Britain’s winter election is shaping up to be one of the worst tempered and most divisive political battles in recent history, with the media caught in the crossfire. The country’s unspoken but generally accepted norms around political campaigning are being upended, and there is a real danger that the credibility of journalists and politicians will not recover.
Even before the election, only 40 percent of British voters surveyed by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said they trusted news, and only 51 percent trusted news they actually used — an extraordinarily damning indictment of how people view journalism. Just 10 percent of respondents said they trusted news from social media.
But the actions of political parties during the campaign have done little to improve these figures. In a lackluster televised debate on ITV between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative Party changed its Twitter profile to resemble a fact-checking organization. The move sparked uproar among bona fide fact-checkers such as Full Fact, and a rebuke from Twitter itself over misleading people from a verified account.
This kind of stunt has real consequences. In our survey, conducted at the beginning of 2019, the Reuters Institute found that 70 percent of British people already worry about whether the news they come across online is real or fake. Moves such as this only exacerbate feelings of mistrust.
Crucially, it will also harm the reputation of journalism. When people say they worry about fake news, they really mean they worry about poor journalism, partisan reporting and political propaganda, as well as deliberately falsified information. This election has provided all of this in bucketloads — and the ultimate casualty is trust.
People tend to trust BBC News, but in this febrile atmosphere, production glitches are picked apart online and reinterpreted as signs that the errant broadcaster is biased. For example, on Remembrance Sunday, Johnson accidentally carried a wreath upside down, but during a video package on one breakfast program, it used the wrong archival footage, which showed Johnson carrying the wreath correctly when he was foreign secretary. The BBC apologized, blaming a production error, but those who believed the BBC was biased against Corbyn argued it had deliberately substituted the footage to make Johnson look better.
A similar online storm broke over the weekend, after the BBC aired a Question Time leaders debate, in which a member of the public asked Johnson whether he believed truth was important. The studio audience laughed and applauded her question. In a short clip of that exchange broadcast on the news, the sound was edited to make it seem as though audience members were applauding Johnson instead of laughing at him. Eventually, after another bout of online mudslinging, the BBC admitted it had messed up, issuing a statement that said: "Although there was absolutely no intention to mislead, we accept that (the editing) was a mistake on our part, as it didn’t reflect the full reaction to Boris Johnson’s answer.”
Both these cases involve a piece of television aired live on a mainstream channel that would have been watched mainly by older audiences: Just more than half of people over the age of 45 get their news mainly from television, compared to only 27 percent of those under 45. But a repackaging and editing of that clip then turned into a story about media bias that played out online, where 63 percent of people under 45 get most of their news.
In other words, a younger audience, which may have never watched the original broadcast, came away with the idea that the BBC is unreliable. Trust, it seems, is fading away down the generations.
It seems odd that the best journalism during this whole campaign has been removed from politics. BBC presenter Emily Maitlis’s calm, forensic television interview with Prince Andrew over his connection to Jeffery Epstein was a master class in holding power to account. Four days after the interview was broadcast, Andrew announced he would step back from royal duties and said he would be willing to help any appropriate law enforcement agency with their investigations into Epstein, if required.
By contrast, politicians seem reluctant to spend to face up to scrutiny and often avoid what they deem to be a hostile media. In both the ITV and BBC television debates, the leaders of the political parties were willing to answer questions from the general public in a controlled environment, but have been much more reluctant to grant longer, in-depth interviews to professional journalists who could stay on at them to answer difficult questions. On the rare occasions where they are put under the spotlight, they don’t come across well.
If we now live in a world where it is easier for a journalist to grill a prince than a politician, it is not surprising that only 42 percent of those surveyed say they believe the news media properly scrutinizes powerful people and businesses. But what, then, is journalism for?
Meera Selva is director of the journalist fellowship program at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is the director and Richard Fletcher is a senior research fellow.