Kay Burley's insensitivity over April Jones wasn't just her fault

The Sky News presenter’s style lacks compassion, but the feeding frenzy 24-hour news produces is also to blame.

A team of searchers prodded a bag of sand with a stick, peered down into a riverbank and lifted up paving slabs. They were hunting for a missing girl, five-year-old April Jones, and they were doing it live on television.

Was this some kind of elaborate stunt to draw attention to the search, and to the identity of the suspect? If it was, the searchers were going about their business thoroughly. No, this was what it seemed to be: a live TV report of people looking for a missing girl, who might at any second discover her.

I sat watching, open-mouthed, wanting to turn over, but transfixed by what I was seeing. Perhaps I am as guilty as anyone, because I didn't turn over in disgust. All I could think was: don't find anything, don't find anything. Imagine if they had. 

It’s tempting to look at the work of Kay Burley, whose interviews have marked her out for criticism in recent hours, and single her out as what has made Sky News’s coverage so unsettling. But even though her presentation has at times lacked the smallest sliver of compassion or humanity, she is no more than the most obvious symptom of a wider sickness. (Besides, there’s a little more than a suspicion of misogyny about some of the abuse hurled in Burley’s direction.)

There’s something else going on behind all this, something which we saw in the aftermath of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, the search for the killer of Joanna Yeates and the hunt for Raoul Moat: there’s a feeding frenzy, and the news-as-sport hysteria in which the human tragedy and heartbreak at the core of the story is forgotten in the search for new and exciting pictures.

There are times when the feeding frenzy can do good, and the public has been mobilised as never before with the search for April Jones, given that it was the first occasion on which the nationwide child rescue alert was triggered. But there should be a point where the makers of news should begin to realise where the good they do becomes a cruel, cold, vulturous activity, which is less about raising awareness and more about raising ratings.

It’s by no means unique to this country. Last week, a man shot himself to death live on Fox, a kind of grisly horror which has become normalised in the age of rolling news, where real car chases are entertainment to be pored over and inserted with commercials. The network apologised for subjecting its viewers to the distressing sequence, but by then the damage had been done. If you point a camera at a person in an extreme situation who has a gun, there is a chance that something like that will happen. The question is: what is your overarching public interest in pointing the camera and showing the footage live in the first place?

Someone has to have the courage to stand up and say: put the cameras away, we have seen enough. Someone has to make that call not to show live footage of someone poking around in some bushes for what could be a human body. And to say that even though we can do this, there are some things we shouldn’t do, out of basic respect for other people, because that sort of thing should matter.

It does matter. Doesn’t it?

Kay Burley live on Sky News during the search for April Jones
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
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Labour can be populist and English without copying Donald Trump

There's nothing deplorable about discussing the common interests of the people.

As Labour’s new populism gears up for Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, it will be tested on voters who are, by a significant measure, more likely to see themselves as English. In the 2011 census, both constituencies scored "English" identity nearly 10 per cent higher than the English average and still 5 per cent higher than England outside of London.

It’s no surprise that both Ukip and the Tories have polled well in these places. In the 2015 general election there was strong correlation between feeling "English", or feeling "more English than British", and voting Ukip and Conservative. Indeed, amongst the "English not British" Ukip took about a third of the votes across England, and the Tories a fifth. Labour lagged below 15 per cent.

Labour’s problems may be getting worse. A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, showed "Englishness" gaining at the expense of "Britishness" in the year of Brexit. At the extremes, "English not British" rose by 5 per cent (from 14 per cent to 19 per cent), with ‘British not English’ falling by a similar amount. If past relationships hold, these voters will become harder for Labour to reach.

Although most people in England would favour an English Parliament, or English MPs alone voting on English issues, these have not yet become the political demands of an explicit nationalism as we might find in Wales, Scotland or Catalonia. Indeed, there’s no actual evidence of a direct link between feeling English and the way people vote. It well be that the underlying factors that make someone feel English are also those that incline them, overwhelmingly, to vote Brexit or to support Ukip.

