No Free Press

Journalism in the UK needs your help

Since you’re a reader of my blog, you’re certainly the type of discerning and perspicacious individual who will already have spotted that there’s a big problem with the reporting of news in the mainstream media at the moment. Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, you’ll have spotted the mismatch between what he says and does and what the media reports about him. If you’re a medic you’ll be popping a vein at the current news spin over junior doctor contracts. If you’re a privacy advocate or concerned about welfare cuts, you’ll be gnashing your teeth.

Put simply, the mainstream news media in the UK are not in a healthy place right now.

I write this on a day when the resurrected Snooper’s Charter is published, though the government has been DRIP-feeding reassuring notices for weeks. As David Allen Green notes, the mainstream media are largely just nodding along with the misinformation about this renewed assault on our privacy and failing to question how exactly snooping on my personal communication and yours is supposed to stop terrorism.

I also write this on a day when the Secretary of State for Health seeks to defuse impending industrial action by junior doctors over the imposition of an unsafe contract which, along with risking patient safety will cut their pay by as much as 30%, not by talking to doctors but by briefing a quiescent press that his pay cut is actually a pay rise. And the news media are doing little to expose the falsehood.

The mainstream media are permeated by undue influence and inappropriate editorial control. While the Murdoch press push one slanted viewpoint (Uncle Rupert’s), the BBC are now terrified to get stuck into politics. Each side of the political divide claims the BBC supports the other side. I don’t think this is true. I think the BBC are now so cowed by the current threat to their existence that they are afraid to criticise whichever government is in power, be it Labour, coalition or Tory.

I’ll give one example of undue influence: the Telegraph.

You knew I was going to work Saatchi in here somewhere, didn’t you?

I’ve had direct experience of how disengaged the Telegraph are from the facts because of my involvement with the Stop the Saatchi Bill campaign. If you’re reading my blog you’ll already know about this terrible piece of proposed legislation, so I won’t rehash it here. But despite the serious risks this bill poses to patients, and despite the misleading campaign run by Lord Saatchi and Chris Heaton-Harris to promote this bill, now added to by the Government, the media have largely stayed away. Apart that is from the Telegraph, who ran piece after glowing piece extolling the claimed virtues of the bill, sometimes four or five over the course of a weekend, and even set up their own website section devoted to it. Some media pieces were written by the bill’s campaign director, without declaring his interest. Most just delivered a particular PR spin on the bill.

The reason why the Telegraph stood apart from other news outlets in its coverage is simple. They were the Saatchi Bill’s campaign “media partner.” This relationship was not made clear to readers, so when various “science” or “health” correspondents lined up to deliver glowing pieces, it would not have been clear they were following an editorial line rather than making a cool assessment of the facts.

The notable exception was the Telegraph’s then political correspondent, Peter Oborne, who excoriated the bill in a piece he wrote with Anne Williams shortly before he resigned over the Telegraph’s failure to report news critical to their advertisers.

So what we see here is a news outlet controlling its news output based on advertising income and political influence rather than the facts.

Other news outlets picked up the Saatchi story only sporadically, and largely by rehashing content virtually lifted from what the Telegraph were saying. Here we see churnalism in action, and in this case it meant that by pumping spun articles through one outlet – the Telegraph – the Saatchi campaign were influencing the media across the board. Having read and listened to pretty much everything on the Saatchi Bill, I could see the message spreading by the repetition without fact-checking of claims from one place to another (also, bizarrely, I could occasionally spot whole sections lifted from articles I had written appearing unattributed elsewhere in the blogosphere).

The Guardian were notably apart in all this. Although the main Guardian site and paper largely ignored the bill, their Comment is Free and blog sections carried a number of posts, mostly critical (including two from me, for which I thank Dean Burnett at the Guardian) and also, for balance, an astounding attack by Lord Saatchi on a group of oncologists who had had the temerity to question his bill. But by and large what appeared in the media was what the Saatchi campaign wanted printed, what he wanted said.

Rant on

Now, I realise what I am writing here could appear to be a rant by a one-issue loon who has nothing better to do than bemoan that nobody in the mainstream will listen to him. Which could be true, but for the fact that all the major medical, medical protection and research organisations have been saying the same thing, and they aren’t being listened to either. And that’s the point I’m making, that it hasn’t been the merit or weight of the argument that made the difference, but the influence of the person making it.

This is going to matter more and more over the coming few years.

Again, whatever you think of Corbyn, you will surely agree it is not healthy for democracy for us to have a media that is in thrall either to government or to vested interests, and a government that can simply say and do what it pleases, without restraint. When we get to the next general election we need to be able to have a truthful debate on the issues, based on facts not falsehoods. Throughout the next few years, as bills on welfare and housing and health and privacy come up for debate, we need to be able to look at them fairly and honestly.

All this means that, in the face of a government which appears entirely indifferent to whether the claims it is making in support of the laws it wants to pass are actually true, we need media that don’t take those claims at face value and are prepared to call false statements out for what they are.

How?

Firstly, we need an independent, protected BBC. Only when it feels it isn’t about to be torn apart will the BBC be safe to hold government to account. We need BBC News teams to be encouraged to investigate, question and highlight misinformation and deceit wherever and whenever they find it.

Secondly, we need to support independent news media organisations, away from the traditional mainstream press. Organisations such as Open Democracy. We need to nurture them, encourage them, share their articles with our friends.

And donate to them. Because a free press doesn’t come free.

So if you’ve made it this far, and anything I’ve said strikes a chord, click on this link and give a couple of quid. It’s an investment in independent journalism. This is something we all neeed, and it’s up to all of us to support it.

I’ll see you on the other side.

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