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Can journalism protect us from the new politics as usual?

Fact-checkers and journalists are the main reason we know about Boris Johnson’s misleading campaign practices during the UK election

Boris Johnson speaks to the press after winning the UK election.
Boris Johnson speaks to the press after winning the UK election.

Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party’s campaign in the UK’s election illustrates what the new politics-as-usual will look like. It is not a pretty sight. Despite going into the election with a 12 percentage point lead, a bigger budget, and a rival Labour party who in Jeremy Corbyn fielded the most unpopular opposition leader since polling began, Johnson and the Conservatives have all too frequently resorted to misleading campaign practices, untrue statements, and attempts to avoid independent scrutiny. This is not an isolated incident, but an example of what electioneering looks like from an establishment, governing, mainstream political party in a long-standing liberal democracy. What has happened here in the UK can happen anywhere.

The Conservative Party seems to have relied more on misleading and untrue claims than any of the other main parties

A small selection from the campaign illustrates the problems.

Misleading campaign practices? A doctored video originally published on the Conservative Party’s official Twitter account edited to suggest that Labour’s Keir Starmer was unable to answer a basic question about Brexit. The renaming of another party Twitter account “factcheckUK” during a televised debate between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Corbyn, a move that Twitter itself called an attempt to mislead people. Perhaps even more perniciously – because it's harder to detect – the fact that nearly 90% of the advertisements the party started pushing on Facebook in early December had already been challenged as misleading or false by the non-partisan, independent fact-checker Full Fact.

The Conservative foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, dismissed criticism of the “factcheckUK” stunt by telling the BBC “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust.” But this is clearly not the view in Conservative HQ, where campaign strategists relished the attention these controversies generate. One told the Financial Times that “Starmer had three million [views], the row was bang on. It lays on it core message”. Clearly, many of these incidents have been deliberately engineered to reinforce the campaign’s message or distract from other discussions.

The ‘Daily Mirror’ was blocked from boarding the Conservative Party campaign bus November 21.
The ‘Daily Mirror’ was blocked from boarding the Conservative Party campaign bus November 21. AFP/GETTY

The untrue statements are not limited to social media cut and thrust, however.

Take the most basic, defining issue of British politics and the election: Brexit. With his frequent promise to get Brexit done, you might think the prime minister would be clear on what it will mean. But you would be wrong. At a meeting with business people in Northern Ireland, Johnson claimed that “there will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind” after Brexit, that businesses in Northern Ireland will have “unfettered access” to export goods to Great Britain. His claims are, however, contradicted by his government’s own official assessment of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the European Union.

Or take the question of external threats to the integrity of UK democracy. At a campaign stop in Teesside, a member of the public asked Johnson why the government is withholding the dossier prepared by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on Russian interference into UK elections and referendums. The prime minister’s responded by claiming that “there’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve ever seen of any Russian interference in UK democratic processes.” But, as Channel 4’s FactCheck pointed out, as foreign secretary, Johnson in 2017 had challenged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when he made exactly that claim, stressing “it’s very important that you should recognise … Russian attempts to interfere in our elections, our referendum.” No longer so very important, it seems.

The attempts to avoid independent scrutiny are similarly numerous.

Johnson and his Conservative Party had little time for proper interviews with actual journalists, even as they seemed perfectly comfortable engaging in misleading campaign practices on social media and on campaign stops. Instead, they relied on advisers and anonymous sources to try to steer news coverage or distract from other discussions, as when Conservative aides falsely briefed that one of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s advisers had been “punched in the face” by what they alleged was a Labour “thug,” a line repeated in headlines from the right-leaning MailOnline, The Sun and The Express, as well as by prominent political journalists from both the BBC and ITV - before a video emerged showing that the adviser had in fact walked into a protester’s arm.

The prime minister and his campaign seems less comfortable with journalistic scrutiny. In a move branded “disturbing” and “not acceptable nor compatible with the principle of media freedom” by the Society of Editors, the left-wing Daily Mirror, which reaches almost 500,000 households and more than 11 million people online every day, was blocked from boarding the Conservative Party campaign bus November 21, the only major national newspaper excluded from the trip. Johnson similarly refused to join Channel 4’s climate change debate (he was replaced by an ice sculpture), or submit himself to an interview by the BBC’s Andrew Neil (who has interrogated both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat leaders), grabbing and pocketing the phone of a TV reporter who tried to confront him the picture of a sick four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr forced to lie on the floor at Leeds General Infirmary (as first reported by the Yorkshire Evening Post), and finally allegedly hid in a fridge while being pursued by a TV reporter attempting to interview him on the eve of the election.

