Through the looking glass: On the BBC and GMB alike, journalists accept Boris Johnson’s alternate reality...

The framing of debates matters and too often the government’s line is swallowed whole — unquestioned and undigested.

The ‘Red Wall’ and “levelling up” — these are Tory rhetorical terms, but they’ve seeped into the fabric of British political discussion. They’re frequently thrown around without caveat or analysis, and are fast becoming unquestionable tenets instead of, retrospectively, the creation of a Tory pollster and an election slogan that’s so vague it’s harder to pin down than a pro-wrestler made entirely of jelly.

In a discussion of the Queen’s Speech on the BBC yesterday, questions on the proposed new laws to require ID when voting were introduced by Laura Kuensberg and Huw Edwards like this:

Kuenssberg: There’s quite a lot of strong words being thrown around here; some people accusing the government of some form of voter suppression, which, of course, is something that, well I’m sure the minister here would today, but Boris Johnson himself dismissed that yesterday as being “complete nonsense…”

Edwards: Because people have been using the US example and saying, well, you know this is a way of… if you’re so inclined… it’s a way of restricting people, which I’m sure that minister, clearly, that’s not your stated intention, I know that, but do you have fears around it?

Watch the clip above and you’ll hear Kuenssberg emphatically saying, “yes, yes, yes” as Edwards provides his part in dismissing the concerns. Notice also that while Boris Johnson’s words are quoted those of any critic of the policy aren’t quoted. They’re merely swept aside as “strong words”.

The minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, Gillian Keegan, responds to the easy goal offered to her by the BBC journalists with a work of fiction:

Keegan: …If I go to collect a parcel at the Post Office now, I need to take my driving licence or my passport. Pretty much everything I do, I need to prove who I am. I personally think there’s probably a case for looking at having ID online because we know there’s a lot of fraud online…

Keegan was following the same line taken by the Prime Minister’s Offical Spokesperson in the run-up to the Queen’s Speech, responding to Labour’s criticism of the policy proposal. In both cases, the claims weren’t true.

Full Fact looked at Keegan’s claims:

… While ID is required to collect a parcel from the Post Office, photo ID is not usually required.

The Post Office accepts various forms of non-photographic ID including a bank card or a utility bill.

Royal Mail also accepts a credit card or bank statement when collecting a parcel from one of its depots. Photo ID is only required if the parcel was sent through certain age verification services or you’re collecting on someone else’s behalf. 

It may seem like a minor point to focus on, but having accepted and promoted the government line in their introduction, BBC News didn’t challenge Keegan on her twisting of reality.

Adam Bienkov, senior politics editor at Insider, who published the footage from the BBC News Special on YouTube — the full programme is not available to view on iPlayer — previously questioned the Prime Minister on the proposals during a Downing Street press conference. It was in his answer to Bienkov that Johnson used the phrase “complete nonsense”, which was later quoted by Kuenssberg.

Here’s how that interaction played out:

Bienkov: Prime Minister, you were on record as opposing the last Labour government’s plans for compulsory photo ID cards, which you described as a “recipe for tyranny and oppression”. Why therefore are you now planning to bring forward in the Queen’s Speech, legislation which would force all voters to carry photo ID in order to vote?

And given the fact that there was just a single conviction in the entire country for in-person voter fraud at the last general election and, given that studies show that Labour voters are much less likely to possess photo ID than Conservative voters, what do you say to people who suggest that this is merely an attempt to suppress the votes of people who may not vote for the Conservative Party?

Johnson: Adam, I would say that was complete nonsense, and what we want to do is to protect democracy, the transparency and integrity of the electoral process, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask first-time voters to produce some evidence of identity. So that’s the reason…

Bienkov was doing what journalists should do — challenging and questioning the narrative put forward by the government, including quoting facts in response to rhetoric. Edwards and Kuenssberg set up the pitch for a Tory minister and then allowed her to rack up runs without opposition.

