Britain still has Boris Johnson as its prime minister. In the country’s national election, his Conservative Party thrashed the opposition Labour Party, securing a comfortable majority in Parliament and making it highly likely that Brexit will happen. His victory, marked by a speech in which he gleefully repeated misleading claims, was ushered in by political manipulation and an inadequate press. Partisan outlets—in Britain’s case, newspapers, not cable news—shouted louder than ever, and even the media’s referees were bludgeoned by bad-faith campaign tactics. Misinformation abounded and fair questions were cast as partisan hit jobs. Trust—already at a low ebb across all Britain’s institutions—took a hit.
As is par for the course with elections these days, the specter of Russian intervention loomed—but, as Adam Satariano and Amie Tsang, of the New York Times, put it this week, “a surprising amount” of bad behavior “has come from the political parties and candidates themselves.” Labour contributed, as did the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that distributed mock local newspapers and forged an email to make a reporter look dishonest. It was Johnson’s Conservatives, however, who muddied the truth the most brazenly. During the first televised debate, the Conservative Party used its Twitter account to “fact-check” Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson’s rival. In ads, the Conservatives clipped footage to make a senior Labour politician look foolish and to make senior BBC journalists appear supportive of Johnson’s talking points. (Facebook and Google took the latter down after the BBC complained.) Sources even told reporters that an opposition activist had punched a Conservative Party aide; the reporters shared that as news, but a video later showed that there was no such punch. During an interview, Johnson seized a journalist’s phone and put it in his pocket.
At least he actually did that interview. Johnson dodged sit-downs on the BBC and ITV—after every other party leader had already taken part. He stood up Andrew Neil, a notoriously forensic BBC interviewer, who said, “The prime minister of our nation will, at times, have to stand up to President Trump, President Putin, President Xi of China; it was surely not expecting too much that he spend half an hour standing up to me.” When Johnson skipped a climate debate, on Channel 4, the hosts put a melting ice sculpture in his place. (Channel 4 rejected Johnson’s proposal that he send a surrogate. One turned up anyway, bringing along a camera crew to capture the faux scandal of producers turning him away.) On Wednesday, a journalist with ITV’s breakfast show tracked Johnson down at a milk factory. Johnson hid in a fridge to avoid questions. The Conservatives categorically denied that he hid in a fridge.
It wasn’t an easy election to cover, but there were also avoidable journalistic missteps. The BBC, always a magnet for flak, took even more than usual. It was blamed (rightly) for letting Johnson wriggle away from Neil. Labour said that Corbyn had only faced Neil on the pretense that Johnson had already confirmed that he, too, would do so, and it was not the first time that Labour, and left-wing commentators, had accused the BBC of failing to ensure a level playing field. Early in the campaign, the BBC admitted that it made a mistake when it cut a clip of Johnson extolling truth in politics to remove people laughing at him. This week, a BBC political reporter said on air that Johnson “so deserves” a Parliamentary majority and Laura Kuenssberg, the political editor, reported that absentee votes—which are verified ahead of time but are meant to remain confidential until election night—looked “grim” for Labour. Both comments sparked widespread online outrage; the BBC was forced to deny that Kuenssberg had breached electoral law by reporting the unofficial word of party officials who were present during the verification of the early votes.
As election day neared, Britain seemed to have lost faith in honest reporting. The Yorkshire Evening Post, a local newspaper, received numerous complaints for publishing a picture of a sick child that some thought was faked. James Mitchinson, the top editor, published an open reply to doubters, patiently and meticulously explaining why they were mistaken. (Journalists shared it widely.) “Whatever you do,” Mitchinson urged, “do not believe a stranger on social media who disappears into the night.” The same could have been said for the man who disappeared into the fridge. But Britain chose to elect him prime minister anyway.
Below, more on Britain’s elections:
- “Disgraceful, and frankly… disgusting”: After Labour’s heavy defeat, Corbyn said he would step down as its leader. He took a parting shot at the media, thanking his wife for “all that she puts up with because of the way in which the media behaved towards me, towards her, and indeed, towards my party during this election campaign.”
- Whither the BBC?: Politico’s Emilio Casalicchio outlines “how the BBC lost the election”; Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics and former BBC staffer, told Casalicchio that “the rules of the game have changed and the broadcasters haven’t caught up yet.” For the left-wing magazine Jacobin, Tom Mills asks whether the BBC is in “its last days.”
- News consumption: During the campaign, The Guardian and Revealing Reality, a research group, analyzed the smartphone use of six people over three days; it cast new light on a “chaotic world—in which news is being shaped less by publishers or foreign agents but by social media algorithms and friendship groups.” Separately, The Guardian also looked at the quiet influence of Apple News—which has just five UK editors—in shaping the ways people consumed election news.
- Meanwhile, north of the border: Another big story on election night came in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party, which favors Scottish independence, made sweeping gains. The Guardian’s Libby Brooks and Jim Waterson report that two big newspapers, the Herald and Scotsman, once dominated political discourse in Scotland, but they are now shadows of their former selves. This week, journalists at the Herald and its sister titles vowed strike action over impending job losses.
- Standing up stories: For Popbitch’s take on election coverage (“When Popbitch is being more responsible than you, you’ve fucked up”), click here. (H/t: Waterson.)
Other notable stories:
- The lineup for next Thursday’s Democratic primary debate is now locked in: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang made the cut. Yesterday, we learned the calendar for the first four debates of 2020: CNN and the Des Moines Register will host on January 14 in Iowa; ABC, WMUR-TV, and Apple News will host on February 7 in New Hampshire; NBC, MSNBC, and the Nevada Independent will host on February 19 in Nevada; and CBS, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, and Twitter will host on February 25 in South Carolina. (Unlike in 2016, Facebook and Google will not be involved.) In other debate news, the Times reports that Trump may skip the general election debates next fall.
- Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, takes issue with criticism—from outlets on the left and the right—of Rachel Maddow and her obsessive focus on the Trump-Russia story. “With all the worrying about how bad it would look for Maddow if there were no collusion between Trump and Russia,” Bustillos writes, “few have stopped to think how bad it will look for the Russia-skeptics if she turns out to have been right.”
- Gretchen Carlson and Julie Roginsky—who both filed sexual-harassment lawsuits against Fox News, and both settled—are founding Lift Our Voices, an organization that will try to stop companies from using nondisclosure agreements to hide workplace misconduct and discrimination. Rebecca Keegan has more for the Hollywood Reporter.
- The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities in Nigeria to stop harassing Sahara Reporters, a US-based outlet focused on the country. In recent months, its website and Nigerian bank account have been blocked. Its founder, Omoyele Sowore, was imprisoned. Citing these, among other disturbing trends, the Punch, a Nigerian newspaper, will start calling Nigeria’s government an “autocratic military-style regime.”
- This week, the Associated Press inscribed a memorial to Y.C. Jao, an AP correspondent in China who was executed by state officials in 1951 because of his journalism. (Officially, Jao was accused of spying and counterrevolutionary behavior.) The AP only learned the circumstances of Jao’s death last year, thanks to a letter from his nephew.
- And Paul Joseph Watson, a longtime editor at InfoWars, testified that he told his boss, Alex Jones, to stop peddling conspiracies about the Sandy Hook school shooting. (A victim’s father is suing Jones for defamation.) HuffPost’s Sebastian Murdock has more.
ICYMI: The Rise and Fall of Facts