Dirty media tricks on the campaign trail
If the opening shots are anything to go by, the current general election campaign could turn out to be one of the most confrontational and dirty on record - and not just in the media
Underlying all the usual battlegrounds such as the NHS and financial credibility (or the lack of it) of campaign promises there is the seismic rift in politics and society over Brexit which will ratchet up the bitterness over the next six weeks.
It’s only day one but already there have been examples of the doctoring of TV interviews, the deployment of phoney statistics and dodgy stories going viral on the internet.
On top of that we have had the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, lambasted for his heroic insensitivity over the victims of Grenfell, and the resignation of Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns who is accused of lying over the sabotage of a rape trial.
At the same time press pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is accused of blocking the publication of a Commons report into alleged Russian interference in British democracy until after the general election.
The centrepiece – so far – is the extraordinary decision by the Daily Telegraph to give over virtually its entire front page to allow its star columnist, the Prime Minister, to launch the Conservative election campaign.
It comes complete with a smear on Jeremy Corbyn, disgraceful even by Johnson standards.
Half the front page is given over to a headline quote: “The tragedy of the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally ...they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the Kulaks.”
You may or may not like the policies of Labour under Corbyn but the Daily Telegraph has demeaned itself by giving such prominence to such an extravagant ahistorical comparison.
Perhaps Johnson has never got round to reading Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine – the murder of those designated enemies of the people and the millions who died from the resulting famine.
If he had he could not possibly think such a comparison remotely appropriate.
So far so bad but there is evidence that some sections, at least, of the media have been energised by the launch of the general election campaign.
After an indifferent record on Brexit coverage The BBC’s Today programme seems to be getting its mojo back with robust interviews with Labour’s Diane Abbott and Tory Party chairman James Cleverly.
It was the BBC’s Daniel Sandford who spotted the Conservative Party’s doctoring of a Good Morning Britain interview with Labour’s Keir Starmer to make it look as if he had been stumped by a Piers Morgan question about Labour’s Brexit policy when in fact he answered it.
The Cleverly answer that suggested that the interview had been a bit of a joke or had to be shortened didn’t exactly cut the mustard.
It was a lie.
Journalists from BBC Trending, who analyse internet postings, have exposed a significant example of fake news about Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and her husband which has gone viral with a potential audience of more than 1.5 million.
The allegation is that the European Commission donated more than £3.4 million to Transparency International, the “company” of Swinson’s husband Duncan Hames. That of course was why the pair liked the EU so much.
Transparency International is a not-for profit, anti-corruption organisation yet it was claimed online that it was a Hames family-owned company.
The money went to the main international arm of Transparency International. Hames is a director of the UK chapter which received £2,000 last year.
Naturally the BBC has been accused of a cover-up by not reporting the “scandal” of Duncan Hames and his EU money.
In a modest way the Evening Standard has also made a good start to the campaign by setting up a corner called FactWatch to call out the inaccuracies of the election campaign.
First victim? David Lammy the Labour MP for Tottenham.
Lammy claimed that since 2010 “over 200,000 nurses have resigned.”
Indeed they did, up to a point. Full Fact, the independent fact checking organisation found that 200,000 is the total number of nurses and health visitors who left the NHS between June 2010 and 2018.
The trouble is the total includes those who died in service, retired or resigned because of re-location, promotion or life-balance decisions.
The FactWatch verdict is that the number of nurses who resigned was about half the number claimed and that the total number of nurses in England in July 2019 was 288,000 – 8,500 more than in 2010.
It is a small column at the bottom of the page but like small newspaper corrections they always catch the eye.
The Standard approach should be commended to other newspapers and media organisations which do not already have their own fact-checking service.
There will be plenty of work for them to do over the next six weeks.
With the exception of the Daily Telegraph, the opening day of the campaign was relatively restrained with the Guardian, the i and Metro going for the Rees-Mogg story.
The Daily Star and the Daily Mail bashed Corbyn by proxy through the Christmas strike plans by his friends the RMT train drivers in the South West of England.
The Sun has not got into its political stride yet splashing on the earth-shattering news that the Queen will only use faux fur on her outfits in future.
At least it’s better than fake facts.
On media policy the one to watch in the manifestos is what the main parties decide on free BBC licence fees for the over 75s.
The House of Lords Digital and Communications select committee has found that the Government should never have asked the BBC to take on what is “a welfare policy” and that the BBC should never have accepted the burden.
Boris Johnson has said, with little sign of any engagement with the facts or consequences, that the BBC has plenty of money to pay for free licence fees. He will probably now try to impose the obligation even those the Cameron government gave the BBC the right to choose.
Labour plans to keep TV licences free for the over-75s but is less clear so far on who will pay.
Overall a lively opening of the campaign but you can be certain that things can only get worse.