I have spent my working years as a Dutch newspaper journalist, mostly on the foreign desk. And I have been an anglophile the whole of my adult life. I was astonished by the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and started looking for answers to the big question: why?
It didn’t take long to find one very important contributing factor. The media in the UK – newspapers, television, radio, magazines and websites – were and are not doing what they ought to do.
This article has two parts. First a description of the media landscape in the UK. The second part is my attempt to add an analysis. Not to change things – my bit won’t change anything – but to offer a new perspective, a view from the outside.
Well, let’s have a look at the media in the UK.
Most popular tabloids are owned by billionaires, who live abroad in tax havens and never pay a cent in UK tax. They have a lot of extreme opinions about the left, muslims, migrants, transgenders, the EU, Meghan Markle and a whole range of celebrities. When the presenter of the tv-show Love Island committed suicide after an astonishing smear campaign by the tabloids, those same tabloids wrote she did it because of the unbearable pressure by the social media, who indeed had not hesitated to chew on the juiciest bits.
The best-known media tycoon is Rupert Murdoch, a very old and very rightwing Australian-born, and now US citizen. He owns one of the most popular tabloids, The Sun. His company also owns The Times, a broadsheet paper, and also owned the broadcasting organization Sky UK before selling it off to Comcast. But his influence on the broadcaster isn’t diminished, Murdoch, who is on friendly terms with Donald Trump, sneaks into Downing Street 10 every now and then to have a private conversation with the Prime Minister. The Sun isn’t a newspaper in the traditional sense of the word. It is merely a vehicle to stir up emotions. The Times is a right-leaning paper. The Times doesn’t always blindly write what the government likes to see. You can find some excellent articles in it. Two columnists, Matthew Parris and Rachel Sylvester, are outstanding.
The Daily Mail, another very popular tabloid, is owned by the extremely rich Lord Rothermere. His views – motivated by the sales figures or not – decide what kind of emotions will be transferred to the readers. This rag once opened the front page with photos of three judges under the headline ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’. The same concept as The Sun, actually.
The very rich Barclay family owns the Daily Telegraph (nickname The Torygraph), a broadsheet that is the megaphone of Boris Johnson. Before he became Prime Minister Johnson was a very handsomely paid columnist for the Telegraph, which gave him the opportunity to write that ‘muslim women in hijab look like letterboxes and bankrobbers’. The Telegraph opened the front page with his column many times. After he left the paper the Telegraph announces a new ‘Boris Boom’ quite often the UK economy will have a colossal Boris Boost, productivity will rise spectacularly, Boris will ‘save Christmas’, etc. You will never see anything of all that in the real world, but one man gets a boost every time: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. The Barclay family also owns The Spectator, a very rightwing opinion magazine.
The Daily Express is the worst tabloid of the lot. It is very hard to find a shred of truth in it. The headlines on the front page are mostly extremely pro-Johnson: ‘BORIS THE GLADIATOR’. The Express is owned by the Mirror Group, also owner of The Daily Mirror, a left-leaning tabloid. The new ownership has brought no improvement at all to the Daily Express. The Daily Mirror is strongly dedicated to the wellbeing of the Labour Party. Everything Labour does or wants is good according to the Mirror.
The same thing, but to a lesser degree, can be said about The Guardian. In many aspects, it is a quality paper, but the political news is very fixated on Labour, especially on the war between the left and the centrist wings of that party. The bizarrely bad cartoons in The Guardian deserve a special mention. They are never funny or even witty. Boris Johnson is often depicted as a monster. Cartoonist Steve Bell has been drawing a bare arse where Johnson’s head should be for many months now. The cartoons by Chris Riddell are in a style that was en vogue at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Daily Star, a tabloid owned by the Mirror Group, brings news about ‘psychotic seagulls’ who attack people and other bizarre nonsense.
The News of the World, a tabloid owned by Murdoch, ceased to exist after the paper hacked phones, even one of a murdered girl. One of the phone hackers, Piers Morgan, was until recently one of the hosts of the very popular tv-show Good Morning Britain (ITV) where he could ventilate his moral indignation about vegan sausage rolls. After criticising Meghan Markle he walked out of his tv-show. Shortly thereafter it was suspected that Piers Morgan would join a brand-new broadcaster, GB News, but eventually, he decided otherwise. This ultra-rightwing organisation, with former BBC swashbuckler and much-feared interviewer Andrew Neil as the leading name, was meant to revolutionise British tv. But an endless row of technical and journalistic blunders kept the ratings very low. Even ‘Dr. Pimple Popper’, an absurd phenomenon entirely dedicated to the eradication of acne on TLC, did better.
Andrew Neil is now nursing his hurt feelings in his villa in the south of France. His seat was taken by the agitator Nigel Farage, who soon proved to be unsuccessful in improving the ratings, no matter how many polls he started about reintroducing the death penalty and the imperial money system. A GB News panel recently even had a discussion about ‘Should we go to war with France?’
