Politicians are making war with the media

Politicians have embraced a new strategy to avoid dealing with difficult questions: discrediting those who ask them.

In 2009 the Obama administration excluded Fox News from a round of interviews with an executive payroll manager due to its unfavourable reporting. They declared that they were a wing of the Republican Party, rather than a news organisation. Jake Tapper of ABC challenged them, and asked this at a morning press briefing:

It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations “not a news organization” and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it’s appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one?

Whoever wins in this election in Britain, the media have lost, as in Britain and America, the check which prevented the Obama administration from targeting media outlets that criticised them no longer exists. Politicians may resist and slander those who hold them to account with impunity. Jeremy Corbyn has insisted for his entire time as leader that he has been unfairly attacked by the media. In his victory speech upon winning the Labour leadership, he said:

I … say a huge thank you to all of my widest family, all of them. Because they’ve been through the most appalling levels of abuse from some of our media over the past three months. It’s been intrusive, it’s been abusive, it’s been simply wrong.

If Donald Trump had said this, it would have been on Twitter for the next three days. Corbyn and his friends have managed to make the media-bias narrative stick by alluding to it over and again. Owners of newspapers are “media barons”. Corbyn and his team employ imagery of warfare when discussing the press. John McDonnell said in March that Labour faced “a 360 degree struggle to survive” in the face of media attacks. Rupert Murdoch is everywhere at once in this view of the world, and even the Guardian are “part of the New Labour establishment”.

The Conservatives have scarcely been better. Theresa May accused “the media” of misrepresenting her views on Brexit in January, and all through the election has avoided debates and tightly restricted the media coverage of her campaign. Accusations of media bias come from the right as often as the left. Often, specific pundits and politically active Facebook friends will do the hard work of discrediting the media for these politicians. The conservative commentator Douglas Murray said of left-wing bias on the BBC:

It’s no surprise…people who go to good universities and generally study the arts come out with a pretty left-wing perspective and that’s just the worldview they have

Comments like these should be no surprise either. It is 2017: we have lost our innocence with respect to information. We know that facts are often irretrievably buried beneath points of view, and have learned to be sceptical of people who say they are telling the truth.

But in that scepticism we risk taking our eyes off the ball. CNN probably was unfavourable in its coverage of Trump, but the President of the United States could be in league with a Russian dictator. The ‘British media’ – like all trade circles – may be a collection of people with similar interests, who all know each other, so that there are a narrower-than-ideal set of perspectives available.

But even though they are not diverse, and even though some of them lean right-wing, the people whom they quote as saying that Corbyn cannot lead are people who work with him closely. It is no less true that May is weak on human rights because The Guardian reports it. Even though The Spectator says so, one of Corbyn’s closest advisers is an apologist for Slobodan Milosevic and the Stasi.

Politicians never like the media, because the media’s job necessitates making a politician’s life harder. It is a game of cat and mouse. But the new strategy for the mouse has been to use a kind of postmodern discourse theory to set the cat after its own tail. The strategy is insidious in many ways. It is sweeping: almost nothing unites the little moving pieces of “the media” or “the mainstream media”; they are as diverse as The Guardian and The Daily Mail.

It is tribal: media outlets are with or against us, with no in-between. Yvette Cooper, whom The Guardian endorsed in the Labour leadership contest, would be surprised to know that she is a Blairite, but a narrative this polarised cannot account for people like her. Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman, leading Tory-voting BBC pundits, would be shocked to learn of their complicity in left-wing bias.

Usually, also, it is wrong, and a close comparison the day’s offending headline with the material it is allegedly misrepresenting will reveal as much. Often such headlines are extrapolations from waffle-y politician-y answers, which in May’s case might mean burying the “yes” to “Would you intern suspected terrorists?” beneath platitudes about security and efforts to reframe the question. For some reason, we are less sceptical of news that tells us not to trust the news, but it is often more polarised than the news itself.

And often, where that is not the case, it is simply the same story told from a different point of view than the exact Corbynite/Conservative/Trump one. The BBC carried a headline declaring that Corbyn refused to single out the IRA for criticism in the North, and were criticised, but were not wrong: he repeatedly insists that he condemns all sides. Whether Corbyn’s refusal to mention the IRA independently of Loyalists is news – just as if a Conservative with a tainted past, asked to condemn Loyalists, repeatedly answered that they condemn violence on all sides – is surely a matter of perspective.

McDonnell rejected Andrew Marr’s perspective as skewed when during the campaign Marr pointed out to him that Labour’s nationalisation programme would mean that the State would be at its largest in history in the UK. But surely whether that matters is not a question of journalistic integrity, but of perspective: and many believe that it does. If the question had been skewed McDonnell’s way, he would not have objected.

Politicians of all political persuasions have discovered the same thing as McDonnell, which is that if they reject a question in the right way they can avoid answering it. They have made it seem like we have to choose between trusting our politicians and trusting our media. “Avoid the newspapers”, they say, “they will tell you lies. Listen only to me.”

The stakes are high. It is this strategy which has enabled Donald Trump to survive every scandal and failure he has experienced; it makes good politicians worse, and worse ones survive longer. None of this means that we should accept everything we read in a newspaper at face-value, but it does mean we must decide if we are willing to let leaders bully and target them, let their influence die. Right now, our politicians are deciding for us.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.