Channel 4's "ban" by the Brexit Party undermines our ability to hold politicians to account

The broadcaster is far from the only journalistic organisation to have a bruising relationship with the politicians it covers.

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We can safely assume that the Brexit Party doesn’t like Channel 4 News very much. Reports this week have suggested that Channel 4 was excluded from Brexit Party events because Nigel Farage and his team took against their journalistic scrutiny; and the editor of Channel 4 News Ben de Pear tweeted about what he described as an “access ban” by the party. De Pear’s latest tweet says that the dispute has been solved, though it points to quite a level of bad feeling on both sides.

So first we should salute Channel 4 News for getting up the nose of the Brexit Party. Their latest revelation was about the alleged financial support for Farage from Arron Banks, but it’s part of a series of investigations into the funding and operations of the Leave campaign in general. It was Channel 4 who also helped lead the UK journalism on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the broadcaster deserves the applause and the awards it has won for its work.

Equally, it’s right to condemn the Brexit Party if they try to prevent journalists from doing their job. I have argued that all political parties should have access to the public airwaves because that is what democracy requires, even if we don’t like the views they express. But it undermines the principle if the people who are granted access to the airwaves then seek to shut down free reporting. The case for Farage being on Question Time is inextricably linked with the reason why Channel 4 News should be allowed to film his events and ask him tough questions.

Commentators have pointed to the parallels with the United States, where the President has incited crowds against what he sees as his media opponents – and where journalists from CNN and the BBC and others have suffered serious intimidation as a consequence of Donald Trump’s words. For a brief period, CNN’s Jim Acosta was shut out of White House briefings. Here, Farage’s reaction to the perfectly fair grilling he received from the BBC’s Andrew Marr was certainly Trump-like – describing it as “ludicrous” and “ridiculous”, and later musing about the cost of the BBC licence fee.

But it would be wrong to see the Brexit Party as the only sinners here. The fact is that all political parties have sometimes bruising relationships with the media, and they are not averse to making threats or withdrawing privileges. 25 years ago when I was editor of the Today programme we went through a deeply horrible period with the New Labour media team, who would sometimes reduce my overnight editors to tears by what would now be defined as bullying behaviour.

Today, parties are subtler but no less ready to show displeasure. It was widely interpreted as a shot across the BBC’s bows when Theresa May did high profile interviews with Sky and with LBC at crucial stages of the Brexit process, and shunned the usual slots on Marr and Today. But towards the end of last year Buzzfeed reported tensions between Sky and Number 10 over EU coverage, quoting a Sky source as saying of Downing Street that "they have a paranoid, BBC-first mindset and it's almost like a siege mentality of anything critical of Brexit." Producers on the Today programme also worry about the absence of live interviews with Jeremy Corbyn on their show. He didn’t appear live at all on the Radio 4 flagship during the 2017 election campaign, and he remains a very rare bird on their airwaves. There’s no ban, of course, but it’s a pretty clear signal from Labour that Corbyn can manage perfectly well without the exposure on Today that other leaders have seen as essential.

For the media, the best response is to be open about questionable behaviour by political parties. I know from my own experience in the media and Westminster bubble that it can feel difficult to break the unwritten rules by exposing what goes on between broadcasters and party fixers; but sometimes exposure of dodgy practices is the best option. Producers should also step up the statements on the airwaves of flagship programmes if a politician is persistently refusing to appear.

These kinds of issues matter because the inevitable trend is that politicians avoid the places where they’re asked the toughest questions, or the networks who will challenge rather than cosset them. America is already in a position where Fox is overwhelmingly a Republican cheerleader network and MSNBC is for the Democrats, and there is a loss to public understanding if there aren’t places where all parties are given equal and rigorous treatment.

The threat is that politicians will increasingly use social media and partisan outlets to bypass the traditional homes for broadcast politics. That’s why it’s vital now to defend the right of professional journalists to do their job; and to show why we’d all be poorer without the kind of public service broadcasting that tries, calmly and rationally, to make sense of the times we live in.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.