Last week, amid divisive elections in Britain, Ciaran Jenkins, a reporter with Channel 4 News, interviewed Michael Gove, a senior minister in Britain’s Conservative government, on a farm in Scotland. As cows mooed loudly in the background, Jenkins pressed Gove to justify misleading claims about government policy and Brexit. At one point, Gove suggested that Jenkins might have doctored an image to embarrass him. After Jenkins accused Gove of a lie, Gove got even more annoyed. “You use the L-word. That’s a very powerful word,” he said. “What you are attempting to do is make a polemical case… for a political viewpoint… because you have a particular outlook.”
— Armando Iannucci (@Aiannucci) November 22, 2019
Things deteriorated from there. Jenkins insisted that he was merely trying to hold Gove to account, and pressed Gove on another Conservative claim, about the number of hospitals the government planned to build—both a material and factual issue.
But Gove wasn’t having it. “You’re using this interview as an opportunity—and I completely understand it—to mount an argument,” he said. “Now, there’s a perfectly respectable type of journalism in which you mount an argument, you use rhetoric, you interrupt, you have a series of propositions which you believe in. That’s perfectly fair journalism. What it’s not is objective.”
Jenkins tried again: “I’m asking you: Are there going to be forty hospitals, or six? What could be more objective than that?” Gove accused him of mounting “a rigorous left-wing case.” Later, he mock-praised Jenkins for “a good speech” that “I’m sure would go down well on any election platform.”
Compared to Donald Trump’s puce-faced rants about “FAKE NEWS” and “RADICAL DEMOCRATS,” Gove’s attack sounds ludicrously quaint. But there are depressing similarities. Trump’s anti-press rhetoric doesn’t rest on the theoretical dissection of news from “polemic,” but it does involve painting fair scrutiny from reliable sources as a partisan exercise. That’s exactly what Gove was doing here.
Politicians snapping at journalists isn’t new, and Gove’s Conservatives have particular beef (farm pun intended) with Channel 4 right now—Dorothy Byrne, the broadcaster’s head of news, recently called Gove’s boss, Boris Johnson, a “known liar” and compared his media strategy to that of Vladimir Putin. (A senior Conservative told Politico that the party doesn’t have a conscious anti-media strategy.) Still, Gove’s polite fake-news tirade is notable because he’s a wonkish, establishment figure, not a rabble-rousing populist outsider. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Gove—and some Conservative colleagues—are stealing the latter’s lines, even if they are reading them in a telephone voice more suitable to their alma mater, Oxford University.
Gove—like Johnson—used to be a journalist: he worked for the Times of London for nine years before entering Parliament, including as an editorial writer. Shamelessly, Gove returned to that experience in his exchange with Jenkins: “As someone who was a journalist in the past and wrote polemics and then became a politician… you’re well on the way to going down that route,” he said. In Britain, as in the US, people who should know better are taking a dark route indeed.