the paper that pays Johnson £275,000 a year should be reported as internal to the race, rather than an objective picture of it. Above all, if on the rare occasions Johnson confronts journalistic scrutiny, there is intimidation of any sort, every member of the press should walk out leaving his tribe to fluff his ego undisturbed.