Journos have never loved their rivals -- but the lines are getting more entrenched

Maybe tribalism is to be expected as the endgame approaches, newspapers die off and the new landscap

Media tribalism has always existed, but now it's more obvious than ever. The BBC's director general suspects there's a whiff of anti-BBC tribalism about the whooping and finger-pointing over the non-existent Frozen Planet non-fakery silliness that spread right throughout the media from the tabloids to the proper newspapers.

As I wrote the other day, the BBC were accused by the Telegraph (among others, kicked off by the Mirror) of misleading viewers about a scene involving polar bear cubs. The BBC responded as robustly as you might expect to what was at best kite-flying on a slow news day, and at worst nasty barrel-scraping.

Is Mark Thompson right? Is there more than a suspicion of anti-Beeb targeting in the stirring up of the Frozen Planet row? I don't think journos have ever really loved their rivals, but the lines are getting more and more entrenched, as more and more journos head down the stairs for the last time with a bin-bag of stuff and a tear in their eye.

Add to that the roaring and finger-pointing at Saint Nick Davies by the likes of Kelvin "The Truth" Mackenzie (I write his name so often I've become tired of it, and will henceforth only refer to him in these columns as "The Truth") and a picture begins to emerge, perhaps. You get the sense that it's tapping into the kind of 'us against them' tribalism that's always been lingering under the surface. "It's all very well telling us how to be journos, Davies," snarl the unlucky ones who ended up ctrl+C and ctrl+V-ing press releases for a living, or writing witless celebrity bullshit about Z-list no-marks on reality TV shows. "But now you've fucked up, and you're not so good yourself."

It might not be the case, as it had been suspected sometime ago, that the News of the World or people in its employ deleted voicemails on Milly Dowler's mobile phone, giving the family false hope, but the phone was still hacked. Davies's error wasn't a vendetta or agenda-driven piece of fact-twisting to suit his narrative, either; it was just an honest error based on the facts as they were known at the time, acknowledged as such and immediately corrected. You know, like some of the other newspapers are supposed to do, but don't, unless the PCC gives them a slap on the thigh with a lump of wet celery, or unless the complainant is rich enough to take the legal option.

You can kick it around and pretend that if only the public knew that the Screws didn't delete voicemails, the outrage wouldn't have been so great, but that's just not the case. A dead girl's phone was hacked. 7/7 victims had phones hacked. That's the top and bottom of why people were revolted: because they had every damn right to be. And still do.

I think the problem is that the silver-topped journos you see getting so worked up about this sort of thing (take a bow, Jules Stenson) managed to live most of their lives without a great deal of scrutiny from the public, or their fellow professionals. Now they're centre stage, and they're woefully unprepared for the experience, trying to fight their way out by shouting and pointing at Nick Davies, saying "Please sir, the swotty kid did something wrong, as well! Punish him too!"

Maybe this kind of tribalism is only to be expected as the endgame approaches, newspapers die off and the new landscape gets drawn. For now, these media tribes are like Titanic passengers fighting each other to the death for a space on a bit of wood. They're going to succumb to the freezing waters themselves, eventually, but they want just that little bit longer before they do.

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.