Election 2010 Lookahead: Wednesday 21 April

The who, when and where of the campaign.

Labour

Labour candidates Eleanor Tunnicliffe and Brian Tomlinson will take part in a general election hustings chaired by Bamber Gascoigne at Duke St Baptist Church, Richmond (7.30pm). Chancellor Alistair Darling debates with Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne and Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable on BBC2's The Daily Politics (see below).

Conservatives

Former defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind will present Conservative defence policy ahead of the 6 May general election at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies in London (5.30pm). David Cameron will make an appearance on BBC3's Dermot Meets...programme this evening (see below). Shadow chancellor George Osborne debates with Chancellor Alistair Darling and Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable on BBC2's The Daily Politics' (see below). Conservative candidates Zac Goldsmith and Deborah Thomas will take part in a general election hustings chaired by Bamber Gascoigne at Duke St Baptist Church, Richmond (7.30pm).

Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg has an early start as he hosts a press conference with Lib Dem spokesperson for children, schools and families at the Work Foundation in London (7.30am). He later joins Lib Dem candidate for Camborne and Redruth Julia Goldsworthy in primary school Q&A on the campaign trail at Redruth Cricket Club, Trewirgie Hill, Cornwall (2.30pm, before making an appearance on BBC3's Dermot Meets... programme this evening (see below). Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable debates with Chancellor Alistair Darling and shadow chancellor George Osborne on BBC2's The Daily Politics (see below). He may also join Lib Dem candidate Susan Kramer in a general election hustings chaired by Bamber Gascoigne at Duke St Baptist Church, Richmond this evening (7.30pm).

The media

BNP leader Nick Griffin spoke on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. In the afternoon, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will take part in a special election call edition of Radio 4's The World at One programme, where he will respond to comments and questions from listeners (1pm). Chancellor Alistair Darling, Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne and Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable will debate economic policy on BBC2's The Daily Politics' (2.15pm), where they will be put through their paces by Andrew Neil and BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders. David Cameron and Nick Clegg will be interviewed by Dermot O'Leary for BBC3 on the Dermot Meets... programme. The interview with David Cameron will air at 8pm followed by Nick Clegg at 8.30pm. The emphasis will be on questions submitted by first-time voters.

Other parties

Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Alex Salmond will give a speech at the Scottish Trades Union Congress conference in Caird Hall, Dundee today. In Belfast, the Social Democratic and Labour Party from Northern Ireland launches its manifesto at 10am. The nationalist party from Northern Ireland won three Westminster seats in 2005, as they had in 1997 and 2001.

Away from the campaign

A fleet of coaches laid on by the government to bring Britons stranded in Europe by the ash cloud sets out from Madrid today. HMS Albion is expected to arrive in Portsmouth tonight at the earliest, after setting sail from Santander in northern Spain yesterday, to repatriate British troops returned from Afghanistan and around 200 priority British civilians who were stranded on the continent. HMS Ocean and HMS Ark Royal have both been sent to service unspecified ports on the Channel, as thousands of British travellers continue to gather there.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder