Tim Robbins: That battered old courtesan of a press

The Oscar-nominated actor bemoans journalism’s current state in this week's <em>New Statesman</em>.

In a guest commentary in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands now, the actor and activist Tim Robbins deplores the state of modern journalism - and appreciates that, as an actor, he really shouldn't.

"Full disclosure: I am an actor and I have no right to express my opinion in any forum other than a make-up chair," writes Robbins. "I have, in the past, it is true, foolishly raised questions about my country's rush to war and I have since been humbled by the wisdom and vision of the neoconservatives, who have realised such vibrant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Journalism is not beyond hope, Robbins argues. "We have seen recently how journalists' commitment to their profession can make the difference in a society that teeters between dictatorship and democracy," he writes. "Telling the truth in a volatile time can empower the powerless and facilitate a fundamental shift in consciousness.

"I want to believe that every journalist working these days holds these truths to be self-evident but I'm not sure. Rare was the brave descendant of Woodward and Bernstein who challenged the pro-war narrative spun by the powerful after the 11 September 2001 attacks."

There is, however, a lack of accountability among those who work today in journalism. "Considering that no one in the upper echelons of the press lost their job for getting the facts so monumentally wrong in the lead-up to wars that resulted in such a cost in lives and a depletion of the American treasury, we shouldn't be surprised at the poor quality of reporting on the rise of the 'Tea Party', or the outbreak of revolutions in the Middle East, or the Julian Assange affair."

Robbins says that the press, which has "been sharing her bed with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney et al, who got knocked up with and gave birth to their bastard war, now stands in judgement of legitimate democratic movements and demonises one of the last truth-tellers as a rapist, without waiting for the due process of a trial.

"Then, as is wont to happen in a society that worships distraction when thoughts of revolution abroad and press freedom at home start to disturb our sense of equilibrium, along comes an actor in meltdown and we are blissfully brought into the pornography again.

"Our airwaves have been liberated by Charlie Sheen – say hallelujah! We blissfully stare at the car wreck of the unstable celebrity and are absolved of our responsibility to think about the world or our involvement with it."

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.