The election where British fourth estate journalism moved closer to extinction

Remarkably, many still labour under the impression that we have an independent, autonomous news media in Britain. Yet, following the 2019 election, I think that assumption has no more validity here than it would in say Italy, Hungary or Poland. The Conservative-leaning press have always questioned Labour and favoured the Tory Party. Yet, as successive Loughborough election studies have shown, those differences have become ever more extreme since 2010.

Even so, 2019 reached levels I haven’t witnessed in some three decades of voting. Four previous years of culture wars aside, in this electoral period, the large majority of press outlets were relentless in their attacks on the Labour Party while minimising criticism of the Conservatives. This time round though, there were also serious failings in broadcasting, most concerningly in the BBC. Many were shocked at the multiple ‘mistakes’, dominant agendas and framing of the issues, leaders and parties by the Corporation’s leading reporters and editors. Others have already been documenting these failings in some detail. I agree with many of their analyses. The only question for me is how we best explain what happened.

On the one hand, the classic political economy critique of British news media seems more in evidence than ever. A few billionaire media owners, with close Tory Party connections, saw their mutual interests threatened and joined forces as never before. The BBC, after years of intimidation, felt threatened by a ruthless, hard-line administration, and fell into line all too easily. Much of this makes sense yet we also need to look at other causal media factors.

The one I want to focus on here is the long-term erosion of the dividing line between politics and journalism. Fundamental to our notions of ideal journalism in the UK and other ‘Liberal’ media models of democracy is that there is such a line. It is a picture fleshed out in detail in Herbert Gans’ classic 1979 account of how reporters and their sources engage in a professional ‘tug of war’. Both sides have to work with each other to achieve different goals and thus cooperate through gritted teeth. It is a perspective that has been applied to British journalism in multiple studies and professional biographies.

However, what was always downplayed in many of these accounts was the degree to which individual reporters and politicians were apt to work together; or the ways and means news media and political parties would converge around a mutually-beneficial set of agendas or objectives. Some of what happened in this election can also be seen as an extension of such trends, as highlighted in earlier media sociology studies.

For one, the revolving door between politics and journalism has spun ever faster with implications for both professions. The communications departments of political parties have become stuffed full of former print and broadcast journalists. So too, an increasing number of front-line politicians have had at least some prior professional experience in journalism or public relations. This time round, Boris Johnson and his key ally-frenemy Michael Gove, were first and foremost professional journalists who have become hybrid journalist-politician operators. Those cross-profession networks and know-hows have proved very useful to a Conservative Party weak on policy but strong on media management.

Second, studies of news sources have found two consistent things: journalists tend to gravitate towards powerful elite sources, usually favouring government politicians over their oppositions; and the more under-resourced a news organisation is, the more reliant reporters become on ‘information subsidies’ supplied by their regular sources. In recent years, the collapse of the business model of journalism has left correspondents far too dependent on political source (mis) information. The Conservative Party/Government has been able to take full advantage of an under-resourced UK media in their tactics, using their established lines to successfully influence media agendas and story frames on multiple occasions.

Third, in the UK as elsewhere, both news reporting and politics have now converged around populist, personal and extreme content. In highly competitive times, both sides push for consumer-voter eyes whatever the reputational costs. For struggling newsmakers, competing with click-bait sites and distracted citizens, reproducing the extreme claims and lies of favoured politicians has thus become a win-win situation. For media-savvy political strategists, lies and fabrications, whether revealed or not, generate extensive online and off-line coverage. The Conservatives proved far more adept than Labour at exploiting these tendencies, both across legacy and social media.

Ultimately, in these and other ways, the current interests of a predominantly right-leaning UK media and a right-wing political class have converged too much. The dividing line between sources and journalists, or parties and news organisations, has virtually disappeared. The 2019 election starkly revealed what all of this implies for the future of British fourth estate journalism (spoiler alert, it’s terminal).