They have knowingly and systematically embraced misleading campaign practices, and they have won

This is just a small selection of misleading campaign practices, falsehoods, and attempts to avoid independent scrutiny by the Conservative Party during this election.

It is important to stress that they are not alone – both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have problems of their own, as both fact-checkers and independent journalist have documented.

The difference is that the Conservative Party seems to have relied more on misleading and untrue claims than any of the other main parties, that Boris Johnson has told more untruths than his rival candidates for prime minister, and, most fundamentally, that the Conservative Party is the incumbent long-term party of government and now the winner of the election on the basis of a deeply troubling and corrosive campaign. According to our research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 55% of the British public expressed concern over political propaganda in 2018, where facts are spun or twisted to push a particular agenda. One can only speculate what they think after an election like this.

Can journalism protect us from this new politics as usual? While some news media have uncritically amplified the political parties’ partisan messages, or resorted to tepid he-said-she-said false equivalence, fact-checkers and journalists are also the main reason we know about the misleading campaign practices and online falsehoods of this election. Just 42% of the British public believe that news media monitors and scrutinises powerful people and businesses. But at least many journalists are still doing precisely that.

James Mitchinson, editorial director of JPI Media's Yorkshire titles who reported the Jack Williment-Barr story, wrote a letter to a reader who, on the basis of anonymous allegations of fakery posted on Facebook and amplified by some pundits, celebrities, and ordinary people, questioned the veracity of the story. “Because it is irresponsible – and reckless – to take one person's word and take it as fact,” he said, “[we] immediately checked the veracity of the assertion with the hospital. That's not a boast, by the way, just bog-standard journalism,” Fact-checkers at FullFact and elsewhere tirelessly assessing the claims made by politicians. We can only imagine where we would be without these journalists, whether doing the daily reporting Mitchinson calls bog-standard journalism, or those using digital media to fact-check in real-time throughout the campaign.

Ultimately, what matters here is not just that the Conservatives won, finishing 11 percentage points ahead of Labour, about where they started when the election was called, and with a vote share just one percent higher than what Theresa May secured in 2017.

The consequences of this depressing, noisy, and often misleading UK campaign go far beyond this small island nation with its separatist problem and troubled relations to larger neighbors. If the British Conservative Party, solidly ahead in the polls, one of the most successful political parties in the world in terms of its electoral record, and operating in a country with a diverse news industry, high media freedom, and a long and unbroken record of parliamentary democracy behaves like this, what can we expect from parties engaged in close-fought races, with fewer commitments to what used to be the norms and rules of the game, or operating in countries with weaker institutions?

The consequences of this depressing, noisy, and often misleading UK campaign go far beyond this small island nation

We are past the point where we can pretend that these kinds of campaign practices are the exclusive domain of insurgents, populists, and long-shot upset candidates like the left-leaning Five Star Movement in Italy, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, or Donald Trump in the US. Political campaigns are governed by formal rules and informal norms. The formal rules are made by governments (in the UK, the Conservative Party) and thus ultimately by those who win elections (also the Conservative Party), and the informal norms are defined by what politicians and the public find to be acceptable behavior. All across the world, the formal rules, especially for online campaigns, remain lax, and the winners uninterested in tightening them. And the boundaries of informal norms are being pushed aggressively, increasingly from the heart of the political establishment.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson may have disheveled hair, but he is an Eton- and Oxford-educated establishment figure through-and-through, a career politician who has spent almost 20 years as a member of parliament, mayor of London, foreign secretary, and now prime minister. The Conservative Party he leads is the very definition of a mainstream party, and he was elected party leader by a clear majority of both members of parliament and rank-and-file members. Whatever he represents is not an aberration, but the actually existing Conservative Party. They have knowingly and systematically embraced misleading campaign practices, and they have won.

There is a price to pay for this, and it is the erosion of trust in both institutions and individuals. Judging by the most recent Ipsos MORI poll from just before the election, Johnson will take office as the most unpopular prime minister in almost 40 years, with a net approval rating of -14 (other unhappy premierships started off far better, +16 for Gordon Brown, +35 for Theresa May). But other parties, in the UK and elsewhere, will look at the Conservative victory and the risk is that they will follow them because they believe it will also help them win.

We can only hope that journalism can help protect us against the worst excesses of this new politics-as-normal, because the people who win elections this way will not.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford.

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