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

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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Matthew Cattell

13th December 2019 at 6:03 pm

I wholeheartedly agree that the vile, pitiful antics of these so called journalists becomes more infantile as the years progress. Presumably we are starting to see the effects of Blair’s education policies come to rotten-fruition. It is in no way an endorsement of Boris Johnson or any of the other sordid political class to point out how banal and petulant “journalism” has become and if I had been in Johnson’s position I might not have reacted so calmly to such a dirty stunt. The mentality is the same as that which attempted to manipulate you into unconditional support of mass uncontrolled migration by looping an image of a dead child on a beach circa Autumn 2015. The sociopathic elites have this type of cynical propaganda down to a fine art and would probably make Goebbels envious.

Vivien Johnson

18th December 2019 at 11:45 pm

Couldn’t agree more. This kind of cheap journalism is allowed full sway in Australian media. There are none of them who will even stand up against it. Good for Boris. Some scribbler caught a photo of two conservative politicians a few years back smoking cigars and looking happy, and there was an unbelievable beat-up, rich plutocrats, capitalists, callous implementers of poverty, blah blah… and it ran for months with no fight back even attempted, Not even from Conservative commentators who merely mumbled about it being unfortunate.

Linda Payne

11th December 2019 at 5:01 pm

Sick of the lionisation of the NHS – its treated like a fucking religion in this country, well I slogged my guts out nursing for 20 years before I was bullied out and I can tell you there have been jobs for the boys and girls ever since we had NHS trusts, many of them do sweetheart deals with certain nursing agencies which means millions gets spent on that while the hospital bank nurses are put out of work, I still don’t know what most of these managers do all day but they used to rock up for ‘work’ in their plush cars after I’d finished a night shift. As for mental health care, you have no rights, their labels ruin your life and define you for life. Then the ‘left’ fucking patronise you and call you weak and vulnerable, well if I hear that said again it will be THEM that will end up weak and vulnerable. I would have been better off in America than this shitstorm of a system

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