In this deplorable media landscape, the BBC should be a beacon of quality, reliability and objectivity. That is, sadly, not how it is. When David Cameron was Prime Minister he succeeded in parachuting political friends into key positions: director-general Lord Tony Hall and Robbie Gibb, Head of Political programmes. Under their watchful eye, the BBC failed utterly and completely to show the consequences of the UK leaving the EU. Don’t think for a moment that Brexit supporters and rightwing viewers, like the BBC. The few presenters who still dare to be critical are such a thorn in their sides that quite a lot of them want the BBC’s licence to be revoked. Among the presenters who do their job properly Emily Maitliss of the flagship programme Newsnight stands out. This first-class journalist was once reprimanded by the BBC Board because of her outspoken introduction to the programme. The government boycotts Newsnight totally.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Johnson sits on a pile of investigation reports and refuses – contrary to his promises – to publicise them. The report about Russian interference in the referendum campaign remains secret to the public. A report on a ‘500,000 pound subsidy’ for Jennifer Arcuri, Johnson’s girlfriend then, never saw the light of day. This American woman was a pole dancer, but suddenly turned out to be ‘an entrepreneur in the technology business’. Nobody ever heard about her technology achievements, other than the fact Johnson took frequent private technology lessons in her flat. A report on Johnson’s expensive holiday trip to the exotic isle of Mustique, paid for by a donor, remains a mystery.
Johnson tries to avoid interviews as much as he can. Once he even fled into a fridge to avoid questioning. But his ministers – and even the Prime Minister himself – do appear in the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday mornings. Marr asks them soft questions. The answers are mostly propaganda and quite frequently blatant lies. Marr fails to dismantle those almost always and adequate follow-up questions are lacking.
The same can be said about Radio 4 Today. John Humphrys in the past and Nick Robinson now are so obviously pro-Tory that it is harmful for normal ears. Robinson has an impressive list of Conservative jobs on his CV.
Question Time, once a respected television institution, is now almost a freakshow. This travelling show has an audience that asks questions to a panel. The selection of the audience is outsourced to a company. The result is the same every week. Presenter Fiona Bruce enables angry red-faced people and ‘Tory-plants’, conservative aficionados bussed in from elsewhere, to ask the questions. It must be said, the last couple of months Question Time is less biased than before.
Are there any positives in this abysmal media landscape?
Yes. The Independent, an online-only newspaper, is fine. The i newspaper, isn’t too bad. The Financial Times is excellent. Some regional papers do their job decently.
There are a number of quite good online news sources: Byline Times, BuzzFeed, Politico UK. The fact that numerous digital sources are constantly lying through their teeth is obvious. The Conservative Party even managed to dress up it’s website ‘Conservative Home’ as a fact checker during the last general election campaign.
The oversight on British media is in the hands of IPSO for printed media. Ofcom oversees radio, television and social media. IPSO is rather powerless. After a complaint, it can order a paper to rectify. Very nice, but what we see is for example The Daily Mail stating on page 14 that, contrary to an earlier publication, bananas are not straight because of EU regulations, but that a lot of other regulations on bananas are invented by unelected EU bureaucrats.
Now some analysis.
Which factors cause the widespread failings of the British media?
One thing is certain. British politicians like to come up with an eulogy about the merits of a free press whenever it suits them, but in the meantime, these politicians don’t shy away from interfering. I will give some examples of that behaviour.
Laura Kuenssberg (nickname Tory Laura) is going to leave her post as political editor of the BBC. Almost immediately Julian Knight MP (Conservative), Chair of the Digital, Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, gave his opinion: Laura Kuenssberg should be replaced by ‘a Brexiteer’.
Second example: the current government is doing everything it can to appoint Paul Dacre, until recently the editor of The Daily Mail, as chair of Ofcom. When Dacre was interviewed by a panel he was vetted ‘unappointable as an impartial chairman’.
The government immediately stopped the selection process and after some time started it again. Dacre was allowed to have another go. He is now so sure he will get the job that he has quit his job at The Daily Mail.
A third example: after the phone-hacking scandal an inquiry led by Lord Leveson came with recommendations for the media. They were immediately watered down and partly swept aside by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron.
The second reason why the British media are so underwhelming is that journalistic principles are swept aside. These journalistic principles are universal. They should be applied everywhere. The main ones are:
- do not mix news and opinion;
- audi et alterem partem (fair hearing);
- fair play.
One look at the headlines of the tabloids tells you that mixing news and opinion is commonplace.
The second principle means that if you hear one party you should also show or print what the other party has to say. But only if the first party says something critical or worse about the second one. The BBC has replaced this by what they call ‘balanced reporting’. A climate scientist is interviewed and ‘for balance’ the interviewer also speaks with Lord Lamont, who denies global warming. And who has no expertise or special knowledge on the climate whatsoever. This is just discombobulating the viewers. If you want to report if it is raining, the journalist should look out of the window and not speak to two persons with different views about the rainfall.
An example about fair play. Recently it was widely reported that the French prime minister, Jean Castex, had written a letter to the European Commission asking ‘to harm Britain’. Robert Peston, political editor of ITV News, repeated this snippet on Twitter and added it was important. A lot of people with formidable qualifications in French told Peston the original letter had nothing in it about harming Britain and that the translation was utterly wrong. Peston said he had seen these comments, but he did not remove the tweet. A blatant lack of fair play.
A third factor making British media worse than they could be is the lack of emancipation of the media. In my country, the Netherlands, the media freed themselves of the influence of political parties, religions and the owners. This happened in the sixties and early seventies of the 20th century during a widespread wave of democratising the institutions in the country. The editor and his/her journalistic staff decide what will be printed or will be broadcast and nobody else. In the UK this important development didn’t happen. That means a colossal loss for democracy. Because without a really free media, democracy and the rule of law will suffer.
– by Ton Meeuwis
Twitter: @111meeuwis #FBPE