THE British media and the dynamic operating between them and our politicians has undergone an unpropitious and sinister metamorphosis in the years since the Brexit vote.
It is, of course, right and proper that the Fourth Estate should hold to account on our behalf the politicians of the Third Estate who largely run this country. It was easy, therefore, to countenance and even applaud Jeremy Paxman’s cross-examination of Michael Howard on Newsnight in 1997 when he repeated the same question twelve times.
This was lawyerly and addressed political and procedural facts and matters of record without attempting any kind of personal demolition. What drove Paxman appeared to be a dispassionate concern that the country was being run properly and honestly. If he exposed something that made it hard for Howard to live with himself thereafter, that was Howard’s responsibility, not Paxman’s. Essentially Paxman had interrogated the facts. He had not attempted to open a window into Howard’s soul. He had also behaved as one citizen on an equal moral footing with another (until proved otherwise), both properly and respectfully pursuing their respective roles in the same polity.
Things have changed since 2016, something I will try to illustrate in relation to the dynamic now operating between Boris Johnson and the press, although it’s not especially Boris in whom I am interested here. I could have chosen other politicians or interviewees to make the same case. The interest is in the new ways in which the press gives itself permission to behave which go beyond interrogation of fact to an intrusive examination and flagellation of soul.
A recent Times cartoon lampooning Boris inevitably (for the desperation is growing in Remainer quarters) mentioned the name of Darius Guppy, and this reminded me of the TV interview in which Eddie Mair asked Boris to confirm that he (Boris) was a ‘nasty piece of work’.
Andrew Neil in his irascible recent interview with Boris said: ‘Someone who’s worked for you and knows you well says you’re all flaws and no character. The British people will face huge and unprecedented risk with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, won’t they?’
This told us what Neil thinks but, for the interviewee, it is an unanswerable question of the same order as ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ It edifies the audience little beyond treating them to unsophisticated hostility. It comes perilously close to televised character assassination and risks looking like a gratuitous punishment beating.
Indeed, in the same interview, Neil (who perhaps was overcompensating against any accusation that, as a known conservative, he had let Boris off lightly) trotted out the usual litany of accusations against Boris which took on a flavour of an antiphonal liturgy, so often have they been rehearsed. It might be expressed as follows:
Media Priest: In the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe you weren’t on top of your brief. You were sloppy.
Politician (sits impassively and unflinchingly, grimly taking it on the chin).
The People respond: Shame! Shame on you! (Brickbats may be thrown at this point in the ceremony).
This liturgy is not designed to find out anything new. It is simply there to confirm and publicly castigate the perceived wickedness of the politician. It was significant, therefore, that, Boris complained that the interview was degenerating into blame and ‘inculpation’. Now few of us are under any illusion that he has his flaws; certainly he has it in him to cock up, as in the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, and may not fulfil his promises over Brexit and so save the Conservative Party. This really isn’t news. Most politicians are guilty of some such. We choose, for now, to give him the benefit of the doubt because he is still a viable politician and it is not entirely impossible that he will live up to his promises, given that he was the man who won the Brexit vote against all odds.
The new relationship between the press and the politician has them in totemic roles with a quasi-religious significance. The play is enacted with us in the role of the congregation. The press seem to have arrogated to themselves the role of unimpeachably righteous interrogator who already knows as a matter of incontestable axiom that the politician is disreputable, while the politician (especially if he is a Conservative one) merely sits and acts as a whipping boy while it is confirmed. The aim of the interview is not to interrogate; it is to deal out ritual punishment.
We have seen this dynamic before. It was participated in by Christ when he offered himself as a willing sacrificial Lamb and victim to be crucified in expiation of sin or payment of debt by an enraged mob. In Christ’s case, of course, he voluntarily stood in for us. This used to be the religious part of society which was regularly enacted symbolically while the rest of society’s business went on around it. Such enactments have largely vanished from modern society but, in a mode similar to that suggested by G K Chesterton, even if the forms of religion vanish they simply recur in new incarnations. Thus the slaughter of the scapegoat by the priest empowered to do so by the congregation has migrated into the media-politician dynamic.
This is very serious. However disenchanted we are with our appalling political class (which reflects as badly on society as on them since they ‘represent’ us in every sense), they fulfil a vital and indispensable role. While they should be rigorously scrutinised for their actions in office, their authority and the responsibility attached to their roles should be acknowledged. If, instead, they have begun to fulfil a new role, in which they are publicly immolated in an orgy of accusatory finger-wagging and pointing by priest-like media pundits on our behalf in some kind of perverse Theatre of Cruelty and choreographed punishment, we should be concerned. It is not a role they should be fulfilling. (Although Rod Liddle is not a politician, there was a fine example of this journalistic open season on character in Emily Maitlis’s recent Newsnight attack on him.)
Even the confessional priest-class qualified for their role through a process of self-awareness and humility that fitted them to deal with the souls of others. Ironically a gentler, more self-knowing and humble journalist may expose more, as David Frost did with Richard Nixon, than the finger-pointers, accusers and self-appointed castigators of public morals. One begins to feel that they smack of the Committee of Public Safety.