Boris was right to rebuke ITV’s cheap journalism

Showing the PM sad photos of a poorly child isn’t journalism – it’s a cynical emotional stunt.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Topics Politics

Boris Johnson was absolutely right to refuse to look at that photo of a four-year-old boy sleeping on a hospital floor. Why? Because the ITV reporter who was shoving the photo in Boris’s face was engaging in the most cynical, cheap and emotionalist form of journalism imaginable. His aim wasn’t to question the PM, far less to enlighten ITV viewers about the Tories’ policies on the NHS. No, it was to create a viral image of an uncaring politician that the time-rich Twitterati could then rage and splutter about. It wasn’t Boris who behaved insultingly – it was the stardom-chasing journalist and the online luvvies who have lapped up his showdown with the PM.

The photo shows a kid called Jack Williment-Barr asleep on the floor of a hospital in Leeds, despite having suspected pneumonia. That is a distressing situation. No poorly child – or poorly adult, for that matter – should be left on a hospital floor. The photo, first published in the Daily Mirror, has gone viral, and is being cited across the internet as proof that callous cuts made by the Tories are having a negative impact on people’s lives. Today, ITV News’ Joe Pike tried to show the photo to Boris. Boris initially refused to look at it; he then took Pike’s phone off him and put it in his pocket.

I can’t have been the only person who let out a little cheer when this happened. No, not because I think it is okay that a hospital bed could not be found for a sick young child, but because this was such a cynical journalistic stunt. It was an emotionalist gotcha. Pike’s mind seemed to be less on getting some facts and information that he might then communicate to his viewers, and more on getting as many likes, retweets and media mentions as possible by humiliating a PM with a sad photo. He succeeded. The increasingly desperate Corbynista wing of public life in particular has used this hollow confrontation to say, in Jeremy Corbyn’s morally infantile words, that Boris ‘just doesn’t care’.

Grow up. For a start, Boris very quickly retrieved the reporter’s phone from his pocket, looked at the photo, and described it as ‘terrible’. He even apologised to the boy’s family and ‘all those who have terrible experiences in the NHS’. What’s more, this attempt to create an emotionalist spectacle, in this case by pushing heartstring-tugging photos in politicians’ faces in order to elicit a rash or sad response, is insulting to viewers and voters. It is apolitical and ahistorical. Apolitical because it substitutes soppy gotchas for serious political discussion; and ahistorical because the idea that terrible things only started happening in the NHS because of the current Tory government’s cuts overlooks the fact that the health system has been shoddy for decades. Anyone who has seen an elderly relative left on a trolley in a corridor or waited for hours in grotty, dispiriting waiting rooms will know that the NHS has had problems forever, under governments of every stripe.

Media coverage of this election is becoming irritating and patronising. Journalists seem to think it is their role to shame or harry or humiliate politicians. It isn’t. It is to question them and hold them to account – vigorously, yes – and provide viewers or readers with as much info as possible. Appealing to viewers on the basis of cheap emotion is an abdication of journalistic responsibility. I suspect quite a few ITV viewers approved of Boris’s instinctive and temporary refusal to play this low game.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: ITN.

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