“A politician who complains about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.” Wise words from Winston Churchill who knew a little about politics and the ocean waves. It is unedifying to see political leaders ignoring this advice and lambasting the media – or as they are now sometimes called, ‘the MSM’ (mainstream media) – but is there something in it? Has the media started to forget that it isn’t the story? Is it getting full of its own importance at the expense of the key folk in all this; the audience?
This general election campaign has marked a new low in politician-media relations with a fair share of blame falling to the fourth estate. It has been notable how much swerving politicians have done of the usual election media stops with, for example, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn skipping the Today Programme and Channel Four News. Both have taken to social media to try to get their message out, unfiltered, and both have avoided altogether the former daily ritual of the morning news conference. Why?
The answer is simple; the media is now fighting for its life in a competitive, battle to the death for share of audience and public attention and is so trying harder and harder to itself make the news. The purpose of an election campaign interview should be to mind the people’s business, asking the questions the public want answering to help them make an informed decision about who will get their vote. But the media now – and I know I am generalising when saying “the media” but hopefully you will get the point I am making and there are some exceptions, which I point out – are trying to create big moments; YouTube and Twitter clips that can be played over and over again to drive ratings and click rates. The result is that interviews now are taking on a different purpose – they are now designed to create news not report it – and politicians have wised up to this and are saying a big ‘no thank you’.
The exceptions – the interviewers that give politicians a hard time (which they should) but do it from a position of knowledge and give space for answers and discussion are Andrew Neil (the country’s best political broadcaster by miles) and Emma Barnett from BBC radio. Both are confident enough in their research and their questions to give politicians the space to answer and at times enough rope to do themselves damage without feeling the need to talk, interrupt and grandstand throughout. The same cannot be said – at all – of Paxman, Marr and others. Now a complete parody of themselves. Sadly, even former greats like Michael Crick are falling into the trap of asking questions at events just to get themselves on the news, not to help the audience understand the policy positions and characters on show. They are now in the entertainment business. Last night’s ITV interview with the Prime Minister was a case in point; asking about the naughtiest thing she did as a child. Come on!
The print media are different. They have a readership to serve and an editorial position to follow – although some of the coverage of this election, especially of Jeremy Corbyn, has been disgraceful. Personal. Nasty. Deliberately misleading. This does not help our democracy flourish.
I do not subscribe to the Trumpian philosophy that the media is increasingly irrelevant and needs to be finished off. I believe that they play a vital role but only when they remember who they are here to serve; the public, not themselves. The politician now views the media – especially on TV – as part of the enemy and that is not healthy. We don’t want them all sailing in the same direction, sharing cocktails as they view the horizon from the top deck of the ship. We want some challenge and some scrutiny – but we don’t want them so afraid of the unfairness they will be subjected to – the constant attempts to make them look silly – that they stay out of the water completely. If they do, we all lose out.
Whenever I went to a rugby or football match with my mate Luke and the ref was getting too involved he would shout; “We’ve come to watch the players, ref”. Jon Snow and co should take note.