By Neil Mackay, writer at large for The Herald
Like many journalists, I’ve experienced my share of intimidation and violence simply for reporting and daring to have a voice. I’ve had guns pointed at me in Northern Ireland, I’ve been punched in the face in Scotland. I’ve had death threats. I’ve been abducted.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told “we know where you live”. From being called “scum”, “a traitor”, “vermin” – insults and hate are a daily, often hourly, event. But in nearly 30 years of journalism, I’ve never felt the media more under threat than I do today.
It struck me, during the height of the Dominic Cummings scandal, just how absurd things had got. Here was the UK Government, mired in a scandal of double-standards and hypocrisy amid the pandemic, and yet the press was somehow in the firing line.
On social media, terms like “scum media” trended. The press was accused of a witch-hunt against Cummings. We were doing our job – which by its simplest definition is holding power to account as honestly as we can – and for that we were hated by a vocal section of the country.
BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis given two nights off for comments she made on air which were simply factual.
Emily Maitlis on Newsnight was attacked for comments she made on air which were simply factual: that Cummings broke the rules. The BBC panicked and distanced itself from her. So, in the end, the only person to get in trouble for the Cummings scandal has been a BBC journalist who spoke the truth.
Of course, in the Cummings case, the attacks came from the right. The Brexiter camp was angry its man was in the spotlight. But anti-truth attacks come just as often from the left. A journalist can be decried as a stooge for capitalism one minute, and a Trotskyite the next. In Scotland, a journalist can be a figure of hate for nationalists today, and a figure of hate for unionists tomorrow. In a single afternoon, I’ve been attacked as an “SNP apologist” or “Nat hack”, and also part of the “Yoon MSM” and a “unionist lickspittle”. Over the years I’ve been called a commie, a fascist, a republican, a loyalist, an MI5 agent, and a traitor to Britain. Like many journalists today, I’m whatever someone wants to call me when it suits their own hardline political agenda.
When I hear these insults I recall it was President Richard Nixon who said “the press is the enemy”. Politicians of all dominant parties in Britain feed this idea – often retweeting attacks on journalism from the internet’s blogosphere.
If you see a politician cosying up to a journalist then the journalist isn’t doing their job right. (HL Mencken said the relationship should be similar to one between a dog and a lamp post. Ed)
When a reporter becomes a figure of hate for one side, however, the other side adopts them as a spokesperson. Just look at the behaviour towards Piers Morgan. He’s baited the left for years, and the left came to hate him. Now, though, as he holds the Government accountable over coronavirus, he’s suddenly a hero for the left … and the right hates him.
Meanwhile, the left also discovered that Morgan has previously said things they agree with – like guns in America are bad. If the hate wasn’t so relentless it would be comic. Until the advent of social media, most journalists considered their job well done if they annoyed both sides of the political divide – that meant you had held everyone to account.
Today, the simple act of trying to do your job to the best of your ability unleashes a tidal wave of abuse that goes on for days. Anybody would find it psychologically distressing.
Why are we in this strange place where people who try to tell the truth as best they can are objects of hate?
The bottom line is that the internet has changed how information is consumed. Journalists break into the closed conservation loops that define the digital age.
We are, as the phrase goes, the awkward squad. We don’t make things easy. The best of us try to draw out reason in any argument, and as Michael Gove said not so long ago – British people are tired of experts.
Ideological polarisation means many now see “their” politicians as heroes. There’s cultish elements to Brexit, Corbynism, Remainerism, and Scottish nationalism. People don’t like you questioning their heroes or faith. It’s easier to hate the questioner.
We’ve been here before, though – and it’s been much worse. At times of political extremes – and we’re most certainly living in a time of political extremism – writers and journalists often find themselves the whipping boy.
Extremists and authoritarians don’t like people who disagree with them or speak their mind and the British media landscape is a rambunctious place where voices of all stripes are to be heard, both left, right and in between.
