openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Help us hold him to account

This miserable election campaign shows why we need journalism that asks more questions – not fewer. Join us.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
11 December 2019, 4.52pm
Five years
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Journalists are supposed to ask questions. Whatever you think about the media, that’s still rule number 1 of the job. Or so I thought.

Britain’s torrid election campaign has exposed just how swiftly a barrage of lies, misinformation and dark money can bend a broken political system out of shape.

But worse still, it’s revealed how many of our leaders no longer seem to agree with a fundamental, basic premise of democracy: that journalists are there to ask questions.

It’s endemic across politics. Boris Johnson refused to submit himself to Andrew Neil’s questions, and stuffed a reporter’s phone into his pocket rather than reply on how the NHS had failed a four-year-old.

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The Liberal Democrats threatened openDemocracy with lawyers and fraudulent emails rather than answer questions about how they’d sold voters’ personal information.

When we dared to probe his offshore arrangements, Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice asked us (irrelevantly): “How many homes has openDemocracy built?”

It goes on. Yesterday we asked one Tory candidate how he’d spent £100,000 of taxpayers’ money. He emailed us: “Some people might be more bothered by a voicemail just received at my office saying: ‘I am going to fuck you over like Jo Cox,’ but don’t worry how your kind of journalism feeds into that kind of attitude.”

This election campaign has laid bare appalling structural weaknesses and ‘capture’ across the UK media

And as Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, made plain in her devastating MacTaggart Lecture this summer, party leaders – including Jeremy Corbyn – have conspicuously abandoned doing serious, probing interviews. (At least Corbyn and Swinson subsequently subjected themselves to half an hour with the BBC's Andrew Neil, while our prime minster ran scared.)

Corbyn makes no secret of his dislike of the ‘mainstream’ media – not without some good reason. But displaying such obvious disdain for reporters who ask questions also fuels the disgusting and rabid online trolling of journalists, particularly women, we’ve seen over the last few years.

And it speaks to a growing, sinister disregard across the political spectrum for the basic tenets of a free press.

Yes, this election campaign has laid bare appalling structural weaknesses and ‘capture’ across the UK media. The Sun’s political editor published far-right conspiracy theories this weekend. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston tweeted Tory-manufactured lies.

But there’s also been some really dogged, excellent reporting done by journalists up and down the country – both in ‘big media’ and by a growing number of independent, public-interest outfits.

I’m incredibly proud of the work this small openDemocracy team has produced during this election campaign. We’ve exposed attempted foreign interference in the election. We’ve unveiled the elite donors buying access to government; and how US private healthcare firms have been 'planting seeds' in the NHS for over a decade. We've revealed the yawning gender gap in our politics, and the cynical targeting of vulnerable groups. We've showed how voters have been fed misinformation online and on the doorsteps, and how Vote Leave's former data chief has used fake proxy groups on Facebook to try and split the vote. And we published Peter Oborne's chilling diagnosis of Fleet Street’s subservience to Downing Street’s fake news machine.

Hundreds of thousands of you have read and shared our stories, backed our calls for accountability for all party leaders, and demanded tougher penalties for breaking electoral law. We've made others take notice, too. Our work has featured on the BBC, Channel 4, Sky, and been picked up across the press from the Guardian to the Mirror and the Daily Mail; the New York Times to the Yorkshire Post.

This year we’ve also won court cases to force transparency from the government – and seen off countless legal threats from bullies armed with expensive lawyers.

More than anything, this election has laid bare just how badly Britain needs more journalism, not less. It must be journalism that is accountable to citizens, not to Downing Street or other factional interests. It must be journalism that asks questions without fear or favour – and doesn’t give up until it gets answers.

We’ve got big plans to grow our team, chase down more stories and hold the winners of this miserable race to account in 2020 and beyond. Please consider supporting our work today – and if you already do, please share the short film below with everyone you know. It really does make a difference. Thank you.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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