“The language around Covid-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading. You do not survive the illness through fortitude or strength of character, whatever the Prime Minister’s colleagues will tell us.”
So said Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis in an opening monologue that went viral and saw the presenter praised for her “frank takedown of the language used to talk about coronavirus”, her “powerful” and “extraordinary” intervention.
Credit where credit is due: Maitlis’ monologue was a timely deconstruction of the “we’re all in this together” narrative of a Conservative government whose inner coterie have spent the past decade downgrading state support for the vulnerable.
Equally, given how regularly journalists proclaim that they exist to hold the powerful to account, we must ask why it makes such waves when one mainstream journalist does just that, several weeks into a crisis which has seen an unprecedented level of news coverage.
According to Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, a journalist’s role is “to adjudicate on what all party leaders are saying – and evaluate which are more likely to make more of us safer, more prosperous, happier”. There has, however, been little evidence of this from Peston during the coronavirus crisis.
The ITV journalist spent the early weeks of the crisis apparently acting as the government’s unofficial spokesperson, preparing the public for the delivery of bad news in tweets. “Revealed: elderly to be quarantined at home or in care homes for four months, in “wartime-style” mobilisation to combat Coronavirus. Full details here.”
Laura Kuenessberg, who fulfils a similar role at the BBC, also appears to be confusing journalism with retyping notes passed to her by the PM’s office.
“After meeting his cabinet virtually,” she wrote in her blog, “Boris Johnson will seek to explain to the public how and why, if not exactly when, they will make the decisions that are vital, not just to our health, but the country’s suffering economy too.”
Little wonder Peter Oborne has written that “political editors are so pleased to be given ‘insider’ or ‘exclusive’ information that they report it without challenge or question.” There is, however, a wider question here: to what extent do mainstream journalists like Peston and Kuenessberg truly wish to challenge government narratives?
The propaganda model (explained here) predicts that the worldview of mainstream journalists and politicians will be one and the same. After all, both are accountable, first and foremost, to private power. Journalists are directly employed by private corporations and politicians rely on the wealthy and big businesses to fund the campaigns which elect them.
Moreover, leading journalists and politicians share cultural and personal connections which raise concerns about which sector of society they speak for. Laura Kuenessberg, for example, was educated at a private school, her older brother is a high-ranking official at Brighton and Hove Council and her sister is an ex-diplomat. Robert Peston attended Oxford University and, as the son of Lord Peston, is entitled to use the title “Your Honourable” should he wish.
An article by the Daily Mail’s Sarah Vine offers an even clearer window into the matrix of elite interconnections that cast doubt on the notion of a “free press”: Boris Johnson’s Coronavirus Battle Has Brought the Nation Together was published on the 7th April 2020, a day that saw a further 854 coronavirus deaths reported across the UK and growing outcry regarding the government’s lack of preparedness for the crisis and failure to provide sufficient PPE.
It is also the day Boris Johnson moved to intensive care with coronavirus symptoms.
In her article Vine conflates the Conservative Party, its policies and ideology into the “larger-than-life…bear of a man” Boris Johnson. In a further appeal to nation’s heart-strings, she asks us to consider the “heartbreaking” situation of his heavily pregnant partner Carrie Symonds, who is described as a “tough cookie” who has “fought so hard for their relationship.”
By focussing on Johnston the man (and his pregnant partner) Vine makes an appeal for readers to put ideology aside – an appeal that is, ironically, itself ideological. Vine’s article, in context, asks us to prioritise compassion for a man over critical analysis of his government’s actions. To submit to suffering with strength rather than challenge why the system meant to support us has been weakened.
The Daily Mail is the third most widely circulated paper in the UK. It is owned by a large media conglomerate (DMGT) and traditionally aligned with conservativism. Vine, a weekly contributor to the paper, unsurprisingly produces articles in line with this “economic base.”
There is, however, an even more startling element to her propaganda. Vine is a self-identifying “@westminsterWAG”, the wife of Conservative MP Michael Gove and the godmother of David Cameron’s daughter!
Vine does not hide these aspects of her life – her article mentions visits to Chequers and personal acquaintance with Boris Johnson and David Cameron – but wouldn’t a free press put this information front and centre? If readers are to be truly informed shouldn’t a disclaimer be attached to articles like this – Warning, this journalist is married to a government minister making key decisions on coronavirus!
The problem is, as we’ve seen with Kuenessberg and Peston, if the press had to print these sorts of disclaimers newspapers would barely have room for anything else. Mainstream journalists are embedded in the Establishment, married to each other, educated alongside each other and move fluidly between the intertwined worlds of business, politics and the media (hello George Osborne, millionaire, ex-Chancellor and editor of the Evening Standard).
No wonder it stood out a mile when Maitlis took on the We’re All in This Together narrative with statements like “the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which, rich or poor, suffers the same.”
A glitch in the matrix will always register.
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