Time to put down the mighty from their seats, or rather, sets. Let this be the last election where the telly conspires to affect the result.
A general election is the only time when we the people can decide who should govern us. It follows that the only entities which matter during an election campaign are the voters and those seeking to get elected.
A general election is therefore the period, more than any other, when the media should live up to their name. The word “media” means channels of communication. Those channels should be as clear and open as possible, not clogged by the broadcasters’ views. That is why those broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 – which have privileged means of communication and money-raising, also have public-service obligations imposed by law. It is also why those obligations are particularly strict during election campaigns.
If you count how much airtime the broadcasters allot to each party during elections, you will find they are pretty fair. They make sure that the letter of the law is observed. They concentrate instead on violating its spirit. There are two ways they do this. The first is to skew the agenda. The second is to set the rules of debate and try to punish any politician who challenges them.
Channel 4’s leaders’ “debate” on Thursday about climate change was a classic of the genre. It did both at once. Taking the hypothesis of a climate “emergency” as a fact, the programme began with a short propaganda film about the wickedness of polluting homo sapiens – shots of deforestation, smog, plastic in the sea and a koala bear burnt by forest fires. This was contrasted with the goodness of a saintly few – Extinction Rebellion and Sir David Attenborough.
In this frame, the five party leaders present – representing Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – knew which side their sourdough bread was non-dairy buttered. Channel 4 had set up a competition in which the winner could only be whoever proposed the most extreme measure for saving the planet. All the politicians happily played along, ensuring little genuine debate. I was surprised that the Greens did not argue for achieving a zero-carbon economy in time for Christmas. (Even the Tories’ promise of reaching the target by 2050 is unachievable.)
Two leaders – Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – did not take part. Suggesting their absence showed they did not care about global warming, the chairman, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, explained that these criminals were represented in the studio by ice sculptures of a melting world.
The Tories had not, however, refused to take part in the debate. Instead, they had proposed to send Michael Gove, the well-qualified former Environment Secretary, rather than Mr Johnson. Channel 4 had refused. Mr Gove turned up anyway but was turned down. There was film of him being barred by the producer. (Also present, wandering over from the Channel 4 “spin room”, was Boris’s father, Stanley, without whom no public occasion these days is complete. I sometimes wonder if he has delighted us long enough.)
The Conservative Party has now complained to the regulator, Ofcom, that Channel 4 broke its rules of public-service impartiality, which it blatantly did. There is dark muttering about clipping the channel’s wings once the election is past. […]
But behind all this lies the same issue as lies behind Brexit – one of who has control. Rather like the struggle throughout the 19th century for votes for all adults, the fight today is for a more direct relationship between the people and those they elect. This must include a fight to cut the broadcasters down to a smaller size.