I read Nicola Sturgeon’s Tweet yesterday in which she wonders, with evident scepticism, whether the British media might subject Boris Johnson’s position on a new independence referendum to “serious scrutiny”, and into my head popped that Lerner and Loewe song from the musical My Fair Lady in which the heroine of the piece reflects wistfully on the simple things that would make her life perfect. In my head, and totally without the aid of Spotify or any other music streaming service, I could hear Julie Andrews singing “Wouldn’t it be loverly!” in an accent betokening origins well outside artillery range of Bow Bells.
If memory serves, Eliza Doolittle eventually realised her heart’s desire for a comfy chair, a coal fire and a secure supply of confectionery. I fear Nicola Sturgeon may be asking for far too much if she hopes the British media might ask awkward questions of British politicians. Particularly in the matter of the Union and Scotland’s status within the UK, the British media defer totally to the British establishment. There is more chance of a porcine fly-past to mark Donald Trump’s Nobel Peace Prize than of the British media subjecting Boris Johnson’s stand against a new independence referendum to any serious examination. It’s just not what they do.
Why don’t they do it? Why don’t they interrogate Boris Johnson about the democratic legitimacy of denying Scotland’s right of self determination? After all, it would make great theatre, wouldn’t it? Putting the British Prime Minister on the spot would surely get the kind of unrehearsed reaction that tends to go viral on social media. So, why does this so rarely happen?
The simple explanation – and, therefore, the explanation likely to be the least satisfying – is ‘bias’. That the British media is, generally, pro-Union is doubtless the case. But this is both unsurprising and inadequate to explain why media professionals don’t do what they might be expected to do. It doesn’t explain why journalists so consistently fail to follow journalistic instincts. It doesn’t explain why they so rarely ask the obvious questions. It doesn’t explain why they almost never succumb to the urge to create a spectacle. Is that not the business they’re in?
I’m sure many (most?) journalists would insist that they are not in the business of creating spectacle. I am confident they’d insist that their profession is the noble one of informing the public; discovering and disseminating the facts; speaking truth unto power, or whatever. But that only leaves us wondering why so little of this noble professionalism (or professional nobility?) manifests itself when these champions of the public’s right to know confront British politicians who take highly dubious positions with regard to Scotland’s right of self-determination.
We know what the role of political journalism is supposed to be. Ideally, it contributes to the electorate’s capacity to make informed choices. By providing accurate information and insightful analysis, political journalists help to ensure that political power is, as far as possible, exercised only with the informed consent of the people.
Aye, right! I hear you scoff. And with considerable justification. With exceptions notable for their rarity as much as for their integrity, political journalists are now regarded, less as a resource which interprets political messages for the purpose of improving public understanding, and more as a conduit by which the powerful insinuate their messages into the public consciousness.
There is no one simple explanation as to why interviewers don’t challenge the likes of Boris Johnson when they talk about ‘not allowing’ the people of Scotland to have a referendum. Or when they spout patent nonsense such as the stuff about a ‘once in a generation’ event. High on that list of explanations is the likelihood that it just doesn’t occur to the interviewer, or their bosses, to question any of this. It’s not so much that they are purposefully letting Johnson off the hook, as the fact that they are not even aware that there is a hook.
There is a famous incident in which TV political pundit Andrew Marr says to Noam Chomsky, “Do you think I’m censoring myself now?” and Chomsky retorts, “No, you don’t need to. Otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair.”
The journalists who get to a position where they have access to senior politicians only get to that position after a career spent immersed in exactly the same culture as those senior politicians. These journalists may not be ideologically aligned with the politicians they interview, but they think alike in ways that run far deeper than political philosophies which are, in any case, only superficially different. Whether they are on the left or on the right they are on a spectrum entirely confined within a shared space of Britishness. A space defined by common perspectives and attitudes which transcend mere political roles. And mere roles within the same British establishment.
The cosy consensus of Westminster-centric British political journalism sits comfortably with the cosy consensus of Westminster-centric British politics. Comfortably enough that it simply doesn’t occur to British political journalists to question an established order in which Westminster is superior in all regards and at all times.
In major news gathering and disseminating organisations such as the BBC, there are people whose role it is to ensure that the awkward questions do get asked. Managers whose task it is to prevent the people at the sharp end falling into bad habits. In any large organisation, the most important thing senior managers have to do is prevent the organisation coming to serve itself rather than the purpose for which it was created. But news and current affairs media in the UK are dominated by organisations where the management has failed in this regard. These organisations’ relationship with news has altered dramatically.
It used to be that news was ‘out there’ waiting to be found. Or, at the very least, waiting to fetched. The role of the news organisation was to go out and get the news. Collect it, if it was just there to be collected. Uncover it, if it was being concealed. Hunt it down, if it was elusive. The job involved bringing news into the organisation so that it could be processed – mediated – for presentation to the public in a comprehensible form.
Now, to a disturbing extent, these organisation have changed from being the mediators of news to being assembly plants for propaganda. News is no longer harvested from the world by highly skilled people. Parcels of pre-processed news are delivered to the news organisation for assembly, packaging and onward transmission to the masses in as unmediated a form as possible. Print and broadcast news and current affairs is no longer created from ingredients like a fine meal, it is bolted together from pre-formed components. The highly skilled people no longer work for the news organisations. They work for the organisations which supply the pre-formed components.
Attributing the grotesquely distorted news and current affairs coverage we get in Scotland to ‘bias’ doesn’t describe the situation at all. In relation to individual journalists, the term ‘bias’ implies a tendency to favour one perspective over another. It can hardly be described as bias if the people involved aren’t even meaningfully aware that there is more than one perspective. Even if they are aware of other perspectives – or the possibility of other perspectives – the journalist can only work with the material they are given. And they are at the public-facing end of a production line which only outputs the news which can be put together using the components supplied.
Asking a journalist to scrutinise Boris Johnson’s position on a new independence referendum may go beyond mere wishful thinking. It may be an impossible dream. Which reminds of of another song.
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