The Media Today

Britain and its media spin into the Truss era

September 7, 2022
British Prime Minister Liz Truss leaves Downing Street to attend her first Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, in London, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

On Monday, This Morning, a TV show in the UK, played “Spin to Win,” a game in which the show’s hosts spin a glittery wheel and a caller wins whatever prize it lands on. The cash amounts on offer were three thousand British pounds (which amounts to around 3,500 US dollars), one thousand pounds—or four months’ worth of household energy costs, which are soaring in Britain right now. As the wheel landed on energy bills, the show’s hosts squealed in excitement and a canned cheer went up in the studio. “Oh my God—thank you,” the lucky caller said. “What a relief.” The segment struck liberal viewers, in particular, as tone-deaf and dystopian, putting them in mind of something from Black Mirror or an old British comedy sketch about a postapocalyptic game show, called Remain Indoors, where participants won kindling for fuel. The difference with “Spin to Win” is that it was “terrifyingly genuine,” the TV critic Scott Bryan noted. “Welcome to our late-capitalist hellscape.”

This wasn’t the first British TV segment to have caused widespread outrage in recent days—though the other did so at the opposite end of the political spectrum. On Sunday, the BBC launched a new weekly politics show hosted by Laura Kuenssberg, one of its top political reporters, and featured an interview with Liz Truss, who was expected to be unveiled the next day as Britain’s new prime minister, succeeding Boris Johnson (and who was asked, among other things, about her plans to act on spiraling energy costs). As the interview wrapped up, a voice off camera could be heard whooping and yelling, “Smashed it, Liz!” The voice belonged to Joe Lycett, a comedian and known political prankster who had been invited to take part in a subsequent panel discussion with two politicians, presumably to liven things up a bit. “I know there’s been criticism in the Mail on Sunday today about lefty, liberal, wokey comedians on the BBC—I’m actually very right-wing, and I loved it,” Lycett deadpanned, referring to the Truss interview. “Haters” will say that Britain’s governing Conservatives “are sort of at the dregs of what they’ve got available, and that Liz Truss is sort of like the backwash of the available MPs,” Lycett added, with lashings of sarcasm. “But I wouldn’t say that because I’m incredibly right-wing.”

ICYMI: Serena Williams once wrote tennis news. She never stopped.

Lycett’s comments elicited howls of outrage among right-wing (and some more centrist) media voices, which, as Lycett alluded to, have both long and recently claimed that the BBC has a left-wing bias, both in general and in its comedy programming, in particular; on Monday morning, the Mail splashed Lycett on its front page under the banner headline “NOW BBC COMIC MOCKS LIZ TRUSS.” (Lycett quipped that he would get the splash framed and that “coming out as right-wing” had been great for ticket sales for his tour.) Lawmakers in Truss’s Conservative Party were critical, too. Yesterday, one of them asked Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, about Lycett at a (prescheduled) hearing in Parliament, describing the latter’s appearance as a “debacle” and a breach of BBC “impartiality”; Davie denied that it reflected any “bias” on the broadcaster’s part, but also called the decision to book Lycett “frankly bemusing” and suggested that he might not be back on Kuenssberg’s show anytime soon. According to The i newspaper, the BBC is planning to “reset” the show to prevent comedians from “ambushing politicians.” Lycett’s remarks reportedly made Truss’s aides “incandescent.” (Lycett claims to have been told that Truss herself reacted with “a face like a slapped arse.”)

The same BBC source who told The i that Truss’s advisers were incandescent also said that Lycett’s behavior had “confirmed all their prejudices that the BBC is left-wing and just a bit silly.” In recent weeks—as Truss campaigned to become prime minister at events with Conservative Party members, whose votes would decide the contest—she wasn’t shy about voicing those prejudices, as I noted in a recent newsletter; at one point, she claimed that GB News, an upstart right-wing network, is more truthful than the BBC. Truss was shy about appearing on the broadcaster; last week, she bailed, at the last minute, on a set-piece sit-down with Nick Robinson—a BBC journalist who is hardly as tigerish as other BBC interviewers whom politicians, including Johnson, have dodged in the past—claiming she was too busy. Voting in the contest had closed by the time Truss sat down with Kuenssberg for her first detailed broadcast interview of the campaign. She said, among other things, that her plan to cut taxes for high earners is “fair.” The Lycett episode somewhat overshadowed the media fallout from the remark.

