‘Joe Public’ is a mythical figure often used by journalists to indicate what is sometimes termed the ordinary man in the street. But I wonder what ‘Joe Journalist’ might be thinking of the whacking administered to the British press by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
I imagine, especially right now with the UK political class in retreat over the continuing onslaught over MPs’ expenses, that JJ’s little chest will have puffed up a little with pride that they can get under a skin even as perfect as that which coats Barack Obama.
For be in no doubt that Gibbs’s whack will not have been some kind of freelance spasm in response to the Daily Telegraph report that quoted a retired general describing photographs which allegedly showed US soldiers in Iraq raping and sexually abusing prisoners. It will have been a reflection of President Obama’s view, either directly expressed when Gibbs asked him what he should say if asked, or absorbed in meetings where he heard his views being expressed.
JJs on the Telegraph in particular will have felt the attack was further evidence of the roll they’re on, and the mini earthquakes it is causing. So cause for journalistic celebration.
Obama’s spokesman has thus far established a tone, much like his master, that is calm and authoritative, not prone to wild or excessively colourful outbursts. But his response to the Telegraph report was this … ‘If I wanted to read a write-up today of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League Cup (sic) I might open up a British newspaper. If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I’m not sure it would be the first stack of clips I picked up.’
Later he said ‘I think if you do an even moderate Google search, you’re not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other. I hate to lend any more credibility to nonfactual reports.’
Meanwhile over at the Pentagon, a spokesman was saying ‘none of the photos in question depict the images that are described in the article.’
Joe Journalist will have scoffed into his cafe latte this morning, snorted that ‘they would say that wouldn’t they, and hey, we got the expenses story right, so we’ve probably got the abuse story right too. After all, we know there has been abuse before…’
But a little deeper thought might lead to a conclusion that reputationally, the British press is not in the healthy state it imagines itself to be when the spokesman for the most popular politician on earth, and the most powerful, feels able to be so dismissive of our newspapers, broadsheet and tabloid alike.
This is a view that will have formed long before the expenses volcano erupted. I know Obama was genuinely shocked at the way the British press covered Gordon Brown’s visit to the White House, when so much focus was given to the question of whether or not it was a snub that they did not have a bells and whistles joint press conference. And that he was shocked when shown examples of the ultra negativity against GB in our papers, again before expenses.
Nobody can dispute that the expenses situation is a real story, a genuine scoop for the Telegraph, and one with significant and lasting consequences. It was a purchase of information with a large cheque book in dubious circumstances. I’m not saying I would not have done the same when I was a journalist, had I had the chance, but let’s not pretend it was a victory for great investigative journalism.
Far from showing up the best in our media, in a way it has led to more evidence of the worst. Everything covered – broadsheet, tabloid, broadcast alike – at the level of frenzy, with headline point sizes normally reserved for the outbreak of war used to indicate another backbench MP fiddle; with no other political story at all getting a look in on the agenda; with no MPs other than those seen to have made mistakes or committed misdemeanours getting print or air time – unless they will slag off their colleagues, or say their party or their profession is finished.
I pointed out a while back how MPs expenses seemed to have cured swine flu – or at least the frenzy that it unleashed for a while. But now it is the global economic crisis that appears to have vanished too. Only it hasn’t, and if there was but a modicum of debate on it, people might see that decisions taken by UK policy makers were having an effect for the good.
But that doesn’t fit the agenda. The agenda is expenses, bad for Labour, bad for Brown, bad for politics, let’s tear it all up and start again, and let’s pump up only the stories that fit that agenda, right up to the local elections, which will be bad for Labour, bad for Brown, bad for politics, and we can keep on the expenses agenda right through to when all these inquiries are complete and the Commons finally get round to publishing everything. And that should take us nicely through to the conferences and then the pre-campaign for the election and we’ll have MPs bowing out left right and centre and a whole new set of faces to play with, and with luck we may be able to get away without doing anything about serious policy issues at all.
No wonder that Dave, despite all the embarrassment of his wisteria and his MPs, is smiling. He’d rather be on this than on policy.