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In an election year, the press's responsibility to truth is paramount

Snoddy: In an election year, the press’s responsibility to truth is paramount

The news media must test the record of incumbent political parties for competence, achievement, and decency. Will there be Damascene conversions on the Right?

For those who get their kicks from elections, 2024 is going to be a bumper year. More than 2 billion people in 60 countries will have the right to vote — with varying degrees of credibility.

They will be voting in Russia, India, the US, and, almost certainly, in our native place.

In the main democracies, and in countries where journalists are free to report, there is a huge responsibility to analyse, uncover inconvenient truths, honour the facts, and above all try to persuade the populace of the importance of taking part in the democratic process.

Our main interest will obviously be what happens in the UK after more than 13 years of Conservative governments, but we will also be paying a lot of attention and taking vicarious pleasure from the bizarre events unfolding in the US.

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Will Donald Trump, the near inevitable Republican candidate, end up fighting a presidential election from jail?

Will the American people really re-elect an incoherent, fantasist who achieved little in office other than trying to overturn the US constitution to save himself?

You can be sure that the established media, from The Washington Post and The New York Times to CNN and the main networks, will stick to their job — and the facts — such as the US economy’s strong performance under President Joe Biden.

They will undoubtedly ask, quite reasonably, whether Biden is too old for the task, but will not concentrate solely on his physical performance coming down aircraft steps.

They will also shine an increasingly harsh light on the madness of Donald J Trump.

Which way will Rupert Murdoch, who still pulls an occasional string at Fox News, jump this time?

Murdoch believes above all in supporting winners, as was demonstrated perfectly by his attitude to Tony Blair. Murdoch told a Financial Times journalist, aboard his private jet, that The Sun was going to support Blair and that was how The Sun editor found out which way the paper would have to jump.

Will there be a similar Damascene conversion for The Sun this time?

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As long as Trump is inexplicably ahead in the polls it will be difficult for Fox News to do other than support their man.

The likeliest outcome in the presidential election? Best guess is that the mainstream media will lead an outpouring of the rational electorate coming out in unprecedented numbers, particularly the young, in a last-minute move to save the Republic.

As one bemused Trump supporter was heard to wail: “How come all those who have been to college support Biden?”

Press cannot ignore the Conservatives’ record this past 13 years

In the world of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak what should be the duty of the media in an election year?

It is of course to cover events as always, but when a party is seeking a further five years in power to add to 13 already in place with five Prime Ministers, only two of whom have actually faced the electorate, there is a special responsibility.

The special responsibility of the media is to test the record of the successive administrations for competence, achievement and yes, decency and honour.

Is the UK a better, more prosperous, more equal nation than it was 13 years ago after allowing for the impact of both the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Such an analysis could have to include a number of records — such as record numbers of food banks and levels of inequality.

Never mind Covid partying in Downing Street, what about the VIP lanes for Tory donors with off-the-shelf companies selling inadequate PPE equipment, while the calls of companies with real experience in the sector went unanswered?

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Any serious media analysis would have to look at the cost-of-living crisis and the proportion of it which was self-inflicted by the largely Conservative policy of Brexit and the follies of the passing Prime Minister Liz Truss.

The media should also be increasingly cautious of the claims of Rishi Sunak, such as trumpeting that he had halved inflation when he had little control of it going up and just as little of it coming down.

Above all, the media should not ignore the record of the past thirteen years and start conveniently from where we are now, as if it were God-given and that the governing party had nothing to do with it.

Beware media outlets who conveniently forget how we got where we are now and concentrate instead on the fact that Sir Keir Starmer is not the most charismatic leader Labour has ever had.

Reliably fear the worst

We can assume, with the possible exception of GB News, that broadcasters will seek due impartiality and context in an election year, as indeed they are required to do under broadcasting legislation.

With newspapers we can rely for analysis on the Financial Times, which has come out for Labour in living memory and may well do again this time.

The Guardian and the Daily Mirror will plough their traditional left-of-centre furrow and The Times can probably be relied on to provide a diversity of ideas because its readership is diverse.

The re-instatement of columnist Philip Collins (sacked in 2020 by former editor John Witherow because he was too left wing) by current Times editor Tony Gallagher was a sign of that reality.

As for the rest — from The Sun and the Daily Express to the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph — we can reliably fear the worst.

They will support Sunak just as enthusiastically as they supported David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in the past; they will concentrate on attacking Labour for threatening to raise taxes and Starmer for being a boring leader who has been known to change his mind.

The Johnson-supporting press is playing the deflection game

The election year is yet young but there is already evidence aplenty of what is likely to happen.

Sun columnist Trevor Kavanagh wasted no time with his New Year’s Day piece headlined: “Will We Really Have to Suffer Sir Shifty?”

Kavanagh was not, however, too optimistic about the choice the voter’s faced — between “sliding off a socialist cliff” or spluttering back to life “like an old biplane taking flight.”

Roll all a day and The Sun was in more optimistic mood about the “PM’s Twin Win on Migration” with “legacy” asylum cases cleared and small boat arrivals down by one third.

You had to read The Times to see that the “win” on asylum cases was helped by a huge number of withdrawn claims, the exclusion of thousands of complex cases or the fact that there are already more than one hundred thousand new cases to be dealt with.

By yesterday the Daily Mail was tuning up in best traditional style by giving former Brexit Secretary Sir David Davis a whole page to predict that the Tories “can” beat Labour if they unite to play as a team.

The best current bet is that Sir Keir Starmer will be leading a majority Labour Government before the year is out — resulting in a grim five years for the Conservative supporting press.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

Julian Petley, Professor of Journalism, Brunel University London, on 05 Jan 2024
“You say "five grim years for the Consevative supporting press" but I forsee five grim years of hyper-partisan coverage of Labour (if it wins the election) on the part of that press. In my view, Labour is entirely unprepared for this - and such papers simply cannot be appeased.”

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