10 New Year's Resolutions that the British media will never adopt...
Happy New Year and thank you for sticking with me and this newsletter through 2020.
I sat down to write the first edition of this newsletter (“The Media is Fucked”) on June 16, 2020. I published the 100th edition on August 20. Today marks the 238th issue — I stopped writing two a day at some point — and since it’s New Year’s Day, I thought I’d offer up some resolutions, not for myself, but for the British Media. Like most New Year’s resolutions they’re unrealistic:
1. Columnists should be term-limited
I’ve pushed this one a few times but there’s a good reason for it beyond my own conviction that I could write a better column than David Aaronovitch standing on my head, tripping my balls off on a range of psychedelics, being pelted with turnips. Spending years and years, even decades, as a columnist is the professional equivalent of a slowly cascading mental collapse.
Eventually, the requirement to deliver a new opinion weekly (or even more frequently) leads to drifting away from sense; the long term columnist — those whose positions are almost like sinecures — produce prose that reads like it was written by a soldier stuck on an island somewhere, still fighting wars that petered out long ago. Term-limiting columnists — say with a cycle of 4 years on, 2 years off (when they could do literally any other kind of writing or reporting) — would mean more voices get heard and the ones returned to their columns after a break would gain some perspective.
2. Anonymous sourcing should be reserved for when the person’s at risk
The Dominic Cummings-era in Downing Street was the apex — I hope — of the anonymous source game in Westminster politics. Day in, day out, reports, columns, stories, and crucially tweets were precariously perched on the pronouncements of the angry egg man, ‘Classic Dom’, issued from behind the Oz curtain disguise of the “anonymous source”.
There was a time when anonymous sourcing was reserved for people who were at personal/professional risk from giving their perspective. Of course, political reporters need to talk to sources on background to get an understanding of what’s going on but stenographer-style repeating of direct quotes from anonymous sources that do nothing but push the current line isn’t justified — it’s client journalism. Editors should be far less willing to accept anonymous sources, but they won’t stop because if it did lots of ‘stories’ would collapse like a hubristic ant emperor’s sugar cube house in a downpour.
3. The monarchy should be subjected to real scrutiny
I see the Royal Family as the British Kardashians; they’re essentially celebrities with a little bit more money and a marginal function in what passes for democracy in the United Kingdom. While Prince Andrew — the sex offender-befriending, even-less-talent-having equivalent of Rob Kardashian — has admittedly received some scrutiny since his close personal friend Jeffrey Epstein slipped, fell, and was murdered… sorry, sorry, I’m hearing that it was ‘suicide’, but he still has his defenders in the press.
The Daily Telegraph bends over backwards to find excuses for Andrew, while The Daily Mail, which has bombarded him with stories, always makes sure to include ‘balance’ where it casts aspersions on his accusers. My dream — and it’ll only ever be a dream — is for the British media, including the supine BBC, to wise up and start subjecting the pronouncements of this privilege, parasitical family to even a 10th of the scrutiny given to even the lowliest Z-list celebrity. Don’t be distracted by the crowns, the Royals are just a bunch of aristocratic clowns.
4. Lying should have consequences (aka The Allison Pearson rule)
Throughout 2020 columnists who were already extremely partial to half-truths and outright lies really double down. Allison Pearson, who were responsible for monstrous misinformation during the 2019 General Election, has gone out of her way to deceive and distort during the pandemic.
On Twitter, in her columns, and via her laughably-named podcast Planet Normal, Pearson has functioned as a particularly noisy node in a network of conspiracy theories, distortions and lies. That should have consequences and if a columnist or any other kind of journalist is consistently shown to be making things up, particularly things that endanger others, they should get bounced. Instead, The Daily Telegraph plasters Pearson on its frontpage and lauds her as one of its stars. No bad deed by the Dame of Covid Deniers goes unrewarded.
5. Declarations of interest should be mandatory for every column (aka The James Fosyth Rule)
James Forstyh is the Political Editor of The Spectator and a columnist for The Times. He’s also married to the Prime Minister’s recently appointed on-camera spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, and best friends with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Those connections have a bearing on his analysis of the Prime Minister’s actions and his predictions about what the government will do next.
While I don’t expect him to start each column by saying, “How do I know what Boris is up to next? I asked my wife,” if he were on staff at an American magazine or newspaper, he’d most likely have to top or tail his contributions specifically related to his partner’s employer — the Prime Minister — with a simple declaration saying something like: “James Forsyth is married to the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson and a long-time friend of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.” But that will never happen as these cosy connections are simply taken as read and saying them out loud is somehow considered rather déclassé.
6. Corrections should appear prominently on the front page
I review the newspapers daily on my Twitch show, The Paper Thing, and one thing that bothers me every time is the way corrections are squirreled away in the corner of an inside page, despite the regulator suggesting they should be given “due prominence”. If newspapers, magazines, and websites were required to put corrections on their front pages — for at least a day in the case of websites — they might be less laisser faire about publishing falsehoods and distortions.
I mean, it’s unlikely, but I live in hope.
7. Political correspondents shouldn’t report science stories
I don’t think I need to say much more about that one.
8. Stop acting like everyone wants to be a landlord and hates unions
There’s another one that needs little further explanation. I know this will never happen as the British media is stuffed full of landlords and former members of university Conservative societies.
9. If you want younger people to read newspapers, hire some who aren’t related to you
I keep being told by executives at newspaper groups (as well as TV and radio producers) that they want more young people to consume the stuff they pump out. The problem is they still have an aversion to promoting younger people into prominent positions — the columnists across the British press are largely older and whiter than the world around them — and when they do they tend to choose the children of already established figures. And yes, we still notice when you change your surname.
10. Admit when you’re wrong and shake off the ‘convenient amnesia’
In 2020 the British media’s tendency to simply ignore what it gets wrong was particularly apparent. As the government did more u-turns than a rally driver with directional dyslexia, the newspapers printed story after story, column after column, that asserted one thing and then sometimes only days later said entirely the opposite. Convenient Amnesia is an epidemic among the media class and I don’t expect a vaccine will be developed for it in 2021.