The Conservative campaign has been thrown off course by a photograph of Jack Williment-Barr, a four-year-old boy with tonsillitis and the flu, wearing a drip and sleeping on a makeshift bed of coats, rather than an actual bed, in a hospital.
It’s an illustration of something I first wrote about in September: if you have an election in the dead of winter, after a decade in which NHS spending has, historically speaking, increased by relatively small amounts and the public realm has a whole has faced sharp cuts, then you run the risk that the consequences of an NHS winter crisis will derail your campaign.
It may be that the Conservative lead is too engrained or too large for it to matter, or it may not. We’ll know that soon enough. More importantly, in the here and now, fake reports that the photograph was staged are being widely shared online.
We’ve seen before how quickly fake news can spread during an election campaign. At the last election, data collected by Buzzfeed suggested that the most shared news story was the Tories’ abandonment of their commitment to ban the sale of ivory – which was true. But many of the stories that circulated claimed that it was the result of lobbying by Victoria Borwick, the then-MP for Kensington – which was not true.
Also being spread online yesterday were claims that an aide to Health Secretary Matt Hancock was punched by a Labour activist at a protest outside the hospital. The political editors of the BBC and ITV have apologised after tweeting the story, having been briefed by Conservative sources that a punch had been thrown – when nothing of the sort had occurred.
Separately, Boris Johnson appeared to confirm that it isn’t just his Culture Secretary, Nicky Morgan, who is “open-minded” about changing the BBC’s funding model to an opt-in subscription fee rather than the present television license – he, too, thinks that the present way of funding public service broadcasting in the UK may have to change.
Essentially every democracy in the world is grappling with the question of how you deal with manufactured news being freely spread online, in ways that national governments cannot regulate and journalists cannot easily scrutinise. But the United Kingdom has one advantage: the BBC. The product of a largely successful 96-year-long experiment in funding via the license fee, the BBC is the hegemonic broadcaster that, thanks to its reach not only via its traditional channels, but its website, podcasts, social media channels and God knows what else, is the number one news choice for six out of ten people and is seen by practically everybody. In an era where practically nobody is trusted, it still enjoys a large degree of public trust.
The price of that is that the existence of the BBC makes it harder for every other media organisation in the United Kingdom to compete, and that even people who get very little for their licence fee have to pay it to watch it in the UK. And because it expands everywhere – into podcasts, onto Instagram, onto Snapchat – there is no arena in which it doesn’t make it harder for both new and old entrants to keep the lights on. The argument that parts of the Conservative Party, including quite possibly its Prime Minister, are going to be making increasingly loudly in the years to come, is that that price isn’t worth the product.
Are they right? Well, the counter-argument is that thanks to the licence fee, we not only have a single dominant broadcaster but one that doesn’t have to chase traffic or prioritise breaking news quickly over getting it right, because its funding is guaranteed. It can exist as a platform that people go to check whether a story is true – they might have to wait a little longer to see something appear on the BBC homepage or be tweeted by its staff, but they can feel as close to certain as possible that what they are reading is correct.
The BBC could risk not scheduling any party leader for its big setpiece grilling with its biggest name interviewer rather than letting one of them skip out, and it could bunch them closely together so that two party leaders don’t have the advantage of having their interview before postal votes have arrived while another has to wait until 6 December. It could schedule debates to a format and choose not of the political interest of the prime minister of the day or the leader of the opposition. It could prioritise explaining the detail of Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement rather than discussing whether it has “the numbers” to pass parliament.
The difficulty with this case, of course, is that the BBC I am describing does not at the present time exist. You can make a case that the BBC is better than any other commercial broadcaster you care to name and you can make a case that it is worse. But you can’t make a case that it is particularly different. And while that is the case it is hard to make the argument that a broadcaster that looks, acts and sounds like any other commercial broadcaster should have its funding secured by a license fee that you have to pay – enforced by the threat of a £1,000 fine – regardless of whether you watch it.