Kathy Sheridan: Truth has been the first casualty of the Brexit election

The perpetrators feel invincible. Lying is the default. Good luck to us all


Something uniquely dispiriting haunts this British election. Some elements are familiar. The candidates crazed with exhaustion, desperate to stay a step ahead of disaster. The daily news journalists desperate for the story, with little time to reflect on it, to distil the heart of it, to capture the interviews, to write them up, to package them. All while feeding several maws of the same media group by being first with the tweets and updates, being careful not to alienate official sources and conscious that every mistake made against relentless deadlines is committed in the unforgiving public gaze. So far, so familiar.

Britain has another problem: billionaires who run best-selling organs as propaganda. We have our media troubles but nothing (so far) like the media polarisation that is smothering Britain in a blanket of lies and cynicism. Against this are journalists trying to hold the line of impartiality and truth, who are suspected, abused, even loathed by every side.

The inevitable crash happened on Monday. On the day Boris Johnson refused an ITV journalist’s repeated invitations to look at a photograph of a four-year-old sleeping on a Leeds hospital floor, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, tweeted that the health minister, Matt Hancock, had been dispatched to the hospital to sort out “the mess”. “...Hearing Labour activists scrambled to go and protest... one of them punched Hancock’s advisor”, she added. Within four days of the election, all hell broke loose.

Kuenssberg’s problem is that the punch never happened. What she and a handful of senior journalists were “hearing” probably from the same trusted, top Tory source, was verifiably false. There was a video. Meanwhile the fake punch sucked the oxygen from the story about the real child and a Daily Telegraph star columnist and countless bots helped to amplify a supposed “former” nurse specialist’s tweet that the photograph of the child was staged.

The columnist and mates seemed untroubled that the hospital’s chief medical officer had already apologised for the conditions around the sick child.

Either way, this was a media disaster waiting to happen. No-one comes out of it with clean hands but it should prompt a look at journalists’ workload.

Dirty campaign

It also sheds a light on the the dirty campaign war. The Conservatives edited a video of Labour’s Keir Starmer to look stunned by a question and rebranded their own party’s official twitter account during a leaders’ debate to look like an independent fact-checking source. Like the fake punch report, what made these acts brazen is that they were committed in plain sight. The perpetrators feel invincible. Lying is the default.

Even Johnson’s claim of a “quite amazing” “big baby boom” after the 2012 London Olympics was a lie, trotted out to support his prediction of a “bonanza of bonking” (in the words of the Sunday Times’ political editor) post-Brexit. In fact, live births in England and Wales slumped heavily in 2013 but you probably guessed that.

The return to 2016 rhetoric was swift and savage. EU migrants have been able to treat the UK “as if it’s part of their own country” for too long, Johnson said at the weekend, barely a week after a heroic Polish worker sustained multiple stab wounds helping to subdue a terrorist.

When Priti Patel, the home secretary, claimed over the weekend that a Jeremy Corbyn government would be responsible for a peculiarly precise 52 more murders a year among other mass crimes, Johnson conceded he knew nothing about them.

This is all compounded by a familiar interview technique raised to new levels in this campaign; a fiercely practised steamrolling of interviewers with a robotic adherence to the precise message and jackhammer repetition of slogans. It’s the familiar no-answer interview with added uppers. This election’s model is Michael Gove with his madly incontinent, audibly excited rush to the slogan finale in almost every interview. 

Strategists’ playbook

These three – Johnson, Gove and Patel – represent the very summit of Britain’s governing class. It matters not because the current Conservatives are uniquely bad in global terms; they’re not. It matters because this campaign carries omens of a common, hellish future. Political parties around the world now draw from the same strategists’ playbooks. In a time not far off, authoritarian leaders will simply refuse to submit to challenging interviews, as Johnson and Trump already do. A video by the BBC’s most feared interviewer, Andrew Neil, reeling off sample questions for Johnson has been viewed more than 7 million times. It has made no difference.

The trouble is there is no amount of information that will fix it. Johnson supporters see moves to shut down parliament or to neuter judicial reviews or threats to review Channel 4’s remit or to scrap the BBC’s licence fee as sticking it to the elite. They don’t want to know what happens when those powers shift to the opposition.

Brexit has morphed at warp speed from unicorns and sunlit uplands to getting “the incubus of Brexit off our collective backs” (copyright B Johnson). And the worn-out people’s response, as cued, is a weary, hypnotic “get Brexit done”. Job done.

Over on the left, the so-called Corbynistas who have spent the past four years savaging those on the centre-left as Blairites and “Tory scum” have made their beds. If rescue comes from that quarter, it will be a miracle of magnanimity.

Good luck to us all.

This column was amended on December 11th

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