Looking out on my sunny garden amidst the inertia of lockdown, I can’t help but see the parallels between our current state of paralysis and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Just as New York’s Yellow Press bayed for blood in an arms race of print sales between Pulitzer and Hearst, the current crisis feels more than a little like a literary construction of modern media conglomerates, who’s control of the narrative overshadows governments and experts. COVID updates monopolise BBC’s nightly news and are dominated not by progress made but lives lost. Objectivity and responsible journalism appear to have been thrown out the window as the media rushes to embrace hyperbole and bask in its regained relevance to Briton’s daily lives.
At the very moment when our nation needs a strong government and an objective press, media bosses seem determined to push their own hypocritical agenda. The same editors and producers who were screeching about the government’s lack of preparedness only a month ago now have the nerve to criticise Nightingale Hospitals for being underused. One would think that spare capacity and fewer COVID cases were something to be celebrated, but in the present climate effective crisis management seems to be anathema to the chaos rhetoric the media revel in propagating.
At the heart of this issue is one simple but alarming problem; the near total contempt and suspicion with which journalists now regard politicians and government. The mere rise of Churchill, let alone his resolute leadership in World War Two, would have been nearly impossible in the modern media climate, as his grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, acknowledged several years back. Respect once defined relationships between politicians and the press; the aim was to give our leaders a fair shake, not to catch them out. The result was better journalism and a better politics, which modern media increasingly denies us.
The political scandals of the late 20th century, from Watergate to Chilcot, shattered that cordial and productive relationship. The understandable suspicion with which the press came to regard politicians resulted in an adversarial, Paxman-esque model that has slowly poisoned public discourse. Journalists now seem to start from the assumption that on any given decision the government has lied, botched or politicised its response. The media has learned that conflict sells and so where it does not already exist, it conjures it from thin air in column inches and analysis pieces like Kunnesberg’s recent partisan portrayal of PMQs as ‘The Lawyer vs the Showman’. This day-to-day sensationalism of mundane policy discussions has made the public dangerously desensitised to scandal. Revelations of real wrongdoing like the Profumo Affair were once enough to bring down governments; now we are so immune to moral and political failure that unfit politicians wade through controversy unscathed. Whilst the media insists that our leaders can do nothing right, we appear doomed to believe they can do nothing too wrong.
As the media have grown adversarial, they have also grown arrogant. The number of ex-journalists in politics today is not sufficient reason to believe that the former qualifies one for the latter. Yet the British media seems increasingly composed of self-appointed armchair experts qualified to hold forth on any topic. A pinot-guzzling freelancer in a London semi with a search engine should know better than to go point-for-point with government advisors on policy minutiae. Even if the press doesn’t respect our leaders, they should acknowledge the enormous resources and expertise of the civil servants who shape policy. Genuine expertise in journalism, as has long been found in foreign correspondence, is always welcome. However, newsroom presenters and weekend paper columnists must once more refrain from ignorant treatises on coronavirus testing regimens and the economic impacts of lockdown.
The greatest tragedy of this toxic media relationship has been laid bare in this present crisis; the loss of nuance and good faith in public discussion. It is vital for public confidence that politicians can speak openly and acknowledge uncertainty and shortcomings. This is truer now than ever, as our knowledge of Coronavirus remains embryonic. Policies will need to change, ideas the government thought would work will be dismissed by new evidence. Yet in an unavoidable period of trial and error the media leaps on every U-turn, relishes in any perceived indecision. Such criticism is the role of the Opposition, not the press. When we hold decision makers to impossibly high standards they are driven to vagueness and pre-tested soundbites just when clarity and honestly are essential for trust and public safety. The media must remember its privileged responsibility as the conduit of our leaders to the population. Simply conveying what is said is just as important as analysis and spin. Thankfully the British people so far have seen through this unfair lampooning of our government. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority support the government’s handling of Coronavirus whilst 25% suspect the media of exaggerating the crisis. Yet how much longer can we rely on ordinary people to see through the barrage of relentless and unprovoked negativity that chokes the media 24/7?
Britain has a long and storied tradition of free press and I would hate for this to be misinterpreted as a call for state censorship. Analysis, scrutiny, even editorial bias add crucial colour and quality to public discourse. What we need to restore is simply a basic faith in human decency and the belief that people should be given the benefit of the doubt. Our politicians don’t exist to hoodwink us; pretending they do is a grave disservice. The media must also remember than in the game of politics it is a moderator and observer, not an active participant. The Spanish American War caused senseless upheaval in large part to sate the media’s appetite for controversy and relevance. We should not allow our current crisis to be exploited for the same.