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31 May 2022

Criticising the government isn’t journalistic bias – it goes with the job

Boris Johnson and his party have weaponised their own definition of impartiality, to the detriment of democracy.

By Annette Dittert

While I may have my reservations about the monarchy as an institution, I am nonetheless looking forward to reporting on it this week. The Platinum Jubilee will be one of the few remaining opportunities to show my German viewers the Great Britain that they have for decades admired, even adored – a Great Britain embodied by a woman who, for 70 years, has been getting on with the job, remaining polite, modest and respectful of the rules at all times, as if everything was good and well. Which increasingly it isn’t.

Instead, with every passing day, the Boris Johnson government, operating within a moral vacuum, chips away further at Britain’s democratic foundations while much of the media, rather than calling foul, goes along with the game and thus normalises – consciously or not – the gradual erosion of fundamental ethical and constitutional norms in the UK – an erosion that may well end in their outright destruction.

When I recently said as much on Twitter, all hell broke loose. Those shouting the loudest were British journalists, such as Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times, who accused me of being biased. He went on to prove my point by declaring: “I don’t know a single British journalist who would tweet something like this.” This unintentionally hilarious reply was, by the way, actually one of the more courteously phrased. Many others in his retinue went straight below the belt, exhorting me “as a German to stick to criticising Germany and its disastrous Ukraine policy”, or simply howling that my tweet was “shameful” and “showed a lack of respect”, and so on.

A couple of things struck me. Firstly, most of those telling me to turn my ire on Germany seemed not to have read any of my previous tweets. If they had, they would have seen that I do indeed criticise my own country and government – rather a lot, actually. Commenting on one country does not prevent me from commenting on another; the two are not mutually exclusive. Secondly – and far more absurdly – many of those who joined in seemed to have fundamentally misunderstood my role as a foreign correspondent: it is literally my job to report on Britain.

Also, there’s the accusation of bias. When Shipman says that his reporting is wholly impartial because he only goes on information he gets from government sources and is not subject to any pressure from his editor to weight his copy, I understand that is how he works. In fact, he’s a fine reporter and I like reading his articles a lot. What he does not take into consideration, however, is how easily this kind of reporting can get unconsciously biased – even when there is no censorship or political interference.

What is more, I thought it was telling that Shipman seems to consider expressing criticism as wholly incompatible with unbiased journalism. This false dichotomy between supposedly objective reporting and analysis is intellectually problematic at best: conflating analysis and bias is, in fact, dangerous – especially in times like these, where, to get anywhere near the truth, journalists in Britain have to hack their way through the thicket of lies and obfuscations emanating from the government itself.

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In such times, simply reporting from sources and going on “access” has natural limitations. At a Johnson press conference after the Sue Gray report was published, Jessica Elgot from the Guardian asked an interesting question: did the press office know about parties at the time they were still telling journalists there hadn’t been any? Well, last week, the Gray report into unauthorised gatherings on government premises while lockdown restrictions were in force, confirmed there were parties in the press office. In days gone by, lying to the media was a resigning offence. Not anymore.

There was yet another accusation levelled at me by my counterparts in the British media that, in terms of the debate here, is perhaps the most problematic: by criticising the government as a correspondent for a public-service broadcaster (ARD in Germany), I had somehow failed to maintain the necessary “impartiality”. What this comes down to is the idea that publicly funded outlets should not be able to directly criticise the government – when, of course, the complete opposite is the case. Public-service broadcasters instead must always act as a corrective, should always hold governments accountable – and must never end up becoming their megaphone. That is the whole point of publicly owned broadcasters in a liberal democracy. That is their role and that’s where their legitimacy comes from in the overall balance of powers.

I remember well a lecture delivered by my current director general in Hamburg in which he was very clear that we, as publicly funded journalists, had an obligation and a duty to liberal democracy to report on any attempts to undermine it, without fear or favour. Ironically, this professional ethos is something we have the British to thank for: following the Second World War, it was they who structured public-service broadcasting in Germany as a decentralised, federal entity in order to block any attempts to seize and control it at a national level. (Back at home in Blighty, of course, no one thought this kind of fail-safe would ever become necessary.)

