WHENEVER I go to New Broadcasting House in London, I can’t avoid the statue of George Orwell and the inscription on the wall beside it: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” It is taken from Animal Farm, a book that has been selling well in the brave new world of alternative facts and populist politics.
As we know, liberty cannot be the sole preserve of those who claim the power to dictate its terms. Maturity can be identified where people are able to hear what is uncomfortable and reflect on its probity, even if this means changing an opinion or mindset. In other words, citizens, politicians, journalists, “personalities”, and anyone else can reasonably be expected to behave like grown-ups, being unafraid to hear a different perspective.
THE reason this matters is that we are now seeing before our very eyes a change in how governments handle uncomfortable news.
Recently, No. 10 divided journalists into two lines in the hallway and told one line that they would not be admitted into a press conference. All the journalists walked out in an act of solidarity that in itself became widely seen as a touchstone of liberty. Although No. 10 backtracked later and claimed that there had been a misunderstanding, every journalist there saw it differently and recognised that this could not be conceded.
This comes on top of the Prime Minister’s refusing to subject himself to informed policy scrutiny during the General Election, then preventing ministers’ accepting invitations to appear on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Petty revenge for past coverage? Fear of detailed analysis of policy or motive? Deliberate strategy to shut out public access to information to which they should, as citizens, be entitled? Well, take your pick.
Anyone in the public eye knows how frustrating it is to be misrepresented, misquoted, criticised, or ridiculed in the press or broadcast media. A dig into my blog over the past decade will reveal many examples of my taking journalists to task and asking for better, more intelligent, and less ad hominem journalism.
So, I understand why the Prime Minister might, under the direction of his employee Dominic Cummings, decide to communicate directly and without mediation to those with whom he wishes to speak. Digital and social media make this possible. Mainstream media can be bypassed, ignored, or belittled in an attempt to control the narrative.
THIS brave new world brings with it significant dangers, however. As we are already witnessing, direct control of the messaging means avoidance of the sort of scrutiny upon which a genuine democracy depends.
A chat show is not the same as being subjected to intelligent, informed, and fearless interrogation. Three-word slogans work only so long as no one is allowed to question them, digging beneath the assumptions behind the words, pushing the meanings to see if they contain any substance. One of the lessons of the past three years must be that slogans trump facts, where the public accountability of the powerful is simply denied by a refusal to be subject to open scrutiny.
I would say this, wouldn’t I? A former professional linguist who worked in the intelligence world before ordination, I have not been coy about criticising the corruption of our public discourse (News, 2 February 2018), bemoaning the impunity of those who tell lies for a living and know that they can get away with it, calling for a recovery of public and individual integrity on the part of public servants — which is what politicians are.
The US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson reportedly said in 1917, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” I am not the first to challenge this: the first casualty is language. We should expect politicians and prime ministers to try to shape their messages so that they communicate well and clearly — but we should be deeply suspicious when they deliberately avoid scrutiny or examination by experts who, on behalf of the people, hold them to account.
In this context, we need to watch very carefully the Government’s approach to the BBC. If the BBC needs to hear what it doesn’t want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform public-service broadcasting cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries that are not admired for their democratic credentials.
There is much at stake here for those who wish to deepen and not dilute democracy.
The Rt Revd Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.
His blog, “Musings of a restless bishop”, appears at nickbaines.wordpress.com