Election 2017: the failures of journalism
Here are three ways in which UK journalism failed in its coverage of the election.
1. Excessive partisanship in the national press.
This is the most obvious failure. The problem has never been more acute and it is really a problem on the right of the spectrum because the left-wing press is now so insignificant. Deploying all of your reporters and columnists to present the world purely in black and white is a betrayal of the true mission of journalism. Journalists are supposed to inform the public, after all, and when the job is done in such a one-eyed fashion their information becomes a lie. Lying journalism is corrosive at best, and it is disastrous when, as happened last week, the facts simply overtake it. One day the Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Express were telling us, with great force and remarkable unanimity, that Theresa May was a competent politician who stood between us and chaos., and the next, the public was able to see for itself – and those same papers could hardly deny – that she was an incompetent creator of chaos. Conscientious journalists who participated in so spectacular a failure of reporting would now be resolving to avoid it in future. They would be thinking: ‘Perhaps we should show more shades of grey in our coverage. Perhaps we should not be quite so unanimous in our view. Perhaps we might include other perspectives occasionally.’
2. Hysteria in the coverage of terrorism.
Again, this is an old problem, but it was cruelly exposed after the Manchester and London Bridge attacks and it showed journalists to be out of step with the public mood. Donald Trump and others were mocked for suggesting Britain was in the grip of fear, yet the national media behaved precisely as if it was, broadcasters and newspaper reporters wallowing in the drama and milking every possible angle for pain and fury. This disconnect was at its most vivid after Ariana Grande’s ‘One Love’ concert in Manchester. Millions watched this emotion-charged event on television and picked up a mood that was anything but angry or vengeful, but next day the news media failed to catch that mood. Instead they preferred the tone struck by Theresa May, summed up in the vacuous soundbite ‘enough is enough’. Journalists need to report hard facts and they sometimes need to confront the public with messages it does not want to hear, but when they fail accurately to reflect public sentiment they also fail in the job of informing their readers and viewers. More than that, they endanger their own credibility.
3. A too-narrow spectrum of comment and insight.
We expect very little of journalists on our national newspapers in terms of diversity: overwhelmingly white, metropolitan, clubbish and mostly male, they generally choose, like prophets, to hand their wisdom down on tablets of stone rather than to relate to or reflect in any meaningful way the various changing publics they are supposed to serve. They are beyond hope. It is our public service journalists who might learn the diversity lessons from recent weeks, and one of those lessons must be to pay a lot less attention to the press. First, because it is overwhelmingly right-wing, which means that deference to its views and activities is almost automatically a departure from impartiality. And second – here the election leaves no room for doubt – national newspapers can’t tell you what the public is thinking. The almost-comical absence of young voices from the television studios on election night – while seasoned, world-weary newspaper columnists trooped past the cameras – was only the most vivid evidence of this lack of diversity. Jon Snow was one of the few journalists with the courage to spell it out: the news media were taken by surprise. Unless they think hard about whom they will listen to in future they will be surprised again.
Will these lessons be learned? Sadly, British journalism has a sorry record when it comes to learning. It prefers denial and excuses. Yet time is running out. The data about trust in journalists are awful. The number of people ready to pay for news is tumbling. And faith in broadcast news, including in that traditional mainstay the BBC, is at a low ebb when it needs to be high. Unless existing news brands learn some lessons soon they will slip into complete irrelevance.
(The image is from a 1938 Shell poster entitled ‘Journalists’ painted by the German artist Hans Schleger, known as ‘Zero’.)