BBC: get back in your box

The controversy over John Humphrys' after-dinner speech reveals some unappetising truths about journalism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘BBC journalist in “All politicians are liars” shock!’ Only someone who never switches on the radio or the TV or opens a daily newspaper could be shocked by revelations that John Humphrys slated politicians in an after-dinner speech. According to The Times, during a talk at the Communication Directors’ Forum on 8 June, Humphrys implied that ‘all ministers are liars’, said Gordon Brown was the ‘most boring political interviewee’, described Alastair Campbell as a ‘pretty malevolent force…who has been waging a vendetta against me’, and said it was the job of the BBC to ‘take on’ the government (1).

Such self-importance from a journo is hardly surprising these days: indeed, tune in to the Today programme on Radio 4, which wakes up Middle England every morning and is presented by Humphrys, and you’ll hear a similar cynicism towards all things political (though expressed a little more guardedly).

The Humphrys controversy and the response to it provides a snapshot of today’s media – and it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. It shows that the media, and especially the BBC, have become the voice of popular cynicism about politics; that conspiracy-mongering about ‘lying politicians’ comes from the middle classes of Middle England, rather than from apparently thick voters who don’t appreciate the importance of Parliament; and that sections of the media have become so self-important that, despite the small matter of never having been elected by anybody, they consider themselves as some brave, crusading Opposition to today’s ‘very, very powerful government’ (as Humphrys put it) (2).

It might appear radical to distrust politicians and treat their every word with scepticism; to refuse to bow and scrape to them as those Chomondley-Warner-style journalists did in the past. Here at spiked, we’ve always considered it our job to ‘question everything’. But what we have today, in parts of the media, is not critical questioning but just cynicism.

Among many journalists, it has become an automatic and unthinking response to assume that whatever the government says must be a lie or a cover-up – to the extent that Humphrys could claim in his after-dinner speech that ‘those who do not lie at all ever…do not get into government’ (3). All too often, this scepticism is not of the healthy variety: it isn’t the result of a critical inquiry into the facts of an issue, but a consequence of a broader institutionalisation of mistrust and conspiracy-mongering.

So the Today team prides itself on its interrogation of New Labour ministers over the Iraq war, when the government did indeed play fast and loose with the facts, presenting the weak and collapsing Baathist regime as a threat to world peace with ‘weapons of mass murder’. As Humphrys said in his speech – in defence of Andrew Gilligan’s report on the Today programme that accused the government of ‘sexing up’ the evidence against Iraq – ‘The fact is that we got it right’ (4). (Others might take a different view: you could argue that, just as the government saw what it wanted to see in the evidence against Saddam, so Gilligan saw what he wanted to see in the words of a Ministry of Defence scientist who doubted the government’s case.)

Berating ministers for fibbing about WMD might seem fair enough, and the media have had a field day doing so (not seeming to realise that governments have been lying their way into war for the best part of 200 years). But then this ‘ministers always lie!’ sentiment spreads to doubting everything the government says, just by virtue of the fact that the government said it, even if what the government says is actually quite sensible.

The Today programme, for example, has also been at the forefront of bashing the government over its claims that Gulf War Syndrome doesn’t exist, despite the publication of lengthy scientific research a couple of years ago that said there was no such thing as GWS. It was widely assumed that, because the government funded the research, it must be a cover-up. Today has also questioned the government’s assurances that the MMR vaccine is safe and has given prominent air time to anti-MMR campaigners, leading one commentator to accuse the programme of ‘undermining the attempts to gain public trust over the issue of vaccine safety’ (5).

Humphrys might consider himself ‘right’ to challenge the government over its lies about Iraq. But was he also right to doubt government officials and scientists on the issue of pesticide safety? Humphrys describes himself as a ‘passionate critic’ of pesticides, and once sought to challenge the views of a ‘government ministry, a powerful chemical manufacturing company and the might of the scientific establishment’, by claiming that they were covering up Britain’s ‘excessive usage’ of dangerous poisons in food production. Just as journalists doubt whether the government told the truth about Iraq, so they seem to doubt whether it tells the truth about anything else – and this can give rise to its own kind of fearmongering (6).

It’s not just Today, of course. Many journalists seem to assume, almost as a kneejerk response, that the government is always lying. This is a sweeping cynicism rather than a critical engagement with specific issues – which means the government can be lambasted regardless of whether it is telling untruths about Iraq or making sound scientific judgements. This doesn’t generate a questioning climate, but a mistrustful and often poisonous one.

The Humphrys controversy also demonstrates that cynicism about politics comes from the top down – or at least from the middle (as in Middle England) down. Many assume that falling voter turnout and lack of interest in politics is the fault of the general public, who are too shallow or idle or busy watching (and voting in) Big Brother to take an interest in parliamentary politics. Every now and then, a Polly Toynbee or a Yasmin Alibhai-Brown will berate the masses for not taking politics seriously, and a government department will launch an inquiry into how to get more of us voting.

Yet Humphrys’ ‘lying politicians’ speech was given to an apparently appreciative audience at the posh Communication Directors’ Forum. Indeed, he now wonders what all the fuss is about, since he has given the same speech ‘many times, including at several literary festivals’ (7). You can imagine the bookish middle classes who frequent such festivals nodding along with Humphrys’ disdainful view of politicians. It is in those sections of society that cynicism, not just about politicians but about politics itself, thrives – which in turn informs and reinforces a broader public mood.

And how about the self-importance of the media? Humphrys said in his speech: ‘If we were not prepared to take on a very, very powerful government, there would be no point in the BBC existing – that is ultimately what the BBC is for.’ (8) Since when was it the job of the BBC to act as a political opposition? Meanwhile, various newspapers have made a big story of the Humphrys controversy, turning him into a martyr for truth bravely standing up against the ruthless Blair government. ‘Go at ’em, John-o’, said an excitable headline in today’s Guardian, calling on Humphrys (or, er, John-o) to continue asking ‘awkward questions and stirring the nests of hornets’ (9).

It’s official: the media’s self-obsession knows no bounds. This assumption on the part of some journalists that it’s their job to harangue the government over every issue also points to a hole at the heart of British politics. They are effectively trying to fill the gap left by the decline of political and public debate, and presenting themselves as a new Opposition. Instead we get the New Cynicism and an increasingly degraded public debate.

I’m still keen to ‘question everything’ – but today that sometimes means questioning not only the government, but also its critics.

Read on:

The most dangerous ‘ism’ now is the new cynicism, by Mick Hume

(1) The Humphrys verdict on ‘boring’ Brown and Blair, The Times (London), 2 September 2005

(2) The Humphrys verdict on ‘boring’ Brown and Blair, The Times (London), 2 September 2005

(3) The Humphrys verdict on ‘boring’ Brown and Blair, The Times (London), 2 September 2005

(4) The Humphrys verdict on ‘boring’ Brown and Blair, The Times (London), 2 September 2005

(5) See MMR: the making of junk science, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(6) ‘The price of food’, John Humphrys, Daily Mail, 29 March 2001

(7) Humphrys hits back over ‘liars’ speech, Guardian, 5 September 2005

(8) The Humphrys verdict on ‘boring’ Brown and Blair, The Times (London), 2 September 2005

(9) Go at ‘em, John-o, Zoe Williams, Guardian, 6 September 2005

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Topics Politics


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