How the UK is quietly importing a sinister political phenomenon
Wilful disinformation and restricted access - tactics tried and tested in both Russia and Trump's America - are now being deployed in the UK. Our media must resist, writes Raymond Snoddy
The most serious trends can lurk virtually unnoticed in plain sight through increasing familiarity with what was previously alien. Gradually they become the new reality and the danger is that is how they become accepted.
One of the most important journalistic and political trends of the times was encapsulated in a modest tweet this week by Emily Bell, the distinguished British journalist who is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at New York’s Columbia University.
Bell said simply: “I have read so many predictions and trends about journalism in the past few weeks. The most significant trend, mostly unacknowledged, is that of politicians realizing they do not need to provide access or engagement with journalists, or even tell the truth, to be electable.”
The tweet contains an important insight although she could have gone further. It’s not merely that politicians have realised “they do not need to” provide access, engagement or tell the truth. It’s much worse than that. Many politicians in democratic societies have worked out that it is a positive benefit to avoid any of the above and there is now a real and present danger of such behaviour being hard-wired into our systems of political discourse.
Not for the first time we look to the US for early signs of trends taking shape that will soon influence the UK, to the extent that they are not doing so already. And there is plenty of evidence for her case.
America continually throws up the extreme, and under President Trump even the extreme has taken on a new meaning.
A few days before Bell wrote her tweet a remarkable open letter was published by 13 former White House press secretaries, foreign service and military officials from “both sides of the aisle” as Americans refer to the Republican-Democrat divide.
They were calling for a less than explosive change of policy – the return of regular press briefings.
Come to think about it, when did we last see President Trump submit himself to a formal, unrigged press conference as opposed to snatched questions shouted as he heads off for golf in Florida?
The 13 former officials note that it has been 307 days, probably now around 312 day and counting, since the last formal, on-camera White House press briefing. Throughout that time there have been multiple daily tweets from Trump, many disparaging of the media.
Press briefings not only make governments more accountable but actually encourage better decision making because the thought processes and justifications are put under regular scrutiny. If the rationale for decisions keep changing compared to the record, that too is exposed.
“The briefings give you accountability. It’s not just about access. It’s about accountability and that’s what’s lacking here,” says one of the authors of the letter, John Kirby.
It adds that such press briefings are especially important “in an era of rampant organised disinformation on social media.”
Social media; that’s why politicians increasingly think that there is no need to give access to, or engage with, journalists or even try to tell the truth. They can pump out any old nonsense to the faithful and then totally ignore those who challenge them.
In the run up to the Trump impeachment proceedings, a former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, has warned in the Washington Post about the dangers of Russian-style disinformation tactics whether coming from Russians or Americans.
McFaul, understandably informed by heartfelt Russian experience – a video was circulated suggesting he was a paedophile - identifies three manoeuvres increasingly applicable to politicians everywhere, particularly when they are not being held to account.
Tactic one - You simply deny the facts and the truth, as in initial denial that Russian troops were involved in seizing control of Crimea or the continuing denial of Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election.
The second is “whataboutism.” So when Putin is criticised about civilian casualties in Syria the reply goes on US involvement in about Iraq, Vietnam or Hiroshima.
Then there is dissemination of lies such as statements that President Obama and the former Islamic state leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdad shared the same ideology.
To McFaul this is not about winning the argument but trying to convince the electorate that “there is no truth, no right and wrong, or no data or evidence, only relativism, point of view and biased opinion.”
The only answer, if there is one, is access, engagement and accountability.
That is America and the Trump White House: does it have any real relevance to the UK and the British media?
Alas it most certainly does. A slightly less extreme version of the same phenomenon is taking shape in Johnson’s number 10.
Even allowing for his extensive holiday during a time of international crisis, how long will we have to wait for a full on-the-record Johnson press conference?
When will the disgraceful ban on Ministers appearing on the Today programme, even though for now the programme is managing fine without them, be lifted?
Or is this truly part of the Bell-shaped trend which seemed to work so well in the general election – avoid the most difficult questions on the whole and pump out pap to the masses.
The small examples are coalescing into a pattern. The Daily Mirror reporter excluded from the Conservative party election bus and the much more serious plan to move political briefings from Parliament, where they are conducted under the impartial rules of the House, to Downing Street where difficult people and difficult questions can be excluded.
Yes, but Prime Minister Johnson has just done an interview with BBC Breakfast. It may mark the gentle beginning of a slow thaw in relations between Downing Street and the BBC but for now it merely helps to underline the case – soft programme, soft interview, where the main news that emerged was his backing for the crowd-funding of a £500,000 plan for Big Ben to ring in the UK’s leaving of the European Union.
Johnson did also say that getting a trade deal by the end of this year was now only “epically likely” which some saw as the start of a process of diminishing expectations.
Overall, Bell is right and a trend is running not just in the US but in the UK as well, marked by a lack of willingness to provide access, engagement or feel obliged to try to tell the truth. And it is happening in plain sight.
We ignore it at our peril.