The result is that, in Germany today, no one has a problem with the idea that journalists who work for the country’s public-service broadcasters can report impartially on the facts of a matter, but also produce analysis in which they comment on and, yes, potentially even criticise the current government. The important thing, of course, is that reporting and analysis are clearly separated. The ability to offer analysis is essential here, especially when there are anti-democratic tendencies in the upper echelons of power that are difficult to illustrate by simply reporting the facts.

The UK public-service broadcasting model – ie, a BBC that is directly dependent financially on the central government – has worked well enough for as long as prime ministers kept their attacks on the Beeb limited, cautious about upsetting the delicate balance of power between them and Britain’s national broadcaster. What happens now, though, when the Prime Minister is a chronic liar who represents a clear and present danger to the democratic institutions of the country?

[See also: No safe harbour for democracy as storms batter the UK’s house of lies]

Certainly, a public-service broadcaster looking to describe the erosion of democratic structures cannot remain impartial – or at least not “impartial” in the way the government would like to define the term. In the hands of politicians, “impartiality” can quickly become a weapon – and this has already happened in the UK, such as when, to take just one example already two years past, the Tory press went into overdrive about comments by the BBC presenter Emily Maitlis on the eyesight of Dominic Cummings, who was at the time Johnson’s senior aide. This kind of constant pressure on the BBC has already had a noticeable and chilling effect, such that the country needs to ditch the mantra of “impartiality” and have an honest discussion about how the BBC as an institution can be made genuinely independent. How, after all, can the broadcaster’s journalists be expected to do their job properly when, above their heads, the sword of Damocles is being dangled by exactly the people they are supposed to be holding to account? It’s an impossible task.

That some British journalists, returning to the responses to my tweet, have long since adopted this way of thinking about “impartiality” shows to what extent they have accepted the government’s weaponisation of the term. Whether knowingly or inadvertently, they are helping to normalise the destruction of a very vulnerable constitutional system.

What speaks volumes is that none of those who criticised me took up the actual point of my argument; namely, that the UK is in danger of normalising a situation that, in a democracy, is really quite abnormal. The whole drama around Sue Gray’s investigation is a fitting example: by reporting on every twist and turn of this farce as part of an ongoing news story, the media are walking into a trap and turning its screeching absurdity into background noise. What gets lost in the cacophony is that, firstly, the Gray report was not even an independent enquiry and that, secondly, it was never even remotely necessary because the facts of the matter are plain for all to see: Boris Johnson lied to parliament when he said that there had been no social gatherings at Downing Street.

A mendacious prime minister, of course, is an existential threat not only to its country, but also to its journalism. Just ask the US media what happened under Donald Trump. So how can journalism fulfil its function in upholding democratic structures? In Masha Gessen’s gripping analysis, Surviving Autocracy, it is not just straightforward reporting that is an insufficient instrument for the severity of the situation, but also fact-checking. For while the lying is repeated, fact-checking is administered only once – it is the lie that dominates the public sphere. “Worse,” writes Gessen, “the fact-checking articles themselves, appearing soon after the lie is uttered, serve as a gateway for the lie’s entrance into public consciousness.”

Yet if continuous fact-checking is not a suitable response, what is? In the end, CNN decided to simply start describing Trump’s lies as such during live reporting. Recently, the political commentator Nick Cohen proposed doing something similar in the UK: “Journalists should put health warnings around every statement from Downing Street press office to alert readers and viewers that it lies as a matter of course.”

Gessen goes a step further, taking the example of two podcasts from the Trump era that both avoided using the familiar vocabulary of government and policy to cover his presidency, opting instead to cover it more like an anthropological inquiry: “Both shows make ample use of Trump’s tweets and lies, but they treat them as symptoms rather than news in themselves.” The effect was to avoid normalising Trump’s behaviour.

Now, of course, this kind of approach is easier to apply in a podcast than in traditional media work, but what we can take from it is that when you are dealing with an intrinsically dishonest government, the mere reporting of facts is nowhere near adequate anymore. Most journalists have been trained to see themselves as coming from nowhere, but to cover a populist leader and system, they have to go a step further: positioning themselves clearly and critically outside of the system, and reflect on the methods of the populist rather than simply repeating his lines.

Here, the view of an outsider – far from being the outrageous comment of an impolite guest – might even be helpful.

This article was translated from the German by Brian Melican.

[See also: No 10 officials need to stand up to Boris Johnson, not appease him]

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