We may identify the drivers of English identity - the declining power of the idea of Britain, the assertiveness of devolution, rapid migration and the EU - but we know little about the idea of England than lies behind these polls. There’s almost certainly more than one: the England of Stoke Central imaginations may not be identical to the Twickenham RFU car park on international day.

One of the most persistent and perceptive observers of alienated working class voters sheds some light on why these voters are turning towards their English roots. According to The Guardian’s John Harris:

"When a lot of people said ‘I’m English’, they often meant something like, ‘I’m not middle class, and I don’t want to be…. I’m also white, and coupled with the fact that I’m working class, I feel that somehow that puts me at the bottom of the heap, not least in the context of immigration. But I am who I am, and I’m not apologising for it.'" People who said "I’m English" seemed to be saying, 'I’m from somewhere' in a ways that politicians and the media did not."

Given Labour’s history in seats where support is ebbing away, it’s reasonable to think that the party’s target must be the voters who Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus describes as "left-wing nationalists". In this definition, "left-wing" attitudes tend to be be anti-capitalist, hostile to business, generous on benefits, support the welfare state and redistributive taxation. "Nationalist" attitudes are seen as isolationist, against immigration, disliking EU freedom of movement, thinking British means "born here" and that Britons should be put first.

For many in Labour, those nationalist attitudes might bring "a basket of deplorables" to mind.  In recent days both the Corbyn left, and centrist MPs like Alison McGovern and Wes Streeting, have warned against meeting these voters’ concerns. Progressive Labour populists must also calm those fears. But Labour will be doomed as a party of government it it can’t reach these voters (even if it does hang on in the forthcoming by-elections). The obstacles are formidable, but with the right language and framing, Labour may find an appeal that could cut through without alienating the party's more liberal support.

Just acknowledging that England, and the English, exist would be a start. The reaction to Birmingham mayoral candidate Sion Simon’s appeal to England in a campaign tweet simply emphasised how much of Labour prefers to say Britain, even when they mean England. We don’t need a swirl of St George crosses at every event; we just need to use the word in normal everyday conversation. At least we would sound like we live in the same country.

The defiant cry to be recognised and heard should trigger another Labour instinct. The demand that the nation should be run in the common interests of the people runs deep through radical history. Jeremy Corbyn reached for this with his talk of "elites rigging the system". But no ordinary English conversation ever talks about elites. Instead of "mini-me Trumpism", English Labour populism needs careful framing in the language of day-to-day talk. Labour's target should be not be the wealthy per se, but those powerful people whose behaviour undermines the national interest and by doing so undermines the rest of us.

This language of national interest, both conservatively patriotic and politically radical, meets the mood of the moment. The select committee challenges to Amazon, Google, Philip Green and Mike Ashley struck a chord precisely because they revealed something deeply true and unpleasant about this land. We can defend the national interest without invoking a racist response. Why are our railways sold to other governments, and our companies sold abroad for quick profit? Why should it be easier for a foreign gangster to buy a house in Surrey, and hide their ownership overseas, than for an English family to get their own home?

By asking what any change means to the people of England, we might bridge the divide on immigration. If the impact of migration is exacerbated by the pressure on housing and service, let Labour make it clear that the rate of immigration should not exceed the pace we can build homes for those already here, as well as any newcomers. The government must be able to expand services to meet additional needs. If every policy should work in the interests of the people of England, migration which improves our services, creates jobs and grows the economy is to be welcomed. It is hard to see a genuine liberal objection to posing the migration challenge in that way. With the exception of refugees, immigration policy cannot be designed to benefit the migrant more than the resident.

Let the test of every policy be whether it works in the interests of the people of England, or works only for a few. That’s a simple test that would appeal to widely shared values. It could be the foundation of a genuine Labour populism that speaks to England.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University