Politics and the press: an increasingly unholy alliance

During Cameron's time in office, the media has shown a tendency to report spurious government stories without proper scrutiny, diluting the arguments behind having a free press.

Henry Bird
8 July 2015

The Sunday Times was the subject of heated criticism last month over its handling of a major government story. For those that missed it, the paper ran a front page splash, quoting anonymous government sources who claimed that British security operatives have been removed from the field after Russia and China hacked into the cache of files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.

Leading the charge against the paper was Glenn Greenwald, a security writer who, while working for the Guardian, played a lead role in publishing the Snowden files. Greenwald has described the journalists behind the story as “subservient stenographers to the government", criticising them for relying solely on anonymous sources. While it’s certainly concerning that the paper would publish such serious allegations and then admit that they don’t have the evidence to back them up, this is only the latest case of the press reporting spurious government claims without proper scrutiny.

Before looking at other examples, it’s worth going back to 2003, when the last big examination of the media’s treatment of politicians took place. Then, just as now, a major news organisation was coming under fire for its handling of a political story. In this instance, the BBC was engulfed in a scandal surrounding a report from defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme, which alleged that Tony Blair had intentionally misled parliament about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. The subsequent inquiry by Lord Hutton found that the allegations were “unfounded”, leading to the resignation of the corporation’s chairman Gavyn Davies and Director-General Greg Dyke.

The affair inspired veteran Financial Times journalist John Lloyd to write a book, What the media are doing to our politics, in which he argued that the UK media’s treatment of politics posed a threat to our democracy. “The media have not come up with a better idea than democratic politics,” he said, “but in many ways, explicitly and implicitly, they act as if they have. The media have claimed the right to judge and to condemn; more, they have decided – without being clear about the decision – that politics is a dirty game.”

An absence of scrutiny

Central to his argument was the belief that the media had become overly critical of politicians – an idea embodied by Louis Heren’s oft-quoted interviewing mantra, “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” But 11 years on, it seems as though the exact opposite has become true: all too often, the British media has been scrutinising the claims of politicians and the government too little, rather than too much.

There are numerous cases of this from David Cameron’s time in office. Writing in The Guardian, US economist Paul Krugman criticised the Financial Times for failing to challenge the coalition government for persisting with its programme of spending cuts, even though other countries had turned away from austerity. “The FT never said outright that the economic case for austerity had been vindicated,” he said. “It only declared that Osborne had won the political battle, because the general public doesn’t understand all this business about front-loaded policies, or for that matter the difference between levels and growth rates. One might have expected the press to seek to remedy such confusions, rather than amplify them.”

Mervyn King addressing the TUC Congress, 2010.

Flickr/Trades Union Congress. Some rights reserved.

Similarly, there have been missed opportunities to scrutinise the coalition’s repeated claims about the financial record of the previous government. We’ve all become used to hearing government ministers use the term “Labour’s mess”, and with it the implied – or in some cases outright – accusation that the party was to blame for the 2008 banking crash.

This accusation was contradicted by former Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King last December in an interview on the Today programme, when he said: “I am not going to talk about individual parties’ culpability [for the 2008 crash] because I think the real problem was a shared intellectual view right across the entire political spectrum”. This quote was reported in The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mirror, but did not appear in reports on the interview from The Financial Times, The Times or The Telegraph.

Similarly, the permanent secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, has described the crash as “a banking crisis pure and simple,” a statement largely ignored by the right-wing press. Regardless of whether or not Labour was to blame for the crash, you would have thought these statements from such prominent figures would have featured in press reports from across the political spectrum.

In this year’s election, sections of the press seem to have abandoned their role of scrutinising the government entirely, and instead campaigned on its behalf. In April, The Telegraph ran a letter from 5,000 small business owners backing Osborne and Cameron. The letter was later revealed to have originated from the Conservative party headquarters, and included almost 50 duplicate names. The paper also got into hot water with the information commissioner's office for sending a polling-day email urging everyone on its mailing list to vote Tory.

Rupert Murdoch

Flickr/David Shankbone. Some rights reserved.

Elsewhere on Fleet Street, News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch is reported to have instructed staff at The Sun to be more aggressive in its attacks on Labour leader Ed Miliband, and more positive about the Tories, in part because he feared Miliband would break up News Corporation if he were elected. Murdoch is of course an old hand at trying to sway voters, but this year it seems to have been Miliband’s pledge to strengthen media controls that caused him and other newspaper proprietors most concern.

It can be no surprise that Miliband’s plans led to such vehemence from the press, but, according to a 2013 YouGov poll commissioned by the Media Standards Trust, the sentiment is not shared by the public at large, with 69% of respondents saying they would support stronger press regulation. The irony is that the main reason behind having a free press is that papers must be able to investigate and condemn politicians without state interference. This is of course a strong argument, but it becomes somewhat diluted when sections of the press don’t uphold their side of the bargain.

In many ways the media – with its insistence on the latest news as opposed to the background to events – is not best placed to give a broad picture of complex and multifaceted events like the 2008 crash or the Snowden leaks. As Lloyd points out: “Time is needed to prepare, publish and understand careful journalism which explains the workings of society to its citizens”. If there is one thing lacking in the media in the 21st century, when the 24-hour news cycle demands that stories are covered as they break, it is time. The important thing is to get the story before the competition.

There have been efforts to resolve this problem. There’s the slow journalism movement, with quarterly magazine Delayed Gratification looking back on the major news events of the last three months after the dust has settled. Then there are the online myth-busting articles such as Channel 4’s Fact Check series and those on the Mirror’s data driven news site, Ampp3d.

But despite tumbling newspaper circulations, print giants such as the Telegraph or Sunday Times still dwarf these niche publications – indeed, Ampp3d is being wound down as it wasn’t driving enough traffic. And with the print media still holding much more sway than digital – at least for now – in helping people choose which party to vote for, it seems that John Lloyd can still be happy with his argument that the media’s treatment of politics is undermining our democracy.

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