Western democracy is threatened by the disturbing idea that truth no longer matters and that what matters, instead, is whatever wins votes, whether it is true or not. This is a “post-truth” political world. Donald Trump is the world’s prime exponent of this approach; and in the UK it is Boris Johnson.
But politicians can only succeed in this way if the media allows them to. Too often, the media amplifies their lies; too rarely, does it undertake the role that democracy requires of it, namely to expose those lies.
On 19 July 2016, Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism and media commentator on the Guardian wrote a deeply troubling article in which he appears to say that it does not matter whether what journalists write is true or not.
Greenslade was commenting on a report published on 1 July 2016 by academics at the London School of Economics. The report is entitled - “Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press: From Watchdog to Attackdog.” The study covers the following eight newspapers - Guardian, Mirror, Independent, Evening Standard, Telegraph, Mail, Express and Sun.
The findings of the report are - or should be - of great concern to anyone who cares about democracy or press standards, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn. The lack of reaction to the LSE report is itself a sign or how debased our political culture has become.
The report finds that most newspapers have “systematically vilified the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his idea and politics.”
The report was careful to make a distinction between the press’ legitimate watchdog function of probing Corbyn’s proposals from this illegitimate attackdog function. It found a failure to make a clear distinction between comment, conjecture and fact - a fundamental distinction in journalism.
The report found that 74% of news coverage (that is news not comment), either ignored Corbyn’s actual views altogether or distorted them.
Greenslade’s response to the report is entitled: - “Yes, Jeremy Corbyn has suffered a bad press, but where’s the harm?”
Far from taking what the report says as a matter of concern for the press generally or for the Guardian in particular, Greenslade suggests the British people do not “hunger for unbiased political coverage.”
Astonishingly, Greenslade then suggests that the behaviour of systematically distorting and undermining the message of the leader of the opposition is acceptable journalism because no one can “demonstrate that the negative coverage of Corbyn has unduly influenced the papers’ readerships”
In fact, as Greenslade should know, there is plenty of evidence that people believe any number of falsehoods about Corbyn, just as they did over Brexit, as a result of what they have read in the papers.
More fundamentally, what about the ethics of journalism? What about basic standards?
When such a pillar of the journalistic establishment as Professor Greenslade appears to care so little for truth in journalism, then it is welcome, indeed, to the post-truth, Trumpified United Kingdom of 2016.