Watching the tragic events unfold in Cardiff this week, I was reminded strongly of the words of Pope Francis in last week’s message for World Communications Day. Francis asked those of us who work in the media to find words that “dispel the shadows of a closed and divided world”, but that equally “we must not be afraid to proclaim the truth – even if sometimes uncomfortable”. Walking the fine line between positivity and enquiry has ever been the stuff that journalists are made of, and it’s what helps ensure the capacity of the Fourth Estate to hold politics to account, and to defend the broader freedoms of the public realm.
It is often said that one of the first signs that a society is in deep trouble is when the press ceases to function, often because it has become the target of oppressive regimes. Hong Kong’s appalling treatment of newspaper editor Jimmy Lai is a case in point. 75 year old Lai – founder of the vocal pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily is currently behind bars and facing a life sentence for his part in the 2019 pro-democracy protests, and is also facing much more serious charges of conspiracy to publish seditious material and collusion with foreign powers under a national security law imposed by China in 2020.
China’s pursuit of Lai is a chilling illustration of how easily an authoritarian regime can take a person’s life apart, throttle free speech and seek to threaten the wider population into silence and conformity. Whilst the Lai case has led to widespread and sustained protests across Hong Kong, the government’s strategy remains that those who are obedient to the party will enjoy democracy and rights, whilst dictatorship will be imposed on those who refuse to conform.
It’s easy to dismiss Hong Kong and the Jimmy Lai case as something far away and in a very different culture, but here in the UK the febrile and divisive atmosphere of public dialogue and debate is starting to impact on the Fourth Estate. Across the past decade we’ve seen an unprecedented and increasingly acrimonious public conversation taking place on almost every aspect of behaviour and morality. Assumptions that have lasted centuries and that have seemed unassailable have been swept aside in the tumult of narratives about what is truth, and what kind of society we do or do not want to live in.
In such a febrile atmosphere the media ought to be leading the debate, but instead we’re witnessing both a dilution of its powers of enquiry, and its manipulation by those in positions of both monetary and political power. In dictatorships the erosion of press freedom is obvious, and often brutal – the arrest and demonisation of Jimmy Lai, and the suppression of support for him, being a case in point. In a democratic society the erosion is more subtle and gradual, but no less dangerous. Just last month the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong held an event in parliament in support of Jimmy Lai and attendees were shocked when parliamentary security guards confiscated the reports and campaign leaflets they had brought with them. Commons officials argued that the material constituted “political slogans or materials”, which the public are banned from bringing onto the parliamentary estate. Seemingly it was perfectly OK to hand out the reports and materials in a committee room, but not to wander elsewhere around parliament with them. It took the intervention of former cabinet minister David Davis to get the materials returned to the attendees. Whilst this may seem like a minor incident, it’s a perfect example the increasing confusion and nervousness over what and isn’t is permissible in the great democratic debate about the future of the UK’s political and social landscape. It’s also indicative of what is becoming for both government and society a severe communications crisis.
Few are in any doubt that Britain is fast becoming incapable of speaking to itself. The dangerous irony is that we seem to be living in a time when there has been a fixation with inclusivity, diversity and tolerance, marked by an increasingly strident divisiveness and unwillingness to listen to anyone but the Self.
This is a daunting time for politicians in particular, facing an electorate that no longer holds any respect for their motives, policies or principles. It should be a time when the media is fundamental in cutting through all this noise and animosity, seeking out truth and bringing unity to a dangerously divided society. But sadly those days are long gone – a few remnants of investigative journalism remain, but by and large today’s media has far more in common with an advertising agency than an investigation bureau.
One only has to look at a couple of examples from the past week to see that critical questions are not being asked, and the public narrative has been the worst for it.
Returning home from the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was hoping that his press conference would laud his diplomatic efforts to solve the global climate crisis, but the focus of questions was firmly on the claim that his Home Secretary Suella Braverman had tried to get civil servants to help her avoid a speeding fine. Not exactly a world-shattering story, and far less important than the Summit, but Sunak’s tetchy exchange with BBC reporter Chris Mason ought to be a warning to us all. When Mason tried to grill him about the speeding story, an obviously irritated Sunak replied: “Do you have any questions about the summit?” When Mason and other journalist stood their ground, Sunak was eventually obliged to address their perfectly legitimate questions, but swerved any meaningful answer and remained clearly frustrated that the event had not gone to script.
Yesterday the Prime Minister bounced back onto our TV screens, avoiding the hard news programmes but settling onto the This Morning sofa for a 20 minute session with new presenters Alison Hammond and Dermot O’Leary, in which he deftly avoided the tough questions, but took great delight in chatting about his love of Jilly Cooper paperback novels.
When he was asked about some of the desperately urgent matters affecting the UK, the PM simply replied that in his many regular encounters in coffee shops, most thought the government is “doing a great job”. Neither journalist thought to ask the multi-billionaire PM when he last went into a coffee shop?
Over in the House of Commons, legislators were expressing their frustration that the Home Secretary had simply decided to absent herself from Prime Minister’s questions, on the day when UK immigration figures hit an all time high. A spokesperson for Mrs Braverman said curtly that she was otherwise engaged in far more important “internal meetings”. What was notable about the tumult and complaints from parliamentary colleagues was the obvious sense of frustration that nothing could be done about such a blatant dereliction of accountability.
If we think that such attitudes have no consequences, one only has to look at the tragic events that took place in Ely, Cardiff on Monday to see that actions have consequences. The death of two young boys riding an e-bike through a housing estate on a warm spring evening led to a night of rioting and destruction that left the neighbourhood looking like a bad day in 1970s Belfast. More than 150 rioters overturned and burned cars, and then attacked the police who had arrived to try and restore order. As the media tried to make sense of the incident and subsequent outburst of disorder, stories began to circulate locally and on social media that the boys had died as a result of being chased by the police. The South Wales police and crime commissioner Alun Michael was at pains to notify the media that these rumours were false, and that categorically the police had not been involved in chasing the boys. The following morning Chief Superintendent Martyn Stone, Divisional Commander for Cardiff and The Vale, said there were no police vehicles on the road at the time of the fatal crash on Monday night. Several dozen CCTV clips later we all knew that a police transit van had been following the boys at high speed for at least four minutes before the fatal crash, and the matter has now been passed over to a formal enquiry.
As any journalist will tell you, in the heat of any catastrophe the truth can change, but this is by no means the first time that accounts of an event have been presented to the public which subsequently turn out to be incorrect. When such misjudgements involve profound tragedy a public reaction is inevitable, and faith in our institutions merely declines further.
At a press conference at South Wales Police Headquarters in Bridgend on Wednesday, aimed at calming the disquiet, Cardiff, Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Bacon evaded reporters questions about the CCTV footage, instead stating that “We’re absolutely passionate about protecting the people of Ely, we have a dedicated neighbourhood policing team. We want to reach out to them, we want to work with them.” She then went on to focus on the police’s determination to punish the rioters and restore law and order to the Ely neighbourhood, and refused all other questions from reporters.
These days journalists are under all sorts of unreasonable pressures to regurgitate the press statements and commentaries presented by all kinds of individuals, and it takes a particularly tenacious (and financially robust) individual to callout PR and evasion when it occurs. Gone are the days when a journalist might say “answer the questions the public want to know, or I’M actually ending this interview!”
Few of us would want a return to the unpleasant tabloid warfare and absolute media power days of the 1980s but, as Pope Francis said, there’s now an urgent need for us all to communicate truthfully and honestly, even when that’s uncomfortable. Our freedom and the future of our democracy will be dependent on our ability to accept and understand this.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian