Given the current situation of the UK, the recent spate of “state of the nation” books is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is the relative lack of attention paid by many of them to the role played by the government-supporting national press, namely The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Times, in contributing to our present state. And this at a time when the question of press power and influence is high on the agenda, given the controversy over the change of ownership of the Telegraph Group.

Right away I can hear the cries of “no one reads newspapers these days” and “everyone now gets their news from social media”. But this is to ignore three important factors. First, a great deal of online news derives either directly or indirectly from the legacy press, and particularly from those of the above titles which rely heavily on supplying clickbait. Secondly, the remarkably close relationship between these newspapers and the current government. And finally, the former’s dominant role in setting not only the national news agenda but also the tone of what might be called the national conversation. As Brian Cathcart put it in Byline Times:

“For many years, politicians have been unable even to propose policies that could make this a better, kinder, more prosperous place because they fear the response of the press. Rational, evidence-based public discussion is often impossible, as if we were all guests at a dinner party where one person insisted on shouting continuously through a megaphone. The effects can be seen in the state of British policies on climate change, policing, crime, justice, race, immigration, defence, drugs, poverty, unemployment, transport and more.”

This is not to argue that “it’s all got up by the press”, but it is to claim that the role of a significant section of it in shaping our national life has been severely underestimated.

However, two recent entries in the state of the nation stakes, Gavin Esler’s Britain is Better Than This and James O’Brien’s How They Broke Britain (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), do discuss the media. Esler devotes a useful chapter to what he calls truth decay and strategic lying, although he focuses more on the role of politicians in these processes than on the media.

However, when discussing Boris Johnson, he does note that “the real problem is the system which produced, tolerated and promoted him”. In this, he includes the press, stating that: “The overarching issue is the willingness of some of those in leadership positions to lie and the assistance provided to their disinformation by supporters and at times accomplices in newspapers and other media, those who are prepared to transmit or report lies without verification, criticism or active scepticism”.

How They Broke Britain concentrates far more on the role of the media (and specifically the press) in our present state, which O’Brien identifies as the result of the creation of “an ecosystem in which dishonesty could flourish and facts wither”. He devotes three of the book’s 10 chapters to press figures – namely Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and Andrew Neil – whose careers, he argues, exemplify all that is worst about the government-supporting press, namely “the collective abnegation of the most basic journalistic standards”, “the breathtaking extent of the collusion between political power and the media institutions that claim to hold political power to account” and “the willingness not just to mould facts to the agendas shared with governments but to abandon facts altogether in pursuit of them”.

How They Broke Britain thus covers much of the same ground as Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth (reviewed by Rod Liddle in BJR 32:2) in which he complained that under Boris Johnson, much of the national press abandoned its role as the Fourth Estate, merging and becoming interchangeable with government. In particular, he argued, “senior journalists facilitated, disseminated and collaborated with Johnson’s lies” and, in so doing, “became part of the official apparatus of deceit”.

Given Johnson’s behaviour in government, and press complicity with it, it’s all too easy and tempting to lay the blame for the state of affairs anatomised by Oborne and O’Brien (who devotes a chapter to him) at his door. But as Liddle points out, Oborne had levelled much the same charges against the Blair government and its relationship with the press, particularly in The Triumph of the Political Class (2007). For example, he complained that it ended the convention that “government announcements must be made through Parliament. They were issued through the media instead, often through leaks to favoured newspapers”. The government “privatised state information, putting it to use for a narrow partisan advantage” and “reporters and government joined a conspiracy against the public to create a semifictitious political world whose most striking features were media events and fabricated stories”. That all this sounds unpleasantly familiar rather undermines Oborne’s claim in The Assault on Truth that “standards of truth telling … collapsed at the precise moment Boris Johnson and his associates entered 10 Downing Street in the early afternoon of July 24, 2019”.

Sultans of spin in the dawn of the age of the “spad”

However, what it also does is to suggest that there is a history to the factors that both O’Brien and Oborne claim have made much of the press an adjunct to political power, a process whose profound consequences for the daily life of the country are, I would argue, still largely unacknowledged. Understanding the history of this process is crucial, but it is even more important to grasp how its negative consequences for the health of the democratic process have been considerably exacerbated by recent developments within both the newspaper industry and British politics.

Chief among the factors that have compromised the media’s proper role as a Fourth Estate speaking truth to power and acting as the public’s watchdog are attempts by successive governments to control the media agenda, and complicity in this process by sections of the national press (as well as, on occasion, the BBC). This takes us back to the issue of “spin”, as anatomised by Michael Cockerell, Peter Hennessy and David Walker in Sources Close to the

Prime Minister (1984); Robert Harris in his portrait of Sir Bernard Ingham, Good and Faithful Servant (1990); Nicholas Jones’s accounts of media manipulation in the Thatcher and Blair eras in, respectively, Soundbites and Spin Doctors (1995) and Sultans of Spin (1999); and Peter Oborne in The Rise of Political Lying (2005), as well as The Triumph of the Political Class.

The villains of these books are press officers – most notably Ingham and Alastair Campbell – but the exacerbating factor today is the massive growth of the “spad”: the ministerial special adviser. Indeed, Ian Dunt in How Westminster Works … and Why it Doesn’t (2023) argues that “the Johnson government pursued what was essentially a spadification policy over British government” so that spads “now constitute an entirely new layer of power in the British political system” and have effectively supplanted departmental press offices. Spads undertake unattributable background briefings to favoured journalists, block less favoured ones from contact with their ministers, and communicate with journalists mainly by WhatsApp in a process that Alan Rusbridger described to Dunt as “unattributable, unaccountable and deniable. And it’s done on a favour-for-favour basis to the ones they trust”. Unlike the civil servants they supplanted, they are not responsible for explaining government policy via the media, and their first loyalty is to the party in government and to their minister in particular. As Dunt puts it: “Their dominance exacerbated the pre-existing lobby tendency towards personality and court intrigue over the detailed assessment of government proposals.” Such a situation serves only to encourage the trading of journalistic integrity for political access – in other words, client journalism – which greatly undermines the public’s right to information that it can trust.

A second historical factor which has to be considered in the context of press collusion with government to the public detriment is the combination of the dominance of Conservative-supporting national newspapers in the press ecology and of Conservative governments on the political front. This makes for an obvious danger of over-closeness and clientelism, but as

Oborne argues: “There are two ways that a friendly newspaper can behave when its side is in power. It can either act as house journal, repeating the government line in a slavish way. Or it can play the role of candid friend.” Unfortunately, for too much of the time too many Conservative papers have chosen the former role. Indeed, it was a member of Mrs Thatcher’s first cabinet, Sir Ian Gilmour, who stated in Dancing with Dogma (1992) that during that era the press “could scarcely have been more fawning if it had been state controlled” and quoted his fellow Conservative MP Richard Shepherd as calling it the “hallelujah chorus”.

As Conservative papers’ support for the Thatcherites against the “wets” demonstrated, their sympathies were firmly with the right wing of the party. But this aspect of their partisanship has become far more pronounced in the wake of the Referendum and the resultant fracturing and fragmentation of the party, in which the Conservative press has thrown its weight decisively behind the various groupuscules and champions that have emerged on the hard right. This is particularly noticeable in the case of The Daily Telegraph, described by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times as “once a bastion of serious if somewhat crusty journalism” which “now too often descends into shrill populist paranoia and heated anti-immigrant rhetoric”. Similarly, Nick Manning in The Media Leader accused some of its journalists of producing columns that “border on the unhinged” and “describe in apocalyptic terms how the world is being taken over by shadowy global forces that are replacing the traditional bedrock of society”.

However, a further exacerbating factor has also entered the equation, and this is the growth of the think tanks (or, more accurately, lobby groups) centred around Tufton Street, which also support the hard right of the party and whose voluminous output is the subject of endless and uncritical amplification in the right-wing press. Their activities are covered in the chapter in How They Broke Britain on the recently ennobled Matthew Elliott, co-founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and CEO of Vote Leave.

More think tanks than you can shake a stick at

Think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute have a long history, but the important point in this context is their recent growth in numbers, media presence and political influence. Right-wing newspapers (and particularly The Times under William Rees- Mogg) have long served as the key conduit through which the “free market” ideologies propagated by these organisations have made their way into the political and public spheres, but what was once a trickle has now turned into a veritable flood (in which the BBC has also allowed itself to be engulfed). But not content with endlessly plugging their policies in articles in sympathetic papers and on broadcast panels, these think tanks have also established a direct line to government via the ever more rapidly revolving door that leads their members in droves into highly influential advisory and Whitehall positions – and delivers Conservative MPs, including cabinet ministers, on to seats on their various boards. Indeed, Liz Truss’s calamitous “mini budget” would seem actually to have been written in the environs of Tufton Street.

O’Brien is excellent at picking apart the workings of what he calls “the think-tank/media/political hybrid network and its influence on British society”. However, anyone wanting an insight into the sheer extent of the media presence and political influence of, for example, a think tank such as Policy Exchange, need only sign up for its weekly Agenda email, which proudly details the legions of recent media mentions of its work and its success in directly influencing ongoing legislation – on, for example, refugees, human rights, public protest, and freedom of expression in education. These are all matters of profound concern to people’s daily lives, but few are aware of the role played by the think tank in helping to shape such legislation and by partisan newspapers in promoting it, and still less aware that much of the research is highly questionable. The final factor in this consideration of the role that the press plays in people’s lives, irrespective of whether they read newspapers, is, inevitably, Brexit. Given that most right-wing papers became increasingly hostile to the EU from the time of Mrs Thatcher’s Bruges speech in September 1988, it seems quite extraordinary that only one book examined this press campaign in any detail, and then only in its early stages, namely Peter Anderson and Tony Weymouth’s Insulting the Public (1999). (Significantly, The Sun refused to allow the authors to quote directly from its articles). Furthermore, no general books on Britain’s relationship with the EU published before the Referendum dealt with the press in any detail at all, with the exception of Denis MacShane’s Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (2015), a very late entry which devoted a chapter to it and – far from coincidentally – correctly predicted the result. Since the referendum, this subject has received rather more coverage in books, blogs and articles, but, to my knowledge, the only book devoted entirely to the subject is How Press Propaganda Paved the Way to Brexit (2019) by former EU Commission official Francis Rawlinson.

