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14 May 2020

Why journalists don’t need to be more “positive” or “supportive” of the government

The public may not like the questions reporters ask at No 10 press briefings, but their scrutiny of ministers is more essential than ever.

By Jasper jackson

On 27 April, celebrity businessman and House of Lords member Alan Sugar approvingly tweeted a screenshot of a message circulating widely on social media. The most quotable part of the four short paragraphs was a strident criticism of journalism, journalists and their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK:

“Journalism is missing the ‘mood’ in this great country of ours – the United Kingdom. We do not want or need blame. We do not want constant criticism of our Government who are doing their very best in a very difficult and unprecedented global emergency… But time and again we see our negative press trying to trip up our politicians instead of asking questions that will provide positive and reassuring answers for all of us.”

The crossbench peer’s tweet was criticised by journalists, and he has clashed with high-profile TV interviewers Andrew Neil and Piers Morgan over their approach to ministers since, accusing them of “intimidation” and “bullying” of guests on their shows.

Yet while much of the media dismissed the message posted by Sugar, it clearly struck a chord with some of the public online. More than 15,000 retweeted him, and more than 44,000 liked the tweet. Variations on the text of the message, at least part of which appears to have originated on a small blog, were separately shared and re-shared thousands of times.

The central argument, that unusual times require a suspension of journalistic norms, is not a new one. Certainly not for a country in the midst of such a crisis. Why isn’t the media helping rather than picking holes in government plans? Surely it’s their duty to lift the national spirit, rather than adding to our collective depression? It’s the wartime “get behind our troops” mentality applied to a battle against a virus.

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There are, however, certain characteristics of this crisis that accentuate jingoistic calls for the media to self-censor. The Guardian head of investigations Paul Lewis says Boris Johnson’s government, never known for its conciliatory approach to the media, has become even more aggressive during the crisis.

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“There have been quite unprecedented attempts to rebut stories in the Financial Times and The Sunday Times. We’ve had accountability journalism before. What’s new is the way the government is quite fiercely resisting it and pushing back.”

The Guardian’s own reporting, such as its revelation that No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings was sitting on the government’s scientific advisory board Sage, received a similarly fierce response. Lewis believes the confrontational approach adopted by the UK government is part of a broader trend towards populist politics epitomised by Sugar’s counterpart in the US version of The Apprentice, Donald Trump.

“It has not come out of a vacuum,” Lewis says. “It’s a feature of right-wing populism that people seek to blame the media, and make them scapegoats.”

More prosaically, the pandemic has also seen a daily confrontation between the press and government beamed into the homes of millions. Each afternoon, ministers and government advisers lay out plans and statistics about the crisis in a briefing broadcast from Downing Street, before being questioned by reporters through video. 

“The press conferences are simply a vehicle for the government to try and get out what they want to get out. So if they want to talk about cycling or food supply or quietly get away with not answering anything,” says a senior TV news producer. “Then the journalists come across as irrelevant and badgering.”

A reporter covering politics for a major newspaper attributes elements of this confrontation to the government’s “utterly crap” communications strategy, which he describes as more suited to winning elections than managing a public health crisis.

“They’re still in the mindset of trying to win a political battle. Brief the newspapers, coverage on Saturday, follow-ups on the Sunday, then the speech on Monday. If you play it well you can get three or more days of coverage. The issue here is that it is all about the policy detail.”

He points to the confused messaging over easing the lockdown, leaked out over four days last week, as a prime example. The most likely explanation for the botched timing, he believes, is that the government wanted to maximise the benefits of a big televised Sunday night speech for Johnson’s personal brand. (More than 27 million people watched the national address.) 

Partisanship on both sides, amplified on social media, is also at play, says the TV producer. “The religious zealotry of not being able to question the NHS has now infiltrated every single part of government communication around coronavirus. You are either with them or against them and that’s how people see it, framed by their own worldview.”

The irony of calls for journalists to be more positive is that most outlets are already trying to achieve this. That mission is taken incredibly seriously at the BBC, and is one of the main tasks for Chris Gibson, a BBC commissioning editor focused on giving national airtime to stories from local TV and radio operations.

“Our bulletins should never feel like a chore to watch. A montage of misery,” he says. “People are more likely to come into contact with kindness than the coronavirus… It’s a challenge for broadcast, how do you insert this into the coverage with these huge days of pressing news lines?

He points to coverage on local radio stations, including the “Make a Difference” campaign, focused on good deeds and collaboration against the virus.

One story first picked up by local reporters became almost impossible to avoid whatever outlet you chose to follow. Captain Tom, the pensioner who raised tens of millions for the NHS by walking laps of his garden before his 100th birthday, became one of the country’s biggest, and most uplifting, pandemic stories.

“That became a symbol of the crisis. That story highlighted that audiences were desperate for a way of celebrating somebody going and doing something extraordinary,” says Gibson.

“BBC Breakfast really took that on, and the figures are amazing… At the point when it was his birthday recently, 50 per cent of the population watching TV were watching BBC Breakfast between 8 and 9.”

Nevertheless, he says, “the more uplifting stuff doesn’t have to be the light stuff at the end… A good example is [BBC medical correspondent] Fergus Walsh doing a medical piece on the first vaccine trial in Oxford. People wanted to start to see the process of how we might be led out of this crisis.”

Journalists I speak to all cite coverage of the government’s success in keeping pressure on the NHS below breaking point as one of the serious-but-positive stories that have been covered extensively. The lack of cut-through, they say, owes more to poor government messaging than any media love of bad news.

Gibson says the BBC would be failing its audience if it focused exclusively on the lighthearted at the expense of the very real darkness. “Journalists and the media generally have a responsibility to reflect the whole landscape of humanity at the moment,” he says. “I understand why people who look at news bulletins and online coverage and think ‘gosh this is a really dark time’, but frankly it is. We would become a laughing stock if we weren’t doing our basic job of scrutinising policy, holding the government to account.”

By and large, journalists believe holding the government to account for its decisions and actions is more important than ever. “We have had 40,000 people die in the last three months,” says Lewis. “On what planet would we not want to understand how this happened?

“These are stories that are fast-moving, they change shape over time and they are hugely consequential. If the media draws attention to the catastrophe of testing and contact tracing apparatus, it follows that one of the consequences is the government is going to take this more seriously. This is how democracies work.”

Or, as the political reporter puts it: “You have to scrutinise more than ever now because these decisions are making or breaking lives.”