If you’ve ever been to lunch with a journalist, you’ll notice that, now and then, their eyes take on a glassy look. They appear to be listening to what you’re saying but, in fact, their attention is gripped by the diners two tables away, who have lowered their voices in order not to be overheard.
I am that journalist, as is almost everyone I know in the profession. You might call it eavesdropping, but how else to find out what people are really thinking when they’re too polite or timid to say it out loud?
So it was that I caught a middle-aged couple in an Edinburgh café, bemoaning the fuel crisis. “It’s the media’s fault,” they agreed, nodding at this incontrovertible truth. They did not elaborate, which was a shame. I’d like to have learned in what way broadcasters, newspapers and websites were to blame for stranded nurses and school bus drivers.
In that couple’s world – and they are by no means alone – it was the ceaseless news headlines about shortages and closed forecourts that caused pandemonium. Not the government’s lack of foresight about the impact of Brexit legislation. Not the bottleneck of HGV driving tests caused by Covid. Not Grant Shapps telling everyone not to panic. Not – dare I say it – the mindless stampede of half the country to fill up its tanks, thereby causing the problem in the first place.
Of course not. Instead, blame lands on the media’s doorstep because whenever something happens that people don’t like, they look for a culprit. Don’t shoot the messenger, you might say, but it’s too late for that. If the public doesn’t like what it’s watching or reading, those with shorthand notebooks and microphones are in the cross hairs.
Yet what were we meant to do – not bother reporting the rising number of empty pumps? Censor the facts so that the nation remained in the dark? There might conceivably be an argument for a news blackout in times of exceptional national emergency, as during the second world war, but in every other situation, information must be shared.
It’s not just the dearth of fuel that is laid to reporters’ account. In the early days of the pandemic some deluded souls insisted that Covid was a media fabrication. Even though it was journalists who conveyed information about what was happening, thereby possibly saving lives, a handful of conspiracy theorists did not believe a word. Hence those who sneaked into hospital Covid wards to film what was going on, because they were certain a joke was being played on us all.
No-one likes watching footage of devastating wildfires raging across Australia, or of floods that submerge entire communities. Yet without regular updates about the drastic effects of a warming planet, most of us here, in relatively unblighted Britain, would resist all attempts to modify our consumption and behaviour.
If we did not know what was happening across the globe, we would proceed in a state of blissful ignorance, punishing any government that tried to interfere with the way we live. Cop26 would feel as remote as the dark side of the moon, a pointless, costly jamboree, rather than a last chance to avert the worst.
Even wholly rational people, who understand how the news is delivered, are often sceptical or wary of the media. Fundamentally they mistrust it, even though they also turn to its bulletins or commentary pages every day. This is not to defend all types of journalism, some of which is destructive and crass. Yet there are legal mechanisms for bringing inaccurate, defamatory or intrusive reporting to justice. What is lacking, however, is an understanding that it’s not those who lay out the facts who are culpable for the problems besetting us all.
“Why don’t they report the good news?” is a common complaint, and I have some sympathy. It feels as if we’ve been subjected to a daily litany of woes for years on end, some of it directly threatening, some showing the painful reality for those far from us, in conflict zones or totalitarian states, or in the path of natural disasters.
But do we really want to remain in ignorance, or live in la-la land? Trouble thrives wherever people don’t know what’s going on. The problems reported from around the world – or in our own backyard – are a warning of what can happen if leaders go unchallenged, institutional abuses are covered up, and human rights ignored.
Sadly, it was ever thus. What is distinctly new and worrying, however, is the lack of effective opposition to our governments in Holyrood and Westminster. In the absence of robust and rigorous in-house interrogation, it is only the media that can hold those in charge to account. Hearing Nick Robinson on the Today programme yesterday urging Boris Johnson to “stop talking”, was a moment to savour. Cutting across the PM’s outpouring of waffle, intended to eat airtime and avoid the question, Robinson refused to be deflected from getting an answer.
But it’s not only in high-profile interviews, or major investigative scoops, where the media gets to the heart of the matter, or at least tries to. Watergate or the Spotlight uncovering of abuse in the Catholic Church, are legendary examples of journalism that has changed the course of history. But less exalted, more workaday reporting is equally important.
In the USA, the inexorable rise of Trumpism might not have been as widespread had many local newspapers not folded. When people lose touch with what is happening in their own area, it is far easier to brainwash or bamboozle them. Those in power, across the world, are well aware of this. They also know that to cast doubt on the veracity and integrity of the media creates the sort of factual quagmire and confusion in which dubious practice and corruption thrive.
As Britain grapples with the dual legacy of Brexit and Covid, and politicians struggle to cope with unprecedented problems – not to mention the myriad other issues clamouring for attention – one thing is clear. If you think things are bad right now, how much worse would they get if they went unreported and unquestioned?
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