Boris Johnson is used to the sort of media coverage in which he is given a platform to promote himself and paid £275,000 for the privilege – how else to explain his reaction to the first tough questioning he has faced since launching his prime ministerial bid?
At last week’s leadership launch, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and then Sky’s Beth Rigby asked him about accusations that his campaign was a “chaotic mess” and then about his character. Johnson’s response was not to provide a riposte to the concerns among his former colleagues about whether he is “fit to be prime minister”; it was to laugh at Rigby’s accent. Viewers, most of whom will get no say in who will next run the country, were treated to the very English spectacle of an Old Etonian classicist, who likes to litter his speech with Latin, belittling a state-school educated woman from Essex for the way she said “character”. “Parrot?,” he mocked and his party supporters guffawed as though he were Monty Python.
Hilariously, the man who famously described an absolutely true affair as “an inverted pyramid of piffle” which was “all completely untrue” went on to say that, when he called women in burqas “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” he was merely speaking his mind. The Great British Public don’t want politicians “muffling and veiling our language, not speaking as we find” apparently. When the BBC reminded him of his own previous muffling and veiling – writing one column for and one against Brexit – and asked whether the public could “trust” him, Johnson again raised guffaws by comparing the question to minestrone soup.
It was hard not to feel depressed by this spectacle, particularly as it came only a few hours after a landmark report on the state of the news industry found that trust in the news had fallen two percentage points across all markets, and in the UK that fall reflected a greater sense of powerlessness and negativity. Levels of trust in the UK had fallen by a much higher than average 11 percentage points, according to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, which interviewed 75,000 people in 38 countries. Most people in the UK cited concerns over fake news and a sense of being overwhelmed and fed up with increasingly polarised debates since 2016, something the report’s authors dubbed the “Brexit blues”. More than a third of UK respondents (35%) admitted to avoiding the news entirely because it had a negative impact on their mood, left them feeling powerless, unsure about its veracity or led to arguments. The Boris launch? Tick, tick and tick.
The snark of the internet is often blamed for this cheapening of political discussion. Following the Boris launch Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson waded in to support him by threatening the BBC with “trouble” and jeering at fellow journalist Rigby’s “diction”. None of this will surprise those of us who consume print media; for if Johnson is the UK’s Trump, the Daily Telegraph is his Fox News.
The day after the launch, a triumphant Johnson filled half the paper’s front page with a headline shrieking “Now is the time to remember our duty to the people”. In case readers failed to understand the resemblance to Johnson’s hero, Churchill, the intro stated that he was “promising guts and courage” to take Britain out of the EU. Inside, Janet Daley, wrote glowingly of the leadership favourite and accused Kuenssberg of “speaking with clear distaste on behalf of the chattering classes”. In her front-page column, Pearson wrote that when he entered the room “the molecules rearrange themselves to make room for the sheer force of personality”.
Tone and context were two of the issues felt to be important among online news consumers who fear that what they are reading may not be as it seems. But greater awareness has led to both a healthy scepticism and a loss of faith in both interviewed and interviewer.
The Reuters report focused largely on the future of a cash-strapped industry and the behaviour of the much-desired but hard-to-reach young. The research suggested that most young people felt their concerns, from climate change to minority rights, were being ignored by a media industry too full of negativity and sensationalism. They wanted entertainment and they wanted control, hence the rise in explainer videos, podcasts and live events as the news media struggles to engage young people who may have watched the entire back catalogue of Friends but have no interest in an 800-word analysis of Downing Street machinations. Yet news in an uncertain age is still in huge demand, it just needs to be “authentic” “fair” and “meaningful”.
Alongside the frustrations of digital natives and the rise of populism, the UK has an unusual gulf in respect and trust depending on your level education. Faith in and satisfaction with the news industry was far lower among those without a university degree than other countries such as Germany. People who hadn’t gone to university were far less likely to believe the news picked relevant subjects, used the right tone, helped improve their understanding or monitored powerful people than those with a degree. This gulf – in which 63% of the university-educated thought the news media helped them understand the news compared with 50% of the less educated – compared with a gap of just 5% in Germany (44% and 49%). That chimes with criticism which emerged at the time of the Grenfell fire where residents felt that their lives were not being reflected by a media too focused on the concerns of people more like them, highly educated and typically from well-off backgrounds. With less than 6% of those polled in a survey by BritainThinks this weekend believing that politicians understand them, this sense of disenfranchisement doesn’t just affect the media.
Reading the report it seems there are far more reasons to be cheerful about engaging the young – newer forms of information, a desire for understanding – than there are to reach the poorer socio-economic groups. The use of “elite” as a proxy for “education” allows populist politicians to tap into a sense that it is journalists who live in liberal establishments, rather than the gilded sons of Brussels bureaucrats who went to Eton and now seek to run the country.
Which brings us back to Johnson, whose attempt to position himself as a man of the people is rather contradicted by his penchant for using big words to laugh at anyone asking questions. It really doesn’t matter how Rigby – educated at a state grammar school before going to Cambridge – speaks so long as she is clear and continues to ask great questions. Which she does. If anything having any kind of accent at all is a good thing in a media industry too dominated by one kind of voice, typically male and posh.
Johnson, with the keys to 10 Downing Street his to lose, has had to be dragged into a televised debate with its no-holds-barred approach to questioning. Why answer questions when he can promote himself in a national newspaper and use social media outrage to disseminate? If such a man is to become prime minister, is it any wonder UK news consumers feel such an overwhelming sense of irritation and powerlessness.