In Germany, the term “Lügenpresse” has recently made a comeback. Lügenpresse was a Nazi slur meaning “lying press”. It was a catch-all for the left and Jews. But the term was around long before the 1930s. It first cropped up during the 1848 revolution in Germany and was used to denounce the “liberal” press, as reformers demanded political change. Under Hitler, the phrase would lead to the death of the free press, and the murder of journalists in concentration camps.
Today, the far-right Pegida movement in Germany likes to throw the term “Lügenpresse” around, as do alt-right neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer in America. It’s not just the right that uses the term though. In the interwar period, Marxists deployed “Lügenpresse” against “bourgeois” journalists. During the 1968 revolts in Europe, far-left students in Germany described the mainstream media as “Lügenpresse”.
What is Lügenpresse but an oldstyle term for Donald Trump’s “fake news”? It’s the same old authoritarian trope just played to a new tune. What’s “Lügenpresse” if it’s not the attacks on journalism by those on the extremes of the Brexit and Scottish independence debates?
In Scotland, unionists will cheer the Daily Mail and hiss at The National. Scottish nationalists will cheer The National and hiss at the Daily Mail. In truth, both papers simply cater for the political views of their readers.
Papers which adopt a centre-ground, impartial approach get it from both sides because their journalism subjects both sides to the same scrutiny. One of the reasons why the media now finds itself hated by hardliners of all persuasions is that in recent times the press has had to take on the role of an almost semi-official opposition when it comes to some Western governments.
In America, Democrats have been incapable of holding Trump to account. CNN does the scrutiny. In Britain, Corbyn’s Labour Party was incapable of holding the Tories accountable. It took journalists to root out the truth about Brexit, where Labour dithered.
In Scotland, opposition parties seem incapable of holding the Government to account. In a country where some Yes voters will let the SNP away with almost anything as long as the independence cause is advanced, that’s not a recipe for good Government. And so the press gets it in the neck for doing its job.
Mistakes admitted Think of any recent modern scandal, and it’s the media which exposed it. Without journalism we’d be blind. None of this, however, is to say that the media is without fault. Far from it. Indeed, the press has made many, many mistakes. There’s myriad serious problems – but you don’t fix problems by calling for the closure of newspapers and resulting redundancies, the dismantling of TV channels, the sacking of writers, and the imprisonment of editors, simply because you don’t like what they’ve said. Unless, of course, you’re an extremist.
One of the biggest scandals of the British press was phone-hacking – but the scandal would never have come to light unless newspaper journalists investigated the issue. The press reports well on itself. The BBC, in particular, is a past master at self-inflicted punishment via reporting.
We need to fix media problems, not wage war on journalism. Every social pillar in the West is creaking today – politics, the health service, bureaucracy, religion, policing, education, the military, finance and industry. The media shares the same problems. An intelligent national discussion about addressing failings in the media – just as we do with politics, policing, banking, schools and hospitals – is surely a better way to improve things than hate and threats.
If there are concerns about balance, let’s address them. Surely a new mode of media ownership can be worked out. Is there enough plurality of voices? If not, let’s work on getting more diversity into newsrooms.
How do we reassure the public about oversight without handing government a stick to beat the free press? If there’s concern about clickbait then look at the funding model which stimulates that.
No-one is saying the media is free from sin, but the narrative today is that the press is somehow the enemy when, in fact, the press is a necessary pillar of democracy. No pillar of democracy is rock steady these days but it’s not a good idea to try kicking any of them down as the whole edifice might fall on your head.
The best thing the media could do to build trust is to be more transparent. Explain why we do things, open more dialogue with readers – bring critics into newsrooms, show them how editorial decisions are taken.
Once a society starts normalising attacks on journalism it’s on a slippery slope to ruin. Britain is a long way from that yet, but America isn’t.
Trump has weaponised hatred of the press – just as hardcore Brexiters and Scottish nationalists have tried to do. But in America, Trump has been successful. What started with words turned into threats, and now we see journalists arrested for doing their job.
