Press ethics and the general election – a losing battle?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here we go. It’s the 6th of May. One day until the General Election and even as I write this article tucked away in a dark corner of a library there is simply no getting away from it. The topic is everywhere, slipping into casual conversations, overheard in the streets, in coffee shops, it’s on television, it’s at the dinner table. Now surely the raging war of opinions and the numerous passionate declarations of allegiance, fidelity, trust, and unrelenting support to this or that political party should be seen positively – wasn’t it MacDonald himself who said that a true democratic state was one where there was maximum popular interest in politics? – but let’s pause and be honest for a minute here. The political system is a mess, everyone has known that for a while, and the current elections are about to show that, more than ever, change is long overdue. There is little prospect of anything other than a hung parliament, and whatever the outcome of the election, chances are the government arising from it will be an interesting abstract interpretation of the reality of the voting pattern by politicians promoted contemporary artists for a month (and while I’m one of those people who will assure you that it’s the process behind the art that counts anyway, not the finished product, I’m not quite sure the contemporary-art lover in me is ready to extend that to politics yet.)

So for you readers tired of all this, for all those of you desperate to see that even on Facebook, Buzzfeed, and the like, your usual procrastination material has been transformed into yet another statement on the election, (I briefly had to consider parting with my beloved dog after finding out that he would most likely vote UKIP, courtesy of the World Wide Web) for you readers, worry not, there remains a place on the internet where you can escape for a brief moment, the Daily Mail.

One day before the General Election, and as I search the web for inspiration for this article, I can say with certainty that the Daily Mail’s website is the place to go for a well-needed break away from the clamour of the elections. Always eager to have something for everyone, the Daily Mail will offer you a wide variety of articles and topics to choose from: from Princess Charlotte’s whereabouts, to the trending issue of fat-shaming and dangerous diet pills, to moving stories of poor innocent children interrogated by the police for playing loudly in the streets, it’s all there, and only if you take the pains to scroll past all of this, and much more, will you come across the dreaded topic of the General Election.

But as much as I enjoy a breath of fresh air away from the toxically political atmosphere of the day, recent trends in journalism and in journalists’ treatment of political topics is slightly concerning. As a student thinking of going into journalism after my degree, I have stopped counting the number of times I was told that this was the worst possible career path to take nowadays. But while I have little doubt that journalism is condemned to evolve to fit the demands of the age of mass media, I beg to differ – surely, in a society where the problem is no longer how to find information but rather the fact that there is simply too much information around, the role of professional journalists should become more crucial as opposed to increasingly redundant? Only, are journalists and newspapers really doing any better than your average teenager posting angry rants about this or that political party on Facebook in the hope to scrape a couple “likes” simply for being controversial? Well, not always. And that’s worrying.

In September 2013, Geoffrey Levy published an article in the Daily Mail entitled, “The Man who Hated Britain”, arguing that Ralph Miliband, Ed’s father and fervent Marxist well, hated Britain. So far, so good. But a quick read of the article will immediately reveal that, not only did the article show little to no appreciation of the intricate ways in which Ralph Miliband’s individual conception of Marxism informed his work as a historian, but the entire basis of the article relied on cherry-picking quotes and presenting them out of context to support a very dubiously moralistic argument of little value to proper political debate. Ralph Miliband could have burned the British flag in his garden, or have proudly worn a Union Jack onesie around the house every Sunday in his adult life, I don’t see how that should inform my opinion of Ed Miliband’s current political stance. The same goes for when the Daily Mail publishes a picture of “Red Ted dressed like Tory Boy” at his matriculation at Oxford University. Unless Daily Mail journalists have been living under a rock for the past decades, it should come as no surprise to them that many, if not most, senior political figures in this country come from “traditional” universities. And if you feel that this negates them the right to champion redistributive income policies, be it, I won’t deny that it is strangely ironic. Only when I look to newspapers to inform my political opinions, I am looking for more than that.

I am looking for more than that and I find it worrying when the editor of the Daily Mail feels it is appropriate to respond to the controversy surrounding Geoffrey Levy’s article with an editorial entitled – “So which is the real sin: to criticise the Marxist view of Red Ed’s father or to help terrorists and put British lives at risk?” referring to articles published by the BBC that putatively leaked important defence information. () Not only is this besides the point, but it creates a false idea that newspapers are competing entities designed, not primarily to inform, but to influence along the lines of predetermined political stances. I find it worrying when, the day before a General Election, voters feel the need to “defend” the leader of the Labour Party by posting selfies of themselves eating awkwardly, as a response to the Sun’s subtle choice of front page picture. I find it worrying that another newspaper dedicates an article to this.

Yes, in an age of mass media, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, readers are expecting something new and different from newspapers. But it is possible for newspapers and journalists to embrace new forms of expression without relinquishing constructive debate for petty personality politics and unfounded arguments. Readers want more news, more varied news, and they want it quickly. But too often, this leads to sensationalism with too little analysis, just like when the Guardian rushed to argue that, should Osborne be elected, he would bring Britain back to the pre-welfare state years. If the estimates of the Report from the Office for Budget Responsibility to which the article alludes are to be carried out, yes, public spending would fall to its lowest levels in about 80 years as a share of GDP. Yes, this could, and probably will, have significant negative impacts on social well-being. But a rigorous analysis would recognize that such a statement alone, while undeniably a powerful click bait, is not sufficient to inform political debate. A rigorous analysis would recognize that using a real income comparison is not ideal because wages and costs have undergone real rises over time, and that using a GDP per capita comparison is not ideal because the real value of GDP per capita has changed.

This shouldn’t mean that there is no place for irony or light-heartedness. But it is possible to satirize constructively, like when Matthew Scott, criminal barrister, details the legal barriers to Ed Miliband’s project to erect a stone pillar in the rose garden to make a point about the legitimacy of Labour’s claim to 10 Downing Street.  It is possible to disagree with Ralph Miliband’s political stance, and to argue that Ed Miliband’s championing of socialist policies is hypocritical. But I want journalists to prove it to me using more than quotes stripped of their contexts and analyses clearly biased by political leanings. And when, the day before an election, voters turn to newspapers, surely they want more than attacks on the putative hypocrisy, or, worse, table manners, of politicians.

The form of journalism might be evolving and indeed be forced to do so, but it should not be at the detriment of its ethics, or of analytical rigour, for the importance of professional journalism politics is growing, not diminishing, as the number of unreliable sources for data and opinion grows daily on the web and through social media. Journalists should remember this and leave the rest to tabloids while, we, as readers, ask ourselves what role we are potentially playing in the demise of professional journalism in a time when information is seen as a public good, but thought and produced like a commodity.