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Scandal-mongering and the media

"Freedland in closing includes the British electorate in his roll-call of systemic failure. But I think these journalists should be looking more closely instead at their own profession"

Rosemary Bechler
9 May 2021, 10.19am
The new John Lewis store in Birmingham, UK, 2015.
Wikicommons/Bs0u10e01. Some rights reserved.

John Bercow, former Speaker of the House of Commons was on BBC Radio 4 this bank holiday morning, giving his opinions on the scandal enshrouding the Prime Minister. His main concern was the attack on the “sanctity of scrutiny” in Britain’s Parliament and “the opportunities for holding the government to account, irrespective of what turns up in the polls.”

Jonathan Freedland had devoted his Guardian column to something similar on Friday, under the heading, Scandal upon scandal: the charge sheet that should have felled Johnson years ago. He begins with why the Downing St. refurbishment is a scandal, but moves swiftly on to previous scandals. These include:

– “The post-Grenfell fire safety bill… that threatens ordinary leaseholders with financial ruin… saddling them with the cost of ridding their homes of potentially lethal cladding…”,

– “A coronavirus death toll of 127,500 that remains the highest in Europe, alongside the deepest economic slump in the G7… delaying lockdowns… seeding Covid in nursing homes… decision to keep the borders open…”,

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– “The VIP lane for ministers’ pals when the PPE contracts were being doled out… the staggering sum of £37bn committed to a test-and-trace programme that never really worked”…,

– “ The failure to sack Robert Jenrick… Priti Patel… Gavin Williamson… The appointment of Gavin Williamson…”,

– “Johnson’s Brexit protocol that put a border down the Irish sea, even after he’d vowed never to put a border down the Irish sea…”,

– Johnson’s “illegal suspension of parliament, overturned as a violation of fundamental democratic practice by unanimous verdict of the supreme court…”,

– “The lies that led to that moment: the £350m on the side of the bus…”,

– “ His racist musings…”,

– “His firings from the Tory frontbench and the Times newspaper, both times for lying…”.

Interestingly, Freedland has some criticisms too for a system that supports such behaviour:

– “Johnson decides when and whether to investigate himself, making him judge and jury in his own case…”,

– “Not much better is an opposition party that was walloped by him in 2019 and struggles to lay a glove on him now.”

What grabs my attention here is that, faced with such a cornucopeia of potential scandals, Boris Johnson, the Labour Party and the BBC have all chosen to concentrate on the Downing Street refurbishment.

I can quite understand why Boris Johnson made this choice, especially given the fact that all he has had to say so far to funnel controversy in that direction is that he is not going to say anything. Furore! The BBC choice is harder to assess, but must be linked to their strange notion of balance, and may have something to do with their other decision to charge around the country asking “But does anybody really care?” often eliciting the music hall response, ”as long as I’m not paying for it”.

Bercow has really answered this – there are democratic decisions and points of principle that cannot afford to depend on public opinion at any given time in any self-respecting democracy. But on the other hand this should never be taken as an excuse for further disempowering ‘the people’ or keeping them in a benighted state. As we see acutely in this pandemic as never before, people deserve but are far from getting, the highest and best levels of information and wide-ranging UK debate.

As for the main opposition party, I can only concur with Freedland that this is a systemic failure of a democratic system.

But what a different and altogether more accountable and democratic country we would surely be had the Opposition and the BBC picked almost any of the other scandals to major on. Freedland in closing includes the British electorate in his roll-call of systemic failure. But I think these journalists should be looking more closely instead at their own profession.

For example, had the fourth estate ever asked what “the staggering sum of £37bn” to Serco and consultants (which we are paying for) was actually being spent on, given that the mis-named “NHS” test-and-trace programme had “never really worked” – wouldn’t that have given the people more to get their teeth into, and choices to be made that will be important to our grandchildren? Mightn’t we have found out rather more about the plans in store for a world-beating global Britain and its brand new National Health Security Agency? On world press freedom day, we have also to ask, is the fourth estate doing anything like a decent job in embellishing democracies old and new in this glittering new digital age of ours?

This piece was originally published in the May edition of Splinters.

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