You may not like the political position of certain newspapers but the alternative to the press is the wild west of the internet where the biases, prejudices and conspiracy theories of often one untrained, and usually obsessive, blogger are what passes for editorial standards. Media law doesn’t cover the internet the way it covers the traditional media.
Newspapers and broadcasters in Britain are held to some of the highest legal standards in the world. If I defame you, you sue me. If a TV report is biased, it gets sanctioned and shamed. There are no standards online.
The politics of the Daily Telegraph are pretty far removed from my own, but it was The Telegraph which broke the expenses scandal story and helped hold MPs to account in a way politicians had never been before. Many in the online world find it impossible to differentiate between fact and opinion. They see a columnist hold a position and conflate it with the position of an entire paper. Or they see a pundit on a talk show and think that’s the stance of the BBC. However, an edition of Question Time doesn’t represent the views of the BBC. I don’t represent the views of this newspaper. News is played straight in nearly all British newspapers. A headline isn’t the same as the story beneath.
When it comes to opinion, though, it’s a free country and people can say what they want.
Some parts of the media, particularly the BBC, haven’t helped themselves, however, by attempting to introduce faux balance into reporting. When it came to Brexit, for example, the economics of leaving were clear – it would be a disaster. It was almost impossible to find a reputable economist who would say Brexit was a good idea. So to provide “balance”, TV stations sought out pundits to weigh against the economists. In a way, TV couldn’t win. The law requires balance, but sometimes balance is absurd.
In this case, balance meant that someone’s feelings were judged as equal to another person’s facts. The same happened with climate change – the science was conclusive, but to achieve some strange idea of balance, preposterous climate deniers were brought on to news shows to give the counter argument.
Confirmation bias At the heart of the angry anti-truth movement lies the problem of confirmation bias. Most people like to hear what makes them feel good. Until the advent of the internet that wasn’t possible.
Newspaper and TV editors curated the news and let you know what was happening.
Now you can retreat into your own self-curated bubble and unless you read intelligent papers, magazines and books, you’re unlikely to break out of the bubble. Look at how many people on social media in Scotland were shocked to learn of the Sheku Bayoh case in the wake of the George Floyd killing. If you don’t want to know these days, you can just look away – and if something is forced upon you, then you can rail against it for interrupting your world view.
Journalism quite literally bursts the bubble. It’s invasive and uncomfortable. As politics has polarised – with many of the most extreme now getting their information from fellow extremists online in a mix of conspiracy theories, outright lies and propaganda – so anything which attempts to put facts first is seen as partisan. Trying to be impartial these days is often seen as an act of extreme partiality.
There’s something known as the Eliza Effect. It involves a computer which has been programmed to basically repeat your questions back to you.
One conversation went like this:
Human: My boyfriend made me come here.
Eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here?
Human: He says I’m depressed much of the time.
Eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.
Human: It’s true. I’m unhappy.
Eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?
Humans liked the computer because it fed back to them their own thoughts. The press does the opposite. It interrupts your thoughts and asks you to think things that might be uncomfortable. That triggers hate and threats.
None of this is to compare what’s happening in Britain to what’s going on elsewhere in the world. Journalists are being killed with appalling frequency. Now coronavirus is being used to suppress freedom of the press even in EU states like Hungary. However, Britain has seen journalists murdered. Martin O’Hagan, who I knew, and Lyra McKee, were both killed by terrorists in Northern Ireland. A journalist in northern England, Amy Fenton, had to flee her home recently with her child after threats, simply for reporting a court case. The Coventry Telegraph editor Keith Perry has warned that “truly appalling” online abuse of journalists is becoming the “new normal”.
The central battle of our time is between reason and emotion. That puts journalism slap bang in the middle of an ideological war. I have not written here in defence of any particular newspaper or broadcaster and I fully acknowledge the failings within my own industry. This is simply a heartfelt plea saying real journalism matters. A society at war with journalism is at war with itself and the biggest casualty will be the rights of citizens and their ability to access the truth.