It is not ‘balance’ to say frame one side’s argument as “quite a lot of strong words thrown around” while giving prominence to a two-word dismissal of a complex issue from a Prime Minister whose relationship with the truth is worse than the one he has with his ex-wives and those of his children who he’s forgotten having.

Another recent example of accepting a Tory narrative unquestioned came when Chris Mason spoke to Malcolm Gretton, a voter in Hartlepool on BBC Breakfast in the wake of the Conservative Party’s by-election win there:

Mason: Malcolm, you’re a traditional Labour voter, how are things… how do you reflect on this by-election and how you decided to vote in the end?

Gretton: I suppose it’s for Hartlepool and an election for Labour, it stems back to your grand-da’ and your dad, and it’s passed on to you: ‘You vote Labour because we’re working class…’ etc. etc. We’ve had enough of Labour. They’ve just wrecked it… everything.

Mason: Wrecked it?

Gretton: Wrecked it. Totally. The hospital. We haven’t even got a cell where we can lock someone up on a night. We haven’t got a court where we can take them to court. What’s that all about? You’ve got to have these facilities… all the police are gone. They’re laughing at us…

That’s Mr Gretton’s view, of course, and he’s entitled to it. But he’s not entitled to have the BBC airwaves free to state things entirely unmoored from reality.

The last Labour government left office in 2010. Hartlepool Hospital’s A&E department was closed in 2011, under the Tory-led Coalition government. The custody suite at Hartlepool’s police station was closed in 2019, under Boris Jonson’s government.

BBC Breakfast wanted a package with a ‘traditional Labour voter’ who’d gone for the Conservatives and they got one. But Mason stands nodding like a plastic dog on a parcel shelf during the clip, seemingly unwilling to challenge this ‘authentic northern voice’ even as he places cuts to services squarely at the feet of a party that hasn’t been in power nationally for over a decade.

Over on Good Morning Britain — this week co-hosted by walking ghoul, war crimes excuser, and mental health advocate (Harrowdown Hill branch) Alistair Campbell — viewers witnessed the clash of two distorted realities. Campbell continued to rewrite the story of the inquiries into the Iraq War while his co-host Susanna Reid bent over backwards to make excuses for poor old ‘Boris’.

Their guest, former Speaker John Bercow — a resident of a glasshouse himself — rightly picked Reid up on her tendency to call the Prime Minister ‘Boris’:

Reid: Im not here to defend the Prime Minister.

Bercow: No, you just like calling him Boris, because he’s your favourite puppy dog, apparently…

Reid: That’s a bit insulting towards me, I think a lot of people call him Boris in the same way that a lot of people call him Keir and I would call you John.

Calling the Prime Minister ‘Boris’ is a long-term buying into a Tory narrative that presents Johnson as a cuddly bumbler and not the calculating politician that he actually is. And no, despite Reid’s indignation, very few political journalists refer to the Leader of the Opposition as “Keir”. Keith, on the other hand…

Just as I was finishing up this newsletter, I heard another example of the government’s narrative presented without caveat.

A Today programme report on another of the pieces of legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech — the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill — assured me, quoting Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that it will deal with “the chilling effect of censorship on campus”. The package accepted Williamson’s line and left the assumptions and claims in his rhetoric unquestioned.

Later in the show, Jo Grady from the University and College Union was featured being interviewed by Mishal Husain, but that was a separate item. The first report muted criticisms in a similar way to Edwards and Kuenssberg’s excuses for the voter ID proposals.

We are increasingly living in an emperor’s new clothes reality, where journalists confronted with the naked reality of government policies instead decided to comment on how fine the tailoring is and actively ignore the balls being waggled in their faces.

When deceptive phrases and empty rhetoric are not challenged they end up becoming accepted — just part of the vocabulary.

Remember the Red Wall? That wasn’t a thing until December 2019. Now it’s one of the central pillars of British political analysis.