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Britain's press is serving Boris Johnson, not us

Our press has gone full Pravda about Johnson’s row with his partner. Welcome to anti-journalism: using the tools of news reporting to protect the powerful

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
25 June 2019
Boris Johnson launches his campaign.
Boris Johnson launches his campaign, June 12, 2019.
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Stefan Rousseau/PA. All rights reserved.

“Left-wing neighbours admit taping Boris row” – screamed the Sunday Telegraph’s front page ‘story’ this weekend. Shrill headlines about the “Remainer couple” who had the temerity to record a potential domestic violence incident also appeared in the Mail, the Spectator and the Sunday Times, while the Evening Standard ran a picture of the “happy couple” on its front page.

Fortunately, the police have said that no crimes were committed. But, for weeks these outlets, once famed for their news reporting, have gone full Pravda – transforming themselves into pamphlets for the lead candidate for prime minister, allowing him to get his messages out without the bother of having to talk to actual journalists who might ask any actual questions.

In Britain, the problem isn’t fake news. It’s anti-journalism.

Journalism holds power to account, or, at its best, redistributes power. Anti-journalism is the opposite: it’s using the tools of news reporting to protect the powerful. To help them accrue more power.

Right-wing commentators who were once hesitant to support Edward Snowden when he revealed evidence of actual mass surveillance have suddenly became principled civil libertarians, crying foul when a couple recorded disturbing sounds of a potentially violent argument (including a woman shouting “get off me”) that they could hear in their own living room.

This is, of course, nothing new. These same papers spent the years after the financial crash fuelling anger against migrants and people dependent on social security – diverting blame from those with wealth and power in the City of London to those without it.

What they do emulates journalism in form: they gather evidence, get quotes, write up articles and print them in newspapers. But the aim is the opposite of journalism. The intention is to protect the powerful. It is public relations for a crumbling regime.

The aim is the opposite of journalism. The intention is to protect the powerful. It is public relations for a crumbling regime.

There are, of course, real journalists left in Britain. The Guardian broke this story in the first place, and continues to interrogate the powerful. BBC Radio 5 Live has given a number of Tories the sorts of hard interviews we used to expect from the Today Programme (the current editor is reportedly a close friend of Boris Johnson). And there are still excellent reporters at the Telegraph, Mail and elsewhere who manage to get the odd actual investigation past their bosses.

But it’s now abundantly clear that the traditional model which delivered ‘real journalism’ is broken. No one wants to own a newspaper business these days because they think it’s the best financial investment. Instead, papers are acquired by those who want power – oligarchs who hide their assets offshore, or who have political ambitions, or who are happy to sell off their editorial independence to giant multinationals for breathtakingly small sums of money.

And so, increasingly, it’s the news outlets with alternative funding models and ownership structures that are delivering the actual journalism.

That includes the Guardian, which has brought in more than a million subscriptions or donations since they launched their membership scheme. It includes the best bits of the BBC, which is, of course, licence fee funded. It includes smaller outfits, like DeSmog, who investigate the people holding back action on climate change.

And I’m proud that it includes my colleagues at openDemocracy.

In the past week, we’ve revealed that both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt’s leadership campaigns are funded by a prominent climate change denier, and that the lobbying firm running Boris Johnson’s campaign is bragging in the US about its ability to shape Brexit on behalf of American businesses.

As I write, our UK editor Caroline Molloy, who is one of the best journalists out there on the NHS, is writing a stonking piece to tell you everything you need to know about Jeremy Hunt’s record as Health Secretary.

For the past two years, we’ve investigated the secretive and unaccountable think tanks and lobbying operations which shape so much of our public debate and government policy. My colleagues Clare Sambrook and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi have, in their Shine a Light project, uncovered some of the darkest secrets of the British state. Our reporting on the dark money fuelling Brexit has triggered law change, criminal investigations and been nominated for a prestigious journalism prize.

I’ve seen a lot of people complaining on social media that the British press is no longer fit for purpose. They are (mostly) right: too many of our papers spend too much of their time indulging in anti-journalism. But there’s also a lot of great work still going on. And because it’s not funded by dark money or lucrative sponsorship deals, it badly needs your support.

Help build the media we need – please consider contributing to openDemocracy today. Thank you.

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