Call me a deluded romantic if you like. But I still believe that an independent media, the fourth estate, forms an important pillar on which our democracies rest.
For that to be true, we need a media that sees itself and behaves in a way that protects and argues for that which is in the public interest. But today’s media seems to have largely abandoned that important mission. It has morphed into a competition for the most sensationalist stories.
Headlines that are primarily intended to be clickbait rather than informative. Articles and so-called ‘news items’ that are primarily focused on generating an emotional response – preferably one of outrage – rather than enhancing the public good and social cohesion.
This was all very visible in the media response to the Downing Street ‘Partygate’ scandal and the government’s ushering in of Plan B to control the spread of the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus.
As Professor Chris Whitty soberly and quite rightly pointed out during the Downing Street press conference, while both are important, they are two quite different issues. The first is about the credibility of the current government. The second is about what needs to be done to protect public health and prevent as many hospitalisations and deaths as possible.
Yet the journalists’ questions at the press conference and the headlines that followed the next day trampled right over that wise and responsible advice. At the press conference, journalists displayed little or no interest in the public health aspects. Rather Laura Kuenssberg from the BBC and most of the others were falling over themselves to show us just how clever they were in trying to ensure that the Prime Minister fell headlong into the hole that he had dug for himself.
Rather than encouraging compliance with the newly announced measures in order to protect people’s health, the questions and the subsequent headlines all largely followed the same line – the government, through its alleged behaviour, had lost any moral authority to issue guidance on how the public should behave to control the spread of the Omicron variant.
How does that help? Sure, hold the government to account on its many repeated and seemingly unstoppable litany of failures. But where is the civic responsibility in spinning a story that effectively says – it’s now OK for everyone to shove the public health guidance where the sun don’t shine because Downing Street had a party or five last Christmas?
Is the media really there to undermine public health in this way? Will they, then, take responsibility for the excess hospitalisations and deaths that will result from this sort of reporting? Or don’t they care a damn?
The media do not just ‘report’, they create the narrative. They set the tone of public debate, people’s perceptions and, ultimately, their behaviours. Yet most media have seemingly abandoned the idea of using such power with the appropriate level of responsibility.
Maybe they can learn something from the Labour opposition. Keir Starmer will, quite rightly, continue to press the government over its failings. But he will also support the newly announced restrictions in the public interest.
If only the media acted as responsibly as some of our politicians.