However, Brexit does not only demonstrate the dangers of paying insufficient attention to the role played by the national press in our society. It also plays a crucial part in the subject discussed at the start of this article, namely Oborne’s “assault on truth” and Esler’s “truth decay”. Brexit was sold, greatly aided by the right-wing press, on a large number of untruths: for example, that the £350million per week that the country allegedly sent the EU would be spent on the NHS; Turkey was about to join the EU and its citizens would have the right to live and work in the UK; the denial that Brexit would have any implications for the Northern Ireland border; or the assertion that post-Brexit trade with the EU would be frictionless, and so on. And any attempts to point out the likely negative consequences of Brexit were simply dismissed as Project Fear.

However, with the promises of a new dawn now revealing themselves as simply wishful thinking and the warnings of dire consequences proving only too prescient, the reaction of many of the most ardent Brexiters in the Conservative Party and press has been to engage simply in reality denial – that is, when they’re not looking for “enemies within” on whom to pin the blame for “betraying Brexit”. This is what the most authoritative chronicler of Brexit, Chris Grey, describes on his Brexit Blog as Brexitism, which he characterises as stretching way beyond debates on Brexit itself to embrace a particular way of dealing with political reality as a whole. As he puts it, in Brexitism “the very basic stuff of political debate, some shared commitment to basic facts, evidence, rational argument, and logical consistency is missing. Or, even, that having such a shared commitment matters or is possible”. And a similar point was made by Rafael Behr in The Guardian. He utilised the apt metaphor of a revolutionary movement which, “having defeated facts on the road to power”, then has to “sustain itself on perpetual war against reality and its institutional redoubts in the pre-revolutionary establishment”.

Global conspiracy theories over 15-minute cities

How this contagion has spread far beyond Brexit is neatly illustrated by the hysteria around “15-minute cities” stoked up by climate change denialist think tanks, newspapers and GB News, and indulged by the government. Such cities are based on the idea of people living within easy reach of workplaces, shops and schools, thus reducing the need for short car trips and cutting pollution. The concept stems from the France-based urbanist Carlos Moreno and has gained significant traction in recent years as the socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has started to implement it. Of course, such origins are in themselves more than sufficient to damn the idea in denialist circles in the UK: thus, the Conservative MP for Don Valley, Nick Fletcher, told the Commons that 15-minute cities were an “international socialist concept”.

Hostility to such cities is by no means confined to England, and the idea has spawned a whole host of global conspiracy theories that see it as all part of the “Great Reset” and a weapon of “climate lockdown” by means of which people are forcibly kept within their own neighbourhoods. But what is unusual in the UK is the extent to which this particular assault on truth has been indulged and amplified by mainstream politicians and newspapers. So, for example, Transport Minister Mark Harper told the 2023 Conservative conference that Low Traffic Networks (LTNs) were schemes in which “local councils decide how often you go to the shops” and “ration who uses the roads and when”. And prior to this, in March, in one of the biggest shifts in transport policy for decades, he announced that the government would slash the budget for cycling and walking in England by more than 50 per cent. That this was a direct response to unfounded claims in the press and elsewhere about 15-minute cities has been confirmed by official documents seen by The Guardian.

Furthermore, when a tranche of active travel schemes was unveiled by local authorities, anonymous government sources briefed certain newspapers that Harper had committed to refusing to fund any LTNs and other active travel schemes that make walking and cycling safer. Inevitably, The Daily Telegraph was one such paper, and it welcomed this pledge to end “the war on motorists”. This, incidentally, was the paper that, according to climate change website DeSmog, published 171 opinion pieces during a six-month period in 2023 that dealt with environmental issues. Of those, 85 per cent were identified as “anti-green”: attacking climate policy, questioning climate science and ridiculing environmental groups. It has since been revealed by The Guardian that the lack of new LTNs had nothing to do with Harper and was the result of none of the schemes bidding for Department of Transport funding being deemed sufficiently ambitious.

That much of the national press in England is a hotbed of climate denialism is amply confirmed by the edited collection Toxic News: Covering Climate Change (2023), a chapter of which was published in the previous issue of BJR (and to which I also contributed). But the key point here is the one made right at the start of this article, namely that national newspapers play a key role in generating, legitimising and promoting government policies that affect the entirety of society and all of its citizens. To put it simply: if you live in a rat run, are frightened to cross the road and are choking on traffic fumes, it doesn’t matter two hoots that you don’t read The Daily Telegraph.