In today’s TCW, four of our writers react to the latest bout of Parliamentary sleaze stories.
LAST weekend the Mail on Sunday reported a claim made by anonymous Tory MPs about deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner. They claimed that she had been deliberately, and suggestively, crossing and uncrossing her legs during Prime Minister’s Questions to try to distract Boris Johnson.
It could have been just another stupid and mildly salacious news story. As it turned out, this one had ‘legs’, so to speak, that ran, and is still running. I suppose we can only be grateful that the story wasn’t about the Labour leader. A week of headlines picturing Sir Keir Starmer doing a ‘Sharon Stone’ from the Opposition benches would be enough to put anyone off their game.
Now, you might think that when an allegation like this blows up, one of the first things you’d want to establish is the truth or otherwise of what’s being said. But that would be old-fashioned thinking. Instead, most of the media, despite not being able to say whether the story was true or not, were able to say with absolute certainty what the story was about.
‘Angela Rayner and Boris Johnson condemn ‘sexist’ and ‘misogynistic’ Mail on Sunday article,’ headlined Sky News. ‘Does parliament have a problem with misogyny?’ asked the BBC. Not to mention this lovely bit of clickbait from the Guardian, carefully tailored to the concerns and dispositions of their readers: ‘From ‘Legs-it’ to ‘calm down, dear’: six times UK MPs have faced sexism’.
This is what I’d call ‘post-truth’ news.
It’s not only that we don’t know the truth of the original story (though Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday claims he does), it’s that we’re not much minded to finding out. Everyone moves directly from the story to its interpretation without passing Go or collecting £200 or giving a moment’s thought to its veracity.
What drives the story isn’t the story itself, but the reaction. So much of our ‘news’ isn’t about telling us about things that have happened. Most is about the things that surround the story – allegation, accusation, speculation, prediction – rather than the story itself.
In fact, the concern for the truth of a story seems to be in inverse proportion to the hubbub surrounding it. The more noise a news story can create, the less important the original story becomes.
Maybe that’s the point. After all, if the truth of a story is neither here nor there, the story becomes whatever the storyteller wants it to be. That gives an enormous amount of power to the news media. So, a relatively trivial story, about which we know very little, can be transformed into a significant news piece about important things like sexism and misogyny.
The fact that Angela Rayner’s legs have produced several days of news coverage, in itself, feels like a pretty poor reflection on the media. But it’s also an example of how a news story can grow, even as the actual news shrinks; how the news becomes ‘post-truth’.
Following the news these days often feels like listening to a group of people discussing the contents of a box that no one wants to open. If they ever did, it would probably be a very different conversation.