Shame and accountability: too many journalists and presenters forgot both after Brexit

If a fortune is to be made, then there will always be cowboys.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I interviewed a Sudanese government minister a few months ago while reporting on the economic crisis in the country and he spent an hour spelling out all the ways the Sudanese regime had epically mishandled the country's finances. Gold was being smuggled out of the airport and sold to foreign parties, imported goods were seized and flogged on the black market, and senior officials were getting caught and quietly side-lined when their corruption became too blatant. “The problem in this country," he said, “is that no one resigns or is fired anymore”. I was too young to remember a time when that happened at all in Sudan but he assured me that “there used to be a time when if you were caught, you were too ashamed to show your face, or you were fired”.

I think about that a lot these days in the context of the post-Brexit Britain media landscape. There is nothing you can do as a journalist that would either fill you with so much shame that you walk away from your job, or compel your bosses to fire you. There is no incompetence that is unspinnable, no mendacity that isn't justifiable. Short of asking for a “final solution” for the “Muslim problem”, (and I am stunned Katie Hopkins got sacked even for that) what can you do to get fired these days?

In the past week, Isabel Oakeshott and Nigel Farage, dissimulated or held back evidence of Russian outreach to the Leave.EU campaign, and when caught brazenly rode it out. At the time of writing neither has been sacked, has tendered a resignation, or pledged an embarrassed withdrawal from public life. 

We’re not talking difference of opinion or grey areas here. Nigel Farage said live on his LBC radio show that he had never met the Russian ambassador, only for a picture of him posing and grinning with the Russian ambassador to surface a few hours later. And yet, this seems to be no bother at all to his employers on LBC, and seems not to weigh Farage’s conscience at all as a sitting MEP caught lying in order to the British public.

Oakeshott, having admitted to having evidence of a scoop on Russian funding for Brexit backers for months, claimed to have conveniently revisited the content at the same time that The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr was about to publish the same story. She said she was “hacked," an allegation The Observer denies. When she found out the story was now unavoidably going to print, she ran to the Sunday Times to offer her “scoop”, which she had not published for “political reasons”, but absolutely 100 per cent had always intended to. The fact that she sat on this information did not seem to deter the Sunday Times from giving her space for the story, and it is yet to be seen whether her trusted pundit role on the Sunday Politics is under threat. Oakeshott herself has given no excuse or apology for her failure to bring this information to light, and continues her life as a freelance political '"journalist", shamelessly claiming that the material had been "gathering dust" in her attic.

I know this is a pointless exercise, trying to pore over which part of a hastily cobbled together excuse is the most absurd but indulge me, how do you hack an attic? Is it like a Mission Impossible midnight raid where a bead of sweat from Carole Cadwalladr’s head would have tripped up Oakeshott's intricate intruder laser beam lattice? Is there an entrapment team that specialises in lifting valuable info from journalists who don’t know its worth, then selling it on the open market to the highest bidder? Also, who has sensitive emails in the attic? Unless “The Attic” is a sort of clever meta name for the iCloud folder that Oakeshott kept the emails in, in which case, chapeau. 

Oakeshott’s own past came back to haunt her when footage of her claiming Cadwalladr was “chasing unicorns” for thinking there was a conspiracy behind the Leave campaign also appeared. That’s the problem with people like Oakeshott and Farage. Too narcissistic and opinionated to ever refuse a photo op or a TV interview or shouty debate, the evidence of their bias is all over the web. It’s like having a regular online porn habit but knowing you’re on a computer that doesn’t have a wipe history function. 

There's a paper trail, there's a digital trail, there are interviews and tweets and photos and columns to show that there was either deliberate cover up or suppression of any Russian connections. The reason they get away with it isn’t just because there are some corners of the UK media that have for a long time now, considered the truth to be some sort of antiquated guide for reporting, something to be avoided as close to the legal parameters as possible in order to push a narrative or sell a story, this is after all, the same Oakeshott who ran the David Cameron “pig gate” anecdote without evidence. It is also because Brexit has infected some of us in the media profession with a sort of rabies. 

Reputations are to be made attacking the “liberal elite” and the “saboteurs” while dog whistling to the “will of the people”. Journalistic attempts at simply trying to figure out how campaigns were funded or how data was used are framed as desperate attempts to invalidate the result of the referendum. Ratings, clicks and shares are to be mined when there are Lord Haw Haw type characters barking conspiracy theories and blood raising debates to be had between inequivalent positions. Cadwalladr was told that to be hosted on BBC 4 Today she had to discuss the story in a head to head with Oakeshott. When she said she wanted to speak about the “actual” story, they dropped it because there “had to be someone from the other side of the argument”.  “What?” she tweeted, “The Kremlin?”. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if not before long we are subjected to a BBC discussion with Nigel Farage claiming the picture of him and the Russian ambassador didn’t even exist, while sitting in front of a massive projection of it and telling everyone who disagreed because they have actual eyes that they are obviously compromised because they voted Remain.

It’s not even a pro and anti-Brexit conversation writ large anymore, it’s a pre- and post-Brexit argument. It is a clash of two eras happening in the same dimension. On one side those who still live in a world where facts matter and not everything is a winking conspiracy against some common man. On the other those who have taken leave of this terra firma and decamped to some floating island.

But who can blame them, if a fortune is to be made, then there will always be cowboys. Brexit is like some sort of wild west frontier where politicians and journalists scramble for the gold of a cabinet position, a radio show or a book deal on the back of a people who they have convinced are constantly under threat of having their will overturned.

Yet the impunity of politicians and journalists is a good indication of the health of a political culture. Even calling for people to quit seems embarrassingly jejune these days, like you are some rookie in the police force who discovers it is corrupt and your bosses laugh at you for being scandalised. Theresa May should have gone when the Windrush scandal broke and her fingerprints were all over it. LBC should sack Nigel Farage for lying live on air. No decent media institution should ever publish or host Isabel Oakshott again. But these things will not happen, because no one resigns or is sacked anymore, and that is the country we live in now.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist.