It is rarely convincing when British newspaper editors set aside commercial rivalries to make common cause, particularly when they call in support some moral principle. We should always ask who benefits. Are they campaigning for truth and openness, or simply to protect their income? Happily, in their most recent complaint, we can absolve them of ulterior motives: why, they asked, are journalists having such trouble extracting information from official files, using freedom of information legislation?
A government figure responded with the emollient terminology of professional communicators – all “balancing needs” and “committing to transparency agendas” – and no one was fooled. But now our newspapers have laid down a marker on accountability, could they press a little harder?
Pressure is needed because this government regards media at best with wry amusement, at worst with contempt. The attitude comes from a prime minister who has discovered that lies go unchecked if the speaker can avoid discussion of them. A year ago, when he was new to the post, Boris Johnson’s refusal to treat with the BBC was seen to be the fault of his adviser Dominic Cummings, as if the prime minister were a prisoner. Now he has gained his freedom, he continues to deal on his terms, preferring to dispatch pictures of Dilyn the dog. Only Covid has forced him to the lectern.
Our media have been remarkably happy to give him dispensation, perhaps because they are craven to those in power, possibly because the cards he has played – particularly Brexit – are their favourites. There was a week, with Covid rampant and the Brexit deal hitting the rocks, when papers threatened a little criticism. Once Brexit was done and the vaccinations started, he has been accorded the status of greatness. Journalistic competition should ensure that papers fight to hold the prime minister to account, but an interview with him becomes less of a prize if only journalists wearing kid gloves have a chance of winning it.
So we are presented with the warm, dishevelled, funny guy who tells it straight, despite mounting evidence to the contrary – character traits that continue to be praised in focus group discussions. The stage name Boris – he remains Al to his family – has worked magically as an instant, friendly identifier. A back story of domestic betrayal that would destroy any other politician has done him no harm.
He has, it should be said, a certain aura. Those who have worked with him – and are able to overcome their professional envy at his success – attest to his ability to light up a room by walking into it. But they make a mistake in believing that, having made an impressive income as a newspaper columnist, he has any interest in the principles of journalism or clings to concepts such as truth.
His dismissal from The Times for fabricating quotations led only to greater success at The Daily Telegraph. His reporting from Brussels was full of holes, but made him famous because his editors believed it revealed a true story.
When a nodding acquaintance with facts and a quick way with words have conquered the newspaper world, it is natural to play fast and loose with your former colleagues. If the man at the top can do that, so will those below. They may be encouraged by a group of metropolitan journalists who are so used to the untruths and obfuscations that they no longer call them out.
We encourage more to respond like the editor of the Yorkshire Post, who was so outraged to find local MPs attempting to knock down a meticulously researched, true story that he made a fuss and exposed their behaviour.
It’s a hard road to travel, for if readers accept the prime minister for what he is – this government gains great confidence from its polling – why offer an alternative view? Only that all of us who have ever been part of the deeply flawed, ramshackle world of the press remember that there was a principle, an aspiration to find things out, to reveal. Newspapers are in no position to demand reverence from the prime minister and his government, but they might try harder to introduce him to truth.