Truss’s attitude toward the BBC during the campaign always looked likely to prove consequential given that she was the clear front-runner to become prime minister throughout. On Monday, that expectation was confirmed as Truss was declared the new leader of the Conservative Party. Yesterday, after visiting the queen, she was formally sworn in as prime minister. As she entered Downing Street, she stopped to give a short address that had threatened to be disrupted by a sharp downpour. Aides pulled a plastic garbage bag over the podium from which Truss was set to speak, inviting obvious metaphors in the process. The metaphors carried through to the front pages of this morning’s newspapers, albeit with differing emphases. The Mail, which backed Truss for prime minister, contrasted a photo of the downpour with one of the sun coming out as Truss finally approached Downing Street, adding the headline, “TOGETHER WE CAN RIDE OUT THE STORM,” a reference to a remark Truss made about Britain’s current economic outlook. The liberal Guardian, by contrast, suggested that the storm is just beginning.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

To continue with the metaphor but return to the BBC, storm clouds could be said to be gathering for the broadcaster now that Truss has taken office—and not only in the shape of sharp criticism and scrutiny-dodging. Earlier this year, Nadine Dorries, an outspoken BBC critic and arch-loyalist to Johnson, whom she served as culture minister, announced that the government would freeze, rather than raise, the public “license fee” levy that currently funds the BBC and explore abolishing it entirely in the future (likely in favor of a commercial alternative like a Netflix-style subscription model)—a plan of action that Truss, then Johnson’s hawkish foreign minister, reportedly backed, with the caveat that the BBC World Service, which Truss has described as a source of British “soft power,” remain well-funded enough to be able to counter Russian and Chinese disinformation. As prime minister, Truss is expected to stick roughly to Dorries’s course—both in terms of reviewing BBC funding and privatizing Channel 4, another state-owned broadcaster that is funded commercially but currently obligated to reinvest in programming; during the campaign, Truss stated her view that, “where possible, it’s best to have companies operating in the private sector.” Dorries rejected Truss’s offer to stay on as culture minister. Her replacement, Michelle Donelan, a former WWE and Marie Claire staffer, lacks Dorries’s reputation for antagonism, but has called in the past for the license fee to be scrapped.

What of Truss’s relations with the media beyond the realm of public broadcasting? According to Press Gazette’s Bron Maher, she committed during her campaign to an Australianstyle plan to force tech companies to pay for journalism (despite seeming to oppose it as anti-competitive in the past) and to abolishing an early-2010s law requiring publishers to sign up to an approved press regulator or risk crippling legal fees; she also, as foreign minister, urged a clampdown on slapps, or nuisance lawsuits aimed at intimidating journalists, that wealthy Russians have been known to file in British courts. And a local journalist who covers Truss’s district told Maher that, while she could make herself more available to reporters, she doesn’t seem to harbor deep animosity toward the press. Still, during the campaign, she regularly bashed the media—and not just the BBC—suggesting that reporters had misrepresented her position on public-sector pay (they hadn’t), tanked Johnson’s career, and tried to “talk our country down.” At one event, she accused Tom Newton Dunn, an anchor with another upstart right-wing network, of framing questions about the spiraling cost of living in a “left wing” way.

At the end of that event, Truss was caught on a hot mic apologizing to Newton Dunn for being “mean about the media”; Newton Dunn responded that her attacks had been “cheap, and you know it.” Whatever the sincerity of Truss’s apology, she surely did know this, or at least should have. The Conservative members to whom she was appealing for votes were susceptible to anti-media messaging, perhaps more so than the British population as a whole, which Truss must now serve—though media-bashing is increasingly mainstream in politics everywhere, and it’s not hard to envisage Truss lashing out again, particularly if (or when) coverage of her government turns sour. To handle that, Truss has moved to split up the role of director of communications in her administration, with Simon McGee set to coordinate comms across the government and Adam Jones set to handle more political cut and thrust. Collectively, a source told The Guardian, the pair “will have their work cut out” since Truss lacks Johnson’s “emotional connectivity and gut instinct when she’s speaking to the wider public.” Talk about Spin to Win.

The idea that Truss lacks Johnson’s common touch speaks to how she is likely to be treated as a media subject, too. Johnson, himself a high-profile former journalist, knew the industry’s narrative tricks and foibles, and relentlessly exploited them for his own ends, turning himself into an endless subject of media fascination. Literally endless, in fact: even after Johnson said in July that he would step down as prime minister after scandals engulfed his government, speculation swelled—mostly in boosterish right-wing outlets to which he is personally connected, but not exclusively—that he could make a quick return to high office. That speculation has yet to stop, even though Truss is barely in the door and the evidence that any Johnson comeback has a realistic chance is thin. Johnson has pledged loyalty to Truss, but he also compared himself, in a farewell speech yesterday, to Cincinnatus, a Roman leader who famously retired, then famously un-retired when called to serve again—driving more media speculation as to Johnson’s intentions, at least among journalists who knew who Cincinnatus was.

