How galling it is to make an important and principled stand, only to see it cruelly misinterpreted. When Downing Street announced it would give broadcasters its own video of the prime minister’s Brexit day address to the nation, the BBC and ITV reacted in the way high-minded journalists are meant to: this was not an objective recording; Boris Johnson was likely to have been rehearsed; the address was possibly the best of several ‘takes’. It could not – would not – be shown.
How quickly the BBC learned the truth of that sorry aphorism ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. It believed its decision upheld journalistic values: detractors believed it abused them. The Daily Telegraph letters page reflected the mood: ‘Why am I legally obliged to pay the BBC licence fee when it censors the news?’ ‘As a retired BBC journalist, I am ashamed that my former employer emphasised its opposition to Brexit by not broadcasting the Prime Minister’s statement.’ ‘Our Prime Minister addressed the nation to mark this momentous event and yet the national broadcaster refused to carry it.’
If the Corporation had expected viewers to join its boycott, it miscalculated. Some 2.8million watched Boris Johnson’s speech on Facebook, 1.6million on Twitter and 330,000 on YouTube. Tens of thousands of others looked at the video on newspaper websites. And the BBC wonders how to stop its audience deserting to social media.
Was its stand wrong? It did not have the effect intended, but a point needed to be made. Even our right-wing newspapers, swift to take pleasure in the discomfort of the Corporation, are beginning to challenge this government’s attitude to media. Their ecstatic, sycophantic reaction to the election of Boris Johnson is beginning to change, as they realise that he and his advisers prefer to confine the role of cheerleader to cheering. In an unusual display of unity, all the papers walked away from a lobby briefing when No 10 attempted to exclude some of them from it.
The prime minister asserts his loyalty to his former trade. Old hands point out that there have always been squalls in relations between government and journalists. They blow over. But those wiseacres are from a world where media were gatekeepers to a wider audience. The politicians needed them. Today there are other channels to a voting public. The brains behind this government have observed the success of Donald Trump and are eager to take a page from his playbook. If you can rubbish media while things are going well, it’s easier to dismiss their criticism when things take a turn for the worse.
The media are right to think the government is out to get them, wrong to think it will be stopped by arguments about free press, objectivity and any need for power to listen to truth. Who can assert that the prime minister is hiding when he pops up on Facebook and Twitter every other day? Why be interviewed by big-name broadcasters with gladiatorial ambitions? Let the BBC moan about ministers refusing to appear on the Today programme; it seems very happy to have them on BBC Breakfast, where it treats them with respect.
There is, in short, no law that politicians will do media. There’s a House of Commons to answer to and – every five years – an election. Journalists invest their work with a quasi-sacred quality – all that holding to account stuff – but the reality is that the relationship with media is purely transactional. No adviser puts any client in front of media as an act of charity. The process starts with questions: What’s in it for us? Where’s the benefit? How bad will we look if we don’t appear?
Happily, the answers to these questions will change. This cynical equation will ultimately resolve the impasse it has created. A revved-up government, made confident by an unexpected majority, has set off in campaigning mode. It calculates it has no need to address the seven million who listen to the BBC’s Today programme each week, gains no advantage in talking to a newspaper that is not on message. For now, the risk is greater than any reward.
But what when a credible opposition gets its act together, unforeseen events colour the national narrative, and cock-ups become clear? Things are already looking up: all journalists should be heartened by the Daily Mail’s investigation into the prime minister’s Caribbean holiday arrangements. Who actually paid? Dilyn the dog on Twitter is lovely, but he can’t deflect real questions forever.