The two faces of journalism

A deeply unsatisfying and unquestioning exhibition at Somerset House.

Source: Getty Images

Call me an idealist, but I have long harboured the belief that the role of journalism is to ask probing questions and to uncover the truth no matter the cost. To expose hypocrisy and deceit wherever it is found. What happens, then, when this hypocrisy and deceit bleeds through from the subject into the profession itself?

2011 saw mass protests, change and social upheaval across the world on an unprecedented scale. From the uprisings in the Arab world to the Occupy movement on Wall Street and the August riots on Britain's high streets, journalists and journalism have been at the heart of this change. Recording, documenting and analysing.

Or have they?

Deep in the bowels of Somerset House, a new exhibition professes to offer the public an insider's peek into the world of frontline journalism. Using an abundance of stills and flickering, ghostly footage taken from Sky News broadcasts, the exhibition charts the coverage of breaking news events in the UK and Middle East. This overload of graphic images and self-congratulatory interviews creates a neat, self-packaged and digestible version of frontline journalism that encourages none of the probing, questioning and analysing for which such journalism is renowned.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that an exhibition sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's Sky News presents such a self-consciously rosy picture of news coverage around the world (after all, Sky was arguably the only true winner in the Libyan conflict). But what strikes me most is the hypocrisy and double-standards evident in both the way the exhibition is presented, and the unquestioning approach it takes to the role of journalists on the frontline of breaking news stories.

The exhibition is divided into two sections: one side of the room documents the so-called "Arab Spring", where the perpetrators are referred to as "revolutionaries" and "rebels"; while the other side is dedicated to the London riots, whose participants are branded as "hooligans", "criminals" and "vandals".

Now, I do not question that what happened here in Britain is fundamentally different from the mostly democratic uprisings that have been taking place across the Arab world, but the lack of any comparative analysis or questioning of such superficially similar events is frankly worrying. The tacit assumption that what is happening Libya, Egypt and Syria is necessarily a Good Thing -- with no mention of the instability and chaos that has gripped these countries in the past year; or indeed the complicity of western powers in propping up those very dictators of whom we are now lauding the demise -- is telling of the preconceptions we westerners often have when commenting on events in the Middle East. Perversely, there is simultaneously no mention of the social and political conditions that may (or may not) have played a part in fuelling the resentment of Britain's rioters.

I'm not saying that the toppling of Mubarak and Ben Ali are not to be celebrated, or indeed that I condone in any way the actions of those who smashed their way through our high streets over the summer. What concerns me is that an exhibition whose self-professed aim is to offer "a unique insight into the editorial, political and human aspects of news reporting" fails to ask some of the most basic questions that all journalists reporting on breaking news stories should be asking: What is a protest, how does it start, why does it continue and who is involved?

Because it is only by asking questions that we can uncover the truth.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a journalist and writer specialising in the Middle East and currently living and working in London.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.