Over the course of his career, Johnson has nourished a media narrative that he is the master of the comeback. The British press must be careful, now, not to help him launder that further or whitewash his tarnished record just because he’s a colorful character who makes for better copy than his wooden successor. Truss—whose media career, unlike Johnson’s, apparently stopped at a high-school qualification in media studies—will not likely offer journalists the same titillating cocktail of rhetorical panache, international infamy, and omnipresent scandal. But she is the one, now, overseeing the things that matter for ordinary Brits at a time of massive national—and international—crisis. The spinning of the prime-ministerial wheel matters less than excruciating bills.

Despite the outcry on Monday, This Morning kept its “Spin to Win” game on air yesterday, this time offering household bills as a prize. Phillip Schofield, the host, took a bitter potshot at the game’s critics: “I wonder how much of that they can complain about online,” he said. By that point, Russian state TV had already clipped and shown “Spin to Win” to make a propaganda point about the soaring cost of energy in the West. Russia will spin what it wants, of course; as Bryan noted, the real problem with the segment—and other recent media campaigns like it, including in the Mail—is that the cost-of-living crisis is not “an opportunity for light entertainment” but “a desperate moment of anxiety for millions.” The same might be said of British politics.

Below, more on Truss, Johnson, and Britain:

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison profiled Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of the German media behemoth Axel Springer, which now owns Politico. Döpfner says he’s concerned that the US media has become polarized—with right-wing outlets indulging “alternative facts” while the Times and the Post shift further to the left—and that Politico wants to prove “that being nonpartisan is actually the more successful positioning,” a stance he calls a “contrarian bet.” In 2020, Döpfner, the contrarian nonpartisan, emailed his top executives asking them to pray for Trump’s reelection. Döpfner denied to Ellison that he ever sent such an email. When she showed him a copy, he said he sent it ironically.
  • After overseeing his first highprofile ousters as CNN’s new boss—both of which were interpreted as signs of a pivot away from strong criticism of Trump at the network—Chris Licht made his first big on-air hires, adding Tara Narula as a medical correspondent and John Miller as chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst. Miller most recently worked for the New York City Police Department, where he was deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism. Earlier this year, Miller testified that there is no evidence that the NYPD spied on Muslim New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11. There is.
  • According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, a producer at Fox News emailed colleagues, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, to warn that the network should keep Jeanine Pirro, a host, off the air because (in Folkenflik’s words) “she is pulling conspiracy theories from dark corners of the Web to justify then-President Donald Trump’s lies that the election had been stolen from him.” Attorneys for Dominion, a voting-tech company that claims Fox’s post-election coverage defamed it, recently obtained the email in discovery.
  • Yahoo made its first purchase since being taken over by the private-equity firm Apollo Global Management last year, acquiring The Factual, a company that uses algorithms to assess the credibility of news articles and sources. Yahoo News currently syndicates articles from thousands of other outlets worldwide, and plans eventually to have The Factual rate and label that content for its readers. Sara Fischer has more for Axios.
  • Last week, National Geographic laid off six top editors including Indira Lakshmanan, its senior executive editor. In an internal memo, an executive put “a positive spin on the cuts,” the Post’s Paul Farhi reports—but another employee described them to Farhi as a “desperate cost-cutting measure.” The layoffs “surprised and alarmed” staffers, Farhi writes, with some likening them to the “Red Wedding” massacre from Game of Thrones.
  • The Nation reached an agreement with the Freelance Solidarity Project, a division of the National Writers Union, laying out rights that freelance contributors to the magazine can expect, including pay minimums, indemnity against work-related legal action, and access to the NWU’s grievance process. The Freelance Solidarity Project’s Abigail Higgins has more (and CJR’s Lauren Harris wrote about a similar situation at The Intercept in 2020).
  • Andrej Babiš, the former prime minister of the Czech Republic, put an identical message on the front pages of two newspapers that he owns attacking the media and calling on readers to follow his social media output instead—days before he is set to stand trial on corruption charges. Czech media-watchers accused Babiš, who has bashed the press before, of exploiting once-respected titles for political purposes, The Guardian reports.
  • Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, initiated a private prosecution targeting Karyn Maughan, a legal writer for News24, who Zuma alleges illicitly obtained his confidential medical records from a prosecutor. South Africa’s ​​National Editors’ Forum condemned Zuma’s move, pointing out that the records in question became public after they were filed in court and accusing Zuma of trying to intimidate Maughan.
  • And Foreign Affairs celebrated its hundredth birthday, marking the occasion with a special issue and a print redesign. The anniversary, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, the magazine’s editor, writes, “comes at a moment when international relations are as fraught and uncertain, and US foreign policy as vexed and challenged, as at any point in recent memory, when the forces of the past intersect with new ones in uniquely perilous ways.”

ICYMI: The pathetic semantic squabble in coverage of Biden